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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?     November 2008

Always a True Love of the Game with Linda Wells

By Lacy Lee Baker

When reflecting on the NFCA’s first 25 years, there’s one name that will be forever associated with NFCA convention history – Linda Wells. If you attended the NFCA business meetings at the convention anytime from 1985 through 2005, then you know her, and the memory has probably already brought a smile to your face. Her piercing blue eyes, quick wit and readiness to offer an opinion on everything from association business to Title IX to the NCAA made an impact on those around her and helped shape the path that we follow today.


You served as NFCA president from 1984-87. What do you remember about those times?


We were trying to grow the association and deciding if we could afford to hire someone as a part-time execu- tive director. We were attempting to change the model without really having the money to do so. The interesting thing was that it paralleled where we were in our jobs as collegiate coaches – we had vision, but no resources. I still remember my team helping me mail out the NFCA newsletter, folding and stuffing it into envelopes. I really have no complaints about the early times; it was an exciting time in women’s history and especially women in sport. It also was a big grow-up time for the association, since we changed the bylaws to transform into a more democratic and committee-oriented type of association.


Where were you working at the time?


I was at the University of Minnesota then. I started there in 1972 as head coach for three women’s sports – basketball, softball and volleyball. Those were the cusp years of Title IX, and it was obvious that we were the doormat of men’s athletics. Most of the women’s collegiate programs were a part of physical education departments or there was a women’s athletics department that was totally separate from the men and funded at a much lower level. There was still the playday mentality that had dominated the college experience for women decades before.


Title IX was passed in 1972, and it was kind of like the good, the bad and the ugly. It was good because we now had the law on our side, but bad and ugly since there was a long way to go. There were always turf battles for field space, gym time and scholarship money. In 1974, I was named the first full-time women’s coach at Minnesota, but I was

coaching three sports. I thought it was great... coaching, playing, working for women in sports... what could be better.


In1978,Igaveuptheheadcoachingdutiesforbas- ketball but served as the tournament director for the 1978 AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) National Basketball Championship. In the same year, Minnesota hosted the USA vs. Japan women’s volleyball match. I remember driving to the arena from across town and getting really upset because the traffic was backed up, and I was going to be late. I thought there must be an accident, but when I finally got there, I realized the traffic was due to a crowd of 16,000 people there to watch the match. We were so proud of our work and growing potential for women's sports in the marketplace. 


I know you played ASA women’s ball back in its heyday, and then professionally. Kathy Veroni had done the same, and when I recently interviewed her, she said the experience emphasized how much she had as a player vs. how little her collegiate players had. Did you have the same experience?


Yes, it was an epiphany. I was a small-town kid from Pacific, Missouri, but I was fortunate in that I was able to play volleyball, basketball and softball in high school in the 1960s. It was really unusual in those times for the school district to offer conference play for girls, but ours did. I had started playing little league softball when I was six, and by age 12, I was playing on an ASA women’s team. It was big-time softball. In college at Southeast Missouri State, I played five sports (volleyball, basketball, softball, field hockey and tennis). I also made an appearance in an archery national championship.


I always felt that I could do anything I wanted, so when I got to Minnesota and saw the situation, it was really a shock. I loved the experiences I had at Minnesota. Those years were full of exciting efforts on a national and collegiate front to fight for the advancement of women in sport. Eventually, things got better financially, and in 1981,with increased recruiting dollars, I gave up volleyball to become a full-time coach for just softball. The university had just committed money to upgrade the facility and I was no longer carrying the field drag and the bases in the trunk of my car.


Tell me what playing ASA women's ball was like. 


When I started at 12, all the players on the team were older than me. You paid your dues and looked up to, and respected, the older people. I sat the bench a lot at first, and I couldn't wait to get my shot to play when one of the starters would go on vacation. If you didn't want to accept responsibility, such as making sure your shoes and equipment were kept in good order, or the dugout was picked up after the game, then forget it - you didn't play.


When I was 15, the next youngest player on the team was 28, so you did what they said. Since they all worked, it was my responsibility to show up at least one-half hour before warm-up so we could make sure we had enough people to start the game. 


There were a lot of games and tournaments, and sometimes on the weekends, I would just have enough money for two meals. Occasionally, an older player would buy me a meal, and it was really appreciated. You did not play for pay, and I could hardly believe the first time I got a money allowance. Often, I drove the 250 miles round trip to practice in St. Louis and then got back to Cape Girardeau in time to study starting about 11 p.m. I might have two practices in different sports in college and then drive to St. Louis to play in another competition. I loved to play, and it never felt like an inconvenience, only a passion.


In the beginning, I played at the same national championships as Bertha Tickey and Dot Wilkinson, and then during the course of my career, there was Joan Joyce, followed by Kathy Arendsen to name just a few of the greats. I played for 30 years, retiring in 1993.


That’s amazing, and you can still walk?


(Laugh) I never really got hurt. I had a scope on my knee a year ago, but I never had a joint injury. There were no trainers then, so everyone just knew how to take care of their own body. I feel very fortunate to have always stayed healthy.


What position did you play?


I started out as a shortstop, but in high school, there was really nobody to pitch, so my sister Marti and I would trade off pitching and catching. I pitched more in college, and in those days, I think the pitching distance was 38 feet. When I got to the pros, the pitching distance was 44 feet, and there was no way I could compete at that level, so I became more of a catcher. By the time my playing days ended, I had played every position but third base.


It must have been wonderful to have all those “older sisters” mentoring you as a young person.


It was, and I feel fortunate to have had that experience. It also led to my coaching career since colleges were looking for women with playing expertise for their coaching jobs. They picked us from those playing at the highest level of the game, and we continued to play, even when working full-time. I was just 21 when I started my career at Minnesota. I look at 21-year-old women these days, and say, “What was I thinking?” At 21, I was going toe-to-toe with athletic directors and school presidents to get what I needed for my teams. My office at Minnesota was next to Herb Brooks. I would finish practice with my teams at 9 or 9:30 p.m., and the men were always around the building, talking shop and closing the doors to have a cigar or a drink. I was always treated with great respect by these men, and I think many secretly understood my passion for sport. They were ready to support gender equity; they just wanted to keep their programs intact.


In 1981, I joined a class action suit against the University of Minnesota. The suit was for gender discrimination and when I completed my claim in 1984, I received nothing but kudos from the students and staff at the university. Everyone knew the time had come to recognize the equity of women. And my guess is some day, we will be recognizing a female President of the United States. It came close to happening this time.


There were no assistants back then, and playing was still a priority... in my generation, the priority WAS playing. I liked coaching at Minnesota, but I liked being ON the ballfield more then anything. When I was a kid, we grew up that way... the dishes could wait ‘til after dark. There was no reason to waste daylight on dishes when there were games to play. I was told there would be the rest of my life to work, so play while you can. I just never learned to stop, or, at least not for a long time. I never wanted to sacrifice my own playing career to coach. I retired playing at 43, after 37 years of organized teams. I never regretted a day of playing.


Eventually, it all changed when colleges started awarding women’s scholarships in the late 70’s. Recruiting became important, and I remember how shocked everyone was in 1987 when Kathy Arendsen, one of the game’s greatest pitchers, retired from playing so she could coach. Eventually, it all changed because (1) the ASA went to age-group play, (2) the NCAA made a rule that coaches couldn’t play on the same team as their players, and (3) softball got in the Olympics and for the first time, the ASA had tryouts for the national team. Prior to that, the winner of the ASA women’s championship or a championship all-star team represented the USA at the world championships.


But, while my playing opportunities were wrapping up, the college game was getting stronger by the day. College softball was growing up.


Times really have changed, with age-group softball at its highest numbers ever, as well as television exposure taking the college game to a whole new level. But, I’ve heard some say that maybe the players of today have lost playing “for the love of the game.” Do you think this is true?


Yes, I do believe that it’s all about the college scholarship picture now. Plus, the culture has changed. Late in my coaching career, I had to assign players to pick up the dugout, or make sure the team responsibilities were covered because it was not instilled in them at an early age. When I played with the older players, I was mentored. Who is mentoring these younger players of today?


When I was about 13 or 14, I came home one night and told my dad that I was going to quit my current team because I had gotten a better offer. He told me I could quit, but I would have to quit softball. I said, “What?” He said you don’t quit a team, or a coach, or your teammates after you’ve made a commitment. That’s the culture I grew up in, but somewhere through the years, it has been lost to many.


Even though I could go on talking to you for days, you probably need to go. I just have one more question for this article. What made you such a great debater on the NFCA convention floor?


The key was that I never felt intimidated because I was never against the other side. I just wanted the outcome to be the best it could be. So, if I could assist in the process, like presenting one side of the argument to get to the best resolution, then, let’s go. It’s not about two sides; it’s about getting to the best answer. Sometimes I would get a nudge or a word outside the floor... someone wanted me to use their words, or speak for them, or create a resolution. The game is the same. The more you know it, the more you know there are no teams, not really... everyone is for the same thing... softball, friendship and family. That’s really all there is.