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Hall of Fame
| Jun 18, 2024

Remembering Hall of Fame Coach Josie Harper

By Paul Ohanian | Photos courtesy of Dartmouth Athletics

Jo Ann "Josie" Harper, a longtime champion for women’s sports in the Ivy League and a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, passed away Sunday, June 16 following a battle against cancer. She was 81 years old.

Inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2006, Harper coached with the U.S. women’s national team from 1979-87. She served as an assistant coach for the 1981 U.S. touring team in Australia, as an assistant in 1982 for the U.S. team that won the world championship in England, and as the head coach of the 1986 U.S. World Cup team. She was also the head coach of the first U.S. Women's Under-21 team that toured Scotland, England and Wales in 1987.

Harper’s passion for sports – she played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse in high school - was ignited while growing up in the Philadelphia area.

“I’ve been in athletics my whole life,” Harper explained in a 2022 interview. “I had everything growing up in the Philly area; my high school had every sport you could think of for girls. It’s so interesting to see people write the history of Title IX and act like no one did anything prior to it.”

Harper’s passion for sports became an impactful legacy after she served for nearly three decades as a coach, administrator and athletics director at Dartmouth. Her leadership style, in her own words, was simple and straightforward.

“Treat everybody the same and let people know you care about them” she said.

Amy Patton served two years as Harper’s assistant coach at Dartmouth, then succeeded her mentor as the head coach of the lacrosse program.

“Josie brought out the best in everyone she came in contact with,” Patton said. “She was kind, wise and compassionate, and made everyone feel so special. And at the same time, she was a pioneer in a tough athletics world.”

Harper attended West Chester University, where she played on the lacrosse team all four years and graduated with a degree in education in 1965.  

Harper’s career journey began as a teacher and coach at Swarthmore High School before moving to Penncrest High School. She then moved into college coaching at Hollins College before accepting an offer from Dartmouth in 1981 to serve as women’s lacrosse head coach and field hockey assistant coach, while also teaching physical education.

Harper piloted the lacrosse program for 11 seasons, leading the Big Green to a pair of Ivy League championships before relinquishing her coaching duties in 1992 to focus on full-time administration.

“One of the greatest blessings of my life was the opportunity to play for Josie Harper,” said Mary Page Michel, a 1987 Dartmouth graduate. “The lessons I learned from her were equal to anything I ever learned in a classroom. She managed to figure out what motivated each player. We knew that Josie would push us in practice, but the minute we left the field, she was a friend, an advocate, and a supporter. She taught us how to work together as a team, for something bigger than one individual, and it was life-changing.”

Josie Harper coaching at Dartmouth

In 2002, Harper become the first-ever female athletic director in the Ivy League, serving until she retired in 2009.

“I wasn’t planning on applying to the job in 2002, but then you get to think how your life might change depending on who’s across the hall,” she said. “I couldn’t complain about who they hired, or be unhappy with who they hired, unless I put my name in.”

During Harper’s tenure, she was an advocate for all programs and bettering the experience for all student-athletes. Women’s athletics was a significant piece that needed more attention, and Harper made a difference.

“The men would walk through the lobby for their spring trip for lacrosse, get on a 48-passenger bus and fly wherever they were going to play,” Harper said. “The women would jump in a van and drive down the coast, maybe to Florida. The budgets were not exactly reflective. We started to deal with the equity issue when I got into administration.”

In 2020, Dartmouth announced that the head women’s lacrosse coach at Dartmouth would be endowed in Harper’s name.

“She was always there to support you,” Patton said. “She helped me learn how to be a coach and let me find my way. When I became head coach, she gave me the freedom to put my own stamp on the program. She was always my biggest fan. She’s just a legend, and her legacy will clearly live on.”

In addition to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Harper was also a member of the USA Lacrosse New England Hall of Fame, West Chester University Athletics Hall of Fame, and Pennsylvania Lacrosse Hall of Fame. She was also the recipient of the Katherine Ley Award in 2005, presented by the ECAC in recognition of her leadership and advocacy for women coaches and administrators.

Details regarding a service later this year will be announced.