The NCAA Women’s Tournament threw the stars of the game in the spotlight, but a women’s basketball trailblazer got her fair share of airtime.
Betty Wiseman, widely known as “Belmont Betty,” stood in the stands and cheered with exuberance and pride as she watched the Belmont women's basketball program she built take on the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers in the second round of March Madness.
The Belmont community watched the team battle it out, but it was different for Wiseman — she’s spent 54 years watching each consecutive team grow and prosper.
A born-and-raised Tennessee girl from Portland, she remembers a time when the only sport girls could play was basketball.
“I would have played any sport that they put before me if I had the opportunity,” she said.
Her career as a star high school athlete ended when she got to Belmont in 1961, which had no women’s basketball team. She had the opportunity to play with Nashville Business College’s Amature Athletic Union team but decided against it.
“That dream for me ended because I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to go to a Christian university close to home, and I wanted to be a teacher and a coach,” she said.
With the love of the game still beating in her heart, she went on to organize the women’s intramural team, which she actively played on during her years at Belmont.
When Wiseman’s senior year rolled around in 1965, she was called into President Herbert Gabhart’s office where he offered her a position as a physical education teacher.
With a job at Belmont in her grasp, she soon went back to President Gabhart to request that Belmont start up a women’s basketball program that she would proudly lead. He did not have much money to give. But to Wiseman, his attention and trust was more than enough.
“For a college president to listen to a young female in her mid 20s was unheard of, but he listened,” she said.
With a little bit of money to survive on and a whole lot of passion for the game, Wiseman formed the Belmont women’s basketball team in 1968; it was one of the first sanctioned women’s teams in the state.
“We took men’s old warm ups and the mothers cut them down and shortened them and made us some warm ups,” she said. “We had a uniform for away games and one for home, and we literally wore those uniforms out for three or four years before we even got new uniforms.”
Even with the bare minimum, Wiseman remembers how grateful she and her players were to have an opportunity to have a women’s basketball team at their university.
Belmont’s team came in hot, becoming a premier women’s collegiate basketball program in the Southeast.
Wiseman took her players all around the country and played nationally recognized teams like UCLA, the national team of China and the Lady Vols, led by storied coach Pat Summit.
“I played anyone who would play us,” she said. “It didn’t matter how good they were. If you want to get better and you want to be successful, you have to beat some.”
It’s hard to pick out which moments meant the most to her, because to Wiseman, “every game was special.”
After 16 years of coaching basketball, while also coaching women’s tennis and teaching full-time, Wiseman made the decision to step aside to focus on her career as a teacher and allow Belmont to hire a full-time coach who could further help the program flourish.
“I’m a teacher at heart,” she said.
Her time as coach ended, but her love for the program never faded.
She retired after 40 years of teaching in 2013 but Wiseman still finds herself on campus every chance she gets, doing what she is most passionate about: loving everyone on campus.
Wherever the women’s basketball team is, Wisemen is never far behind.
“I came to Belmont in 1961, and I never left,” she said.
Belmont basketball senior Conley Chinn loves that the Belmont community sees Wiseman as “the woman who was dancing to ‘No Hands’ at the NCAA tournament,” but she is much more than that to her. Wiseman is the woman who gave her the hope and love to continue her basketball career at Belmont, even when it felt like she couldn’t.
“You just know this is a woman who’s going to take care of you,” Chinn said. “Betty is always going to be in my life, just as she is with any woman in this basketball program.”
Wiseman was not prepared for her energy and love of basketball to be broadcast for the country to see, but her unwithering joy and admiration for the women’s team could not be contained.
“There’s still a little girl inside of me that wants to come out and play,” Wiseman said. “What you saw on those cameras at that game was that little girl having a good time in her own way.”
Even after nine years of retirement and 38 years since being head coach, Wiseman isn’t going anywhere.
Junior guard Nikki Baird has been impacted by Wiseman’s loving nature and enjoys watching her get to know each player who joins the team.
“She’s not the one that’s going to talk Xs and Os with you on the basketball court, but she’s gonna make sure that spiritually, emotionally and mentally that you’re in a really good place,” Baird said.
Belmont players look at Wiseman and they see much more than an enthusiastic woman screaming in the stands; they see a woman who took what she was given, no matter how little, and hand-crafted a winning basketball program.
“She was the one that was driving the bus and washing the uniforms, long before any of us were alive and had these dreams of playing basketball,” said Baird.
Wiseman is more than just “Belmont Betty.” She is someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer and appreciated every second she spent growing and leading women through Belmont’s basketball program, even when very few saw potential in women’s sports.
“As women, it’s incredible to see someone who is that trailblazer and who didn’t get the benefits that we get today,” said Chinn.
“We get the fancy NCAA tournament, and the Crockett Center that’s gorgeous and we get the gear. They were just lucky enough to be able to play the game.”
Wiseman loves God, loves people and loves Belmont. Through her words and spirit, she shows everyone — from ball players to students — that Belmont can be a home.
“We all, at some point, have to invest in something bigger than ourselves. Belmont is that for me,” she said. “My heart beats loud and clear for the university and the students.”
PHOTO: Betty Wiseman at March Madness in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sam Simpkins/Belmont University
This article was written by Lilly Owens