We’ve come a long way! Stories of struggles and successes

We’ve come a long way! Stories of struggles and successes

Dave Hines here. You may know me as the NFCA's Director of Publications or as the Association's Division III liaison. This is my first swing at writing a blog — and I'm much more familiar writing news stories and features — but it's not about me. It's about the people who created and developed our Association and fastpitch softball. You won't believe how they did it.  

FROM SHARED CONVENTIONS, to Title IX struggles, to getting exposure as an Olympic sport that led to the growth and popularity softball enjoys today, we've come a long way.

NFCA Hall of Famers Judi Garman and Marge Willadsen joined NFCA Emeriti Board rep Sheilah Gulas (also a Hall of Famer) and former NFCA Executive Director Kim Vance for a recent conversation to tell some stories and talk about the evolution of the Association.

They were some of the key people on the front lines fighting for equality for women's athletics as Title IX legislation came into play in the 1970s. They experienced the transition from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to the NCAA first-hand, and even played a role in getting softball into the Olympics.

Vance, the Association's second Executive Director, put it this way: "A group of women who were founders in the collegiate softball world got together, and knew we needed an organization. They laid some groundwork, and someone was (even) trying to run it out of her basement while she was already working three other jobs. At some point, they posted a position that was VERY part-time (which she was hired for)."

"We were just trying to keep the organization afloat, do some membership work and get a Convention going (in the early days)," Vance said. "We branched out later into little education pieces, like getting people to record some videos. I remember working with (Hall of Fame Fresno State coach) Margie Wright on one of those."

Garman was an officer in the Association from the beginning, and, as President, she was the one who hired Vance. She remembered the moment she knew they had to break away from holding a joint Convention with the baseball coaches.

"Baseball had the space, so they said, 'Come, we can share the space,'" Garman said. "But when we got to San Diego, it was a slap in the face — all the signs said 'Welcome baseball,' and they didn't even act like we were there. They didn't give us any of the good rooms and they charged us $5 a person to go down to the exhibitors' room. (After that) we said, 'No, we have to have our own Convention.'"

The group remembered being against moving from the AIAW to the NCAA as its playing organization, and some of the animosity came from the NCAA telling them they couldn't keep calling the AIAW championship the College World Series, because NCAA baseball had that name for its tournament. Things swung the NCAA's way, though, when it said it would pay for everyone's travel to and from the championships.

"That was a huge come-on to join the NCAA," Willadsen said. "We really didn't have a choice."

Of course, they all remember the color of the ball changing from white to optic yellow in 2002, and the name of the organization incorporating fastpitch into its name starting in 1996 to distinguish itself from slowpitch. But they also told some not-as-well-known stories about the humble beginnings of the game.

Garman recalled a time in the 1970s when junior college softball was more established than four-year schools, and she got a newer program named UCLA to play her Golden West College squad.

"It was big news to get UCLA to come in," Garman said. "They wore (non-matching) sweatpants and shirts that said 'UCLA' on them."

Someone named Sue Enquist was playing for the Bruins that day.

"We did a return trip to UCLA, and the game was played on an intramural field, and the game was stopped three times because they couldn't get the kite flyer out of center field," Garman said. "They called campus security, and they said intramurals had priority over the women's softball team, so we'd watch this man fly his kite until he got tired, and then we'd resume the game."

Enquist (an NFCA Hall of Famer), who coincidentally was the centerfielder for the Bruins at the time, went on to win 11 national championships as a player and eventual coach at UCLA during her career.

Garman said back then if you wanted to make something happen, you most likely had to find a way to do it yourself. Teams didn't have the financial backing from schools that they have today.

She said a football coach once told her to do whatever you have to do, and ask for forgiveness later. So, when Garman's softball team needed a press box, she found a way to build it quietly on the weekend. She also asked a campus construction crew for their leftover concrete for dugouts. Bleachers were built. Batting cages erected.

"The college president would call and say, 'Where'd that press box come from?' and I'd say, 'We built it over the weekend,' and they didn't have the heart to tear it down."

Garman said the only time she got into any trouble was when she arranged for the Army Corps of Engineers to dynamite the trees where her field was going to be located.

"At the last minute, our AD got really nervous, and the college president said, 'You cannot dynamite on campus, even if it's the Army Engineers.'"

Vance remembered the Association partnering with the ASA (now USA Softball) to help get softball into the Olympics.

"We had (some) role in it," she said. "It was a big piece of the exposure to the world for the sport of softball. It allowed things to begin to grow."

And grow it has. Softball is now one of the most popular sports, and has TV networks like ESPN putting record numbers of games on its airwaves, where the biggest games — like the Women's College World Series — draw huge ratings.

The annual NFCA Convention has also grown by leaps and bounds, and the group talked about their love of that event — the learning and the networking — and how they made it a priority to attend each year.

"As a young coach, I didn't know squat," Willadsen admitted. "To have the opportunity to learn from the best and go up and ask questions, that was my favorite part."

They said the sharing between coaches opened up once the Convention moved to the offseason, when they were a little removed from game action and coaches weren't still in competitive mode. The addition of male coaches, who were accustomed to sharing knowledge from baseball backgrounds, helped, too.

"It takes your breath away, seeing the photos now at Convention, and seeing the hall packed," Vance said. "I think we had 75-100 people (when we started)."

Willadsen marveled on how far the Hall of Fame ceremony — the Convention's showcase event — has evolved, now using elaborate video presentations to honor the inductees.

"They asked me to introduce the Hall of Famers in 1991," she said. "We had three people —Linda Draft, Linda Wells and Sharron Backus —and they all came up on the stage at the same time. I read a little blurb on each one of them, and we gave them a plaque, clapped our hands, and that was it. You compare that to what we do today (laughs) and that's unbelievable."

To a group that remembers the early days of the Association — when it was known as the National Softball Coaches Association and had less than 100 members — you can see a kind of parental pride in witnessing what their vision has become. The NFCA has grown to well over 5,500 members from those early meetings between just a few coaches and their innovative ideas.

"I'm just so proud and excited to see how the Association has grown," Garman said. "It just blows me away."

"I've been out of coaching (for many years), but I have been watching the Association grow and flourish," Vance added. "It does my heart good, and I'm so happy to see all that success."

"It makes me want to go back to Convention and meet the new coaches," Willadsen said. "I loved my time coaching and I love the NFCA."

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