By Sarah F. Hill
A Golden Era
“It was an awesome time to be at the University of Houston during the early to mid-1980s,” remembers Laurie Rutherford (’86, M.B.A. ’91, M.S. ’04), fondly. “Phi Slama Jama had Olajuwon, Drexler, Michael Young and Reid Gettys … and we held our own against the University of Texas (UT) Women’s Basketball — UT was a national powerhouse at that time.” “Our team was beginning to rise to prominence in the Southwest Conference,” adds Dr. Janice Hilliard (’81). “UT was the best in the league at the time, but we were right behind them, and we always had competitive games against one another. We always got excited to play them, and we enjoyed the rivalry.”
Strong friendships were created during this exciting time in history at UH. “As teammates, we spent a lot of time together,” says Dr. Sharon Spillman (’97, M.Ed. ’03, Ed.D. ’11). “The bonds formed naturally. As former ‘Lady Cougars,’ we have stayed in contact with each other over the years. I have a close relationship with Laurie Rutherford and Janice Hilliard.” Rutherford and Spillman serve on the UHAA Foundation Board together, and support the women’s basketball program’s efforts to reconnect with former players. Rutherford says, “When you play sports, you build a special bond with each other.”
Another thing that Rutherford and Spillman both have in common is that they both became Life Members of the Alumni Association Foundation. “It has been one of my smartest investments to become a UHAAF Life Member. It has enabled me to give back to the university that gave me so much while I was earning my undergraduate degree … It is an entry point for giving, not an exit point like some people think,” Rutherford explains. Spillman continues: “The time I spent as a student-athlete played a pivotal role in my growth, both personally and professionally; so for me, it is important that I give back to the University that has been so instrumental in molding me into who I am today.”
Being Life Members means that both Rutherford and Spillman are honored with plaques in the Life Member Plaza at the Athletic Alumni Center on campus, and enjoy benefits such as the ability to join the Campus and Recreation and Wellness Center, library lending privileges, UH bookstore discounts and other specials and discounts offered by UHAAF partners.
Coach Dot Woodfin’s Influence
Hilliard believes that the camaraderie of the women’s basketball during this era was directly related to the coach they played for, Coach Dot Woodfin, and the impact she had on their educational experience. “We all loved her and trusted her. She was a mentor who was clearly committed to helping each of us grow as young women away from the court, as well as compete at our highest potential on the court.” Hilliard was a senior during the 1980-81 season when Toni Mooney Smith (’85) was a freshman.
The Importance of Education
Both Hilliard and Mooney Smith have gone on to be employed by the University of Houston. After receiving her graduate degree at Northwestern University, Mooney Smith successfully secured major communication, marketing and press opportunities with global and national media outlets including CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and various print and trade publications. Prior to joining the University of Houston, she served in director-level roles in communications, marketing and public affairs in academia, health care and government. She currently works as the communications director for the largest and most diverse college at UH, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Mooney Smith is especially proud of being back at the college she obtained her undergraduate degree from: “The excitement that UH President Renu Khator has infused into the campus is infectious. It’s as if we are all intertwined into one beautiful mosaic — all striving for the same purpose: to build a better community through a commitment to excellence, innovation, and education.”
After earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Health and Physical Education from UH, Hilliard earned a Master’s Degree in Urban Counseling and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from Michigan State University and has spent the last 35 years as a teacher, coach, counselor, higher education athletics administrator, and most recently, Vice President of Player Development at the National Basketball Association. She was Associate Director of Athletics, Director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes at UH from 1994-1996. Making sure current student-athletes graduated and assisting former student-athletes who wanted to complete their degrees were her primary responsibilities. Spillman, a fellow basketball player, was the first participant in the NCAA Degree Completion Program established by Hilliard. “Spillman went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate at UH, which made me very proud!” says Hilliard.
Spillman has more than 20 years of experience in the field of early childhood education. She currently serves as the Assistant Vice-President of Provider Engagement at Collaborative for Children in Houston. Responsible for the development, management, and evaluation of early care and education initiatives, Spillman has been a lecturer in the UH College of Education since 2004, teaching undergraduate courses in Early Childhood Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
In January 2009, Rutherford was named the Lead Risk Manager for the approximate $1 billion Advanced Metering Systems and Intelligent Grid Program implementation, working with world renowned corporations including IBM, General Electric and ABB. She earned three finance degrees (BBA, MBA and a Master of Science with a concentration in Energy Risk Management) from the C. T. Bauer College of Business. She has more than 30 years of experience in energy risk management, project management, marketing, accounting, trading, derivatives, optimizing assets, commodity contracts, credit and risk control. Laurie is a certified Project Management Professional through the Project Management Institute.
Making UH Visible to All
“Through the CenterPoint Energy-University of Houston Alumni Association (CNP-UHAA), I am responsible for the CenterPoint Energy Tower lights for each football game,” says Rutherford, who leads the Enterprise Risk Management program for CenterPoint Energy. “I organize the CNP-UHAA alumni from CenterPoint Energy to manually turn the blinds on each of the floors from 29-41 in our building so the lights spell ‘UH.’ ESPN and ABC consistently ask for us to light up our building the nights before games, so that media outlets can take their ‘city shots.’“
These four women have shone brightly both on and off the basketball court, and they continue to encourage others to give back to their alumni association. Either through Life Membership, by volunteering or by working as staff and faculty at the University, these Cougars are closer than ever — all because of the pride they share in the education they received at their beloved alma mater.
“In 1981, I transferred from a small university in California, where I also played basketball, to the University of Houston. I was excited to have the opportunity to play my last two years at a larger university within an elite conference. My favorite memory is when I got a call from Coach Dot Woodfin, offering me a full scholarship my senior year. I was able to live on campus with my teammates and truly experience college life as a student-athlete.”
— Dr. Sharon Spillman
“My favorite memory was the trip to Alaska and Hawaii in March of my senior year. We saw the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), visited Pearl Harbor and experienced a luau. The trip was a great bonding and educational experience, and a memorable way to end my college career. I formed lifetime friends who I consider sisters.”
— Dr. Janice Hilliard
“All of my time at UH was a ‘favorite memory!’ Sharon Spillman was my best friend on the team. We hung out together and did a lot of things outside of basketball. She would come to my dorm to eat and listen to music. We went to concerts on the weekends, and we went to the football games together.”
— Laurie Rutherford
“Graduating from UH serves as my fondest memory. The role of a student-athlete is extremely arduous, and the balancing act of athletics and academia is no small feat. As I walked across the stage to accept my degree, I knew that this was a monumental moment in my life. I had demonstrated excellence on the court by achieving one of UH Basketball’s highest honors — becoming an elite member of the distinguished 1,000-Point Club; and I had demonstrated excellence off the court by earning a degree in communications from UH. My success at UH cemented my drive to go further educationally and earn a Master of Science in Communication degree from Northwestern University.
— Toni Mooney Smith
The hallmark of the University of Houston Alumni Association Foundation is “commitment.” We are committed to the University and our more than 266,000 alumni. Life Membership provides an opportunity for UH alumni to express their pride, loyalty and love for the place they once called home. Become a Life Member today! Not only are you giving back to our students through the Legacy Scholarship, which is funded by your membership, but you are also leaving your mark.
To learn more about becoming a Life Member, visit houstonalumni.com/lifemember.