Title IX, arguably one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in America’s history, reached its 50th anniversary in June. Throughout the year, the Collaborative will highlight the significant contributions of Philadelphia women who have left their mark on the sports world and in the lives of many. This month’s feature is Denise Dillon, head coach of Villanova women’s basketball.
Dillon describes her relationship with sports as the “core existence” of her being. Growing up, Dillion and her 4 siblings played various sports like hockey, swimming, and of course basketball. It was in high school that Dillon focused on basketball solely and grew her love for the sport. Summer basketball AAU leagues brought a sense of community and presented the opportunity to put her through college at Villanova University.
While at Villanova, Dillon fell in love with the family-like atmosphere and high standards that were presented at the university. “They wanted to see me succeed,” Dillon says while discussing her alma mater. “I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself.” After a successful athletic career and becoming a Villanova Varsity Club Hall of Fame inductee, Dillon graduated and became the assistant coach for the Wildcat’s women’s basketball team from 1997 to 2001. She would later move on to Drexel as the women’s basketball head coach in 2003.
At Drexel, Dillon inspired greatness in her players and created a new standard of success for the program. Dillon has 14 winning seasons in her 17 years with the Dragons and received the Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year award 4 times. After a successful run at Drexel, she returned to her alma mater, Villanova as head coach in 2020. She accredits her successes to her own perseverance. “I always try and have the attitude that I belonged wherever I worked”, she explains. “Even when things get difficult, I remember that my biggest barrier is my own self-doubt and I can overcome that.”
This advice is one of the many key pieces she shares with her players now. “My relationship with my athletes is so important to me. I always strive for open communication with them. I learn from them as much as they learn from me,” Dillon says. “My team is a family and I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about things in the game but off the court as well.”
When reflecting on the anniversary of Title IX, Dillon recalls how different being a woman in sport was 20 years ago versus now. “In the past, I felt almost guilty for receiving equal opportunities and scholarships,” Dillon explains. “People made me feel like Title IX was the only reason I deserved to receive a scholarship rather than the fact that I earned it on my own.” Dillon expressed that she hopes her athletes now understand that Title IX has clearly triumphed in its mission to equalize the playing field for young women but that their talent got them where they are today.