Brown Paved Way For Future Volleyball Success
In honor of Black History Month, Iowa State salutes some of its greatest student-athletes in the month of February.
Story written by Abe Burzette, Athletics Communications Student Assistant
In recent history, the Iowa State volleyball team has experienced great success, including qualifying for the NCAA Championships each of the past eight seasons and playing in front of record-setting crowds in Hilton Coliseum.
Such was not the case when Vicki (Smith) Brown played for the Cyclones. Brown was a student-athlete at Iowa State from 1977-80 and played on the volleyball team all four years.
Volleyball was a relatively new sport at Iowa State. ISU began its volleyball program in 1973, and the team was far from playing in front of sellout crowds.
Additionally, volleyball was not an NCAA-sanctioned sport until the 1982-83 season, as the Cyclones competed under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) banner. This meant little recognition, both locally and nationally.
The team held its home games in the Physical Education Building (now the Forker Building) and, according to Brown, the term “crowd” was to be used loosely.
“It was close-quartered and the crowd was right down there on us,” Brown said. “Looking back, it wasn’t much bigger than my high school gym.”
“We used to have an intimate crowd base, that’s for sure. We had some fanatical people.”
Hilton Coliseum, which opened in 1971, did not begin hosting volleyball games on a constant basis until 1995, and Brown said she was envious of the teams that did get to play in the building.
“I used to look at it wistfully,” Brown said. “I’m just so thrilled that the team now is playing in Hilton Coliseum. I’ve caught some games on TV and I just have to smile and be so proud that volleyball has come so far at Iowa State.”
Although volleyball wasn’t a staple in Iowa State athletics, the life of a student-athlete was not much different than it is today. Along with attending class, Brown and her teammates practiced from 3-6 p.m., ate together in the dining center, and then “hit the books” to finish off the day.
“They were like my best friends,” Brown said. “We’d start traveling on Fridays right after class for tournaments, then we’d get back on campus Sunday nights, do some studying, and then it was start the routine all over again.”
“So there wasn’t much time for social life outside of hanging out with my teammates.”
Along with starring on the volleyball team and being named captain her junior year, Brown walked-on and started at first base for the softball team after one of the players asked her to join.
“In high school, I ran track, played softball, basketball and volleyball,” Brown said. “[In college] I had no thoughts of playing softball until one of the women on my floor in the dorm kind of talked me in to it and I played for two years.”
When Brown was choosing which college she wanted to attend, she said she looked at academics as well as athletics. She narrowed her choices to three schools—Iowa State, Purdue and Boston University—before finally choosing Iowa State as her destination.
“I was an engineering major, so I also did well in school. I chose Iowa State because I liked the program and I saw the opportunity to do well both academically and on the volleyball team.”
As well as wanting to do well in school, there was no doubt in Brown’s mind that she wanted to play volleyball in college.
“I played sports growing up, so to me it was just a natural thing to do, a natural extension of high school,” Brown said. “I think I would’ve gotten bored just doing the academic thing."
After a stellar playing career for the Cyclones—being named All Big Eight in both volleyball and softball— and receiving her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, Brown accepted a job offer at Proctor and Gamble, a company that she would work at for 26 years before retiring in 2008.
At P&G, Brown worked in several departments, including manufacturing, information technology, sales, and product development. Throughout her career, Brown held several managerial positions and said the skills she developed as a student-athlete helped her be a successful leader later in life.
“I was captain of the volleyball team, so I learned leadership skills that I used to lead a diverse group of people and get them to work toward a common goal. A lot of the skills I learned came from being a team player and leader and it definitely translates to the business world.”
In addition to being a pioneer for future volleyball teams at Iowa State, Brown was also the first black volleyball player to suit up for the Cyclones. However, there was not as much of a culture shock as one might think. Brown, who attended Davenport Central High School, said attending a high school that was predominantly white and having played sports her entire life helped her get along with everyone, regardless of race.
“It was about competition,” Brown said. “That’s the kind of thing for me about sports; it’s typically pretty color blind. It’s about your accomplishments between the lines and that blurs everything frankly.”
In regards to her teammates at Iowa State, it was the same story.
“Some of them were from the Chicago area so they had some exposure to African-Americans,” Brown said.
At the time, Brown said she did not think about the fact that she was “breaking ground” as a black athlete, but looking back, she noticed there were times where she would notice another black volleyball player stand out in comparison to her white teammates.
“I do remember whenever I’d see another person that looked like me on another team, there was a kind of kindred spirit thing,” Brown remembered.
Although she did not think about it much at the time, Brown said she was, and remains to this day, passionate about helping inner-city children. She did that by tutoring math and science at inner-city high schools where the majority of the students were black. Today she is an active volunteer with the Big Brother, Big Sister program in Atlanta.
“I had a lot of guidance and mentors along the way and I’m so passionate about giving back to the African-American community and that’s how I think it’s manifested itself,” Brown said. “I didn’t think about it at the time but I know there were people who helped me, who encouraged me and who opened doors for me along the way so I think it’s important for me to give back what I can.”