The history of the NFCA.
Where do we even begin?
For starters, if you've never read the "History of the NFCA" section on our website – I'll be honest, I just read it writing this blog – you'll learn things like "the idea for a softball coaching association first developed from discussions at the National Collegiate Women's Softball Championships in the early 1980's, with Judy Martino of the University of North Carolina credited with the initial thought." See, worth it! Come on, I can probably guarantee if you're under 35 you didn't know that fun fact.
In working for the NFCA over the last six years, I've been fortunate to be submerged in the history of our game on a regular basis: Hall of Fame members like Dianne Baker (longtime NFCA official sponsor), Sheilah Gulas (emeriti Board rep), and Mike Candrea (NCAA Division I all-time wins leader) are all avid - and active - supporters of the Association. And during my time at Northwestern, current NFCA Board President Kate Drohan made sure Sharon Drysdale's legacy was engrained in our program every step of the way – even years after she retired. Speaking of, did you know Sharon Drysdale wrote the original NCAA softball rule book?! But there are many young coaches who probably couldn't spot Drysdale - or even Joan Joyce out of a lineup - and every single person I just named were all in Atlantic City at Convention last December!
So alas, pull up a chair, folks! Every now and then a few of these blog posts are going to be dedicated to our emeriti members, NFCA Hall of Famers and other coaching legends who have helped build, shape and mold not only this Association, but our sport and women's athletics in general. Let's get started!
Last month three NFCA Hall of Famers clicked on a Zoom link.
Sandy Jerstad (HOF class of 2000, Augustana University, hometown of Virginia, Minnesota), Margie Wright (HOF class of 2000, Fresno State, hometown of Warrensburg, Illinois) and Sheilah Gulas (HOF class of 2017, Ashland University, hometown of Lakewood, New York) kicked off the first of many "Legends of the Hidden Mute Button" [do you see what I did there … it's a working title, okay?] as we continue our journey in honoring the Association's rich history, and share the stories our sport so deeply needs to hear. If you're wondering whether or not this will be any fun, Margie Wright started us off beautifully, "Years ago they all wish they could have muted us … now we're muting ourselves!" as she struggled to find her mute button to start her intro - her and the rest of America during COVID-19 - and yes, hence my working title.
Here's some tidbits and video snippets from our conversation, enjoy:
What stands out about your coaching career and your journey in softball:
Sandy: "I grew up in a time when women were not supposed to be athletes … At the time, you just accepted [what was]."
Sheilah, laughing: "How I got into coaching? [My soon-to-be head coach asked,] 'Want to come over and help me clean my house?'"
Margie: "I coached five sports for three years - with no pay - and the only way I could do it is if I learned how to drive the bus. So I got a school bus driver's license, drove extra in the mornings to pick kids up for school, and then picked my team up for practice. And that's where I learned about Title IX."
What are some changes you've seen in the sport over the years?
Sheilah: "We were the main person - and maybe you had another part-time person or they were coaching other sports - but now for these coaches and these programs, how many years have they had a staff? And an amazing staff, and I just think that that helps so much with the growth of the sport."
Margie: "When we played, if you played in ASA there were no age groups. I was 10 years old trying to hit off Joan Joyce. That was a joke. I was only 4'11". For a few years I only got walked or struck out because we were playing with 30-year-old women. That was the only option. I wish some of the kids I had recruited had gotten to play with older mentors. I think they would have been way more mature coming into college. That was a big change for softball."
So the ball wasn't always yellow. How did that come to fruition?
Sheilah: "I remember being in the meetings and I remember the discussion for it. We used to have meetings at the Championships. The people sitting in the stands watching the games back in the early 90s were other college coaches and parents of the players. June Walker is sitting in the stands bored to tears because the score of the game is 1-0; a pitcher's duel ..."
Margie: I loved it!
Sheilah: "And she says, 'We gotta figure a way to get the fans in the stands (in her Atlanta accent).' So we're in a meeting somewhere around that time and we start talking about the ball. And June says something like, 'Well tennis plays with a yellow ball and they say that you can see it better.' And then someone else says, 'Well yeah, and baseball has red seams so you can see the spin!' Then someone else in the room was saying, 'Well the ball that we're playing with has a corked core. We should get it to be a poly core; that will help with more offense.' I have no idea who said the other two things, but at that point in time - whoever was in charge - said, 'Let's talk to manufacturers and let's get this going.' So the white ball that we played with was Dudley, and the first yellow ball that we had was Wilson. … It was cool to be there in that meeting and then to see it happen. I have no idea when June Walker got in the Hall of Fame, it might have been right around that time , but her speech was about 'coaches, let's not resist change. Let's not resist opportunities to grow this wonderful game.' She was a huge part of that change."
Why was the NFCA [NSCA] created?
Margie: "We were new to the NCAA. Softball didn't have a voice when it came to rule changes or conference rulings. We would meet at the World Series, and the business meetings were clinics, but it was also talking about how we could get a voice; get a vote for what the NCAA is doing. Before we had female administrators who had been coaches and now we were in a different world. In the beginning it was mostly Division I, and a few other divisions who were a part of the Board, and that was unfortunate because we needed everybody. At that point we couldn't fight with a small number, we needed ideas from everyone."
Let's talk about your experiences around Convention - your first one to the most recent one you've attended - what's changed? What are some of your favorite things?
Sandy: "The first NFCA meeting I remember was in San Francisco [1989 Convention]. They had clinics and you could talk to all of the coaches that were there and they were more than happy to share experience and knowledge with you. At the San Francisco meeting, we had maybe four people at the Division II meeting. Every year the NFCA got better and had more clinics, more options and more opportunities to hear these people speak – to learn so much – I came back every single time from the NFCA Convention learning so much. The last Convention I went to was New Orleans – and now it's SO big. It is great to be there for the Hall of Fame induction; it's a great thing and something [all HOF members] should [go back and] do. It's gotten to be huge, and the speakers they can get now – they talk about life and psychology and those things are very important to life and to softball – tremendous advances all the way around. Kudos to all the people that have helped with all of that."
[Editor's Note: Thanks to Sheilah's detective work, the NFCA's Convention records were updated to reflect the fact the Association held two Conventions in 1989. Up until this call, there was no record on the NFCA website that the San Francisco Convention, referenced often between these three, ever existed!]
Margie: "I went to just about every Convention until the time I retired, and just about all of those I had to pay my own way. Again until we fought the Title IX battle to get it paid for, but I could never get my assistants paid for. I've always identified with the Convention as a business meeting. For a lot of people, back when we first started – women in sport – we weren't taken seriously very often. At that point the NFCA made it a more business-like environment. It's got a little bit more away from that because of the numbers, there's a lot more hospitality things now – and they are fun and great and you get sponsorships from it – but I liked it when it was business-like. So a parent could walk in to the hotel and check in with his kids, and look at all of us walk out into the hallway and say, 'What is this? Oh it's the Softball Coaches Convention!' and him be really encouraged to want to have his kids play softball. That was always something that was really important, especially when we first started so that we could be taken seriously and looked up to."
How do we continue to move the game forward and honor the past at the same time?
Margie: "Here's the problem I've watched over the years: there's a lot of people in the room – mainly younger coaches – who really don't care where this came from, honestly. And I know a lot of them. And being back in it this year with Illinois State, I heard it, they don't even know where this came from. You have to have an interested group. The biggest challenge is how do we get a captive audience. So someone can say, "No, I dragged my own field for the first 20 years of my career." Not that I even want it to go back to that, because I don't, but I'm so grateful for the three of us that fought for that, fought for better salaries."
Annnd that's a wrap from the first installment of "Legends of the Hidden Mute Button!" I understand these legends need - and deserve - a better title, so drop your suggestions in the comment section below. I hope you enjoyed a small glimpse into our sport's history with Margie, Sandy, and Sheilah. Don't you worry, the second installment was already recorded ... any guesses who will be joining us for the next *Insert New Title Here* ?
I can guarantee you will learn something on the next post of Beyond the Fence ;)