Division III’s Betty Hoff Saw Many Changes
By Lacy Lee Baker
Many long-time softball aficionados may remember former Luther College coach Betty Hoff, who retired from coaching in 2001, and is a 1992 NFCA Hall of Fame inductee. Hoff, who for many years donned the uniform of her players when coaching, saw great changes in a career that spanned more than 30 years.
Betty, there’s a great picture of you in your school’s uniform dragging the field. Did you always drag the field?
I would drag the field between games, and for awhile, I did the dragging after practice. The fun part was driving the tractor, but eventually rolling up and lifting the drag became a chore. We used to have to do all the field maintenance, but eventually, the school provided other staff to do such things.
How did you get started in the sport?
I first started playing softball during lunch hour at the country school I attended in Wisconsin. There were only about 20 of us from grades 1-8, so nearly everyone who was old enough played. Whoever could hit the ball across the road was immediately granted a home run! I participated in 4-H, and they would always have a softball game at the county 4-H picnic. The game was open to both boys and girls, so we all practiced together, but the team that played at the picnic was mostly boys. My dad was a huge Chicago Cubs fan, so my sister and I would play in our front yard for endless hours pretending we were Chicago Cubs players. I was the shortstop (Ernie Banks), and she was the second baseman (Gene Baker). Softball was my favorite activity in physical education classes in high school. I also watched a lot of ASA women’s softball in Eugene, Oregon, when I did summer school graduate work at the University of Oregon.
My interest in women’s softball really grew once we started our program of women’s athletics at Luther, and I began coach- ing women who had played some softball on ASA teams as well as their high school teams. The Iowa high schools ran two softball seasons at that time – one in the summer and one in the fall. I learned a lot from those Iowa players, and then I started going to clinics. The first one I went to was in the mid-70’s and was sponsored by the NGWS, and Carol Spanks and Shirley Topley were the clinicians. I was really excited to learn that I was already doing many things the way they recommended.
Of course, when I started teaching at Luther College in 1961, Title IX had not arrived. There were two of us on the physical education staff, and we taught all the physical education classes for women. I taught all the methods in team sports, and had built a nice library. Just two months after that, fire destroyed the gymnasium where my office was located. I lost everything – including my softball glove — and had to start over. For three years, we didn't have a gym at all, and finally in 1964, we moved into our new Field House. Back then, we never dreamed that women's athletics would be where it is today, so we only had one locker room. Everyone had to change in the same locker room - the visiting team along with the home team. In the mid-60's, it wasn't such a big deal since programs weren't nearly as competitive as they are now.
In 1965-66, we had our first women’s athletics budget and were able to offer field hockey in the fall, women’s basketball in the winter and tennis in the spring. We added softball in 1969, and it was a very natural addition. Luther is right on the Minnesota border, so about one-half of our student-athletes came from Iowa, and a quarter from Minnesota and another quarter from Wisconsin. Not much was happening yet for girls’ sports in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Iowa had a very competitive program, especially in basketball and softball.
What did you enjoy most about coaching?
My favorite part was spending time with the teams. Luther is a small school, and I lived close to campus. Sometimes on Saturdays, I would bake cinnamon rolls for them as a treat, and they would come over to my house. I had one player who would always want to be in charge of the guest list to make sure I wouldn’t invite too many people so there would be plenty of cinnamon rolls to enjoy. As I think back on my coaching time, it is the memories of the interaction with the players that I like to think about.
I always liked grape suckers, and if someone committed an error, I would say, “You might need to bring the coach a grape sucker to get back into coach’s good graces.” I would bring a goody bag of bubble gum, candy bars, M&M’s, etc. for the games, and players always wanted to know what was going to be in the goody bag. Now, this was before we were very concerned about good nutrition for our athletes.
I looked forward to every practice and seeing the athletes enjoying the sport. As things got more competitive, I enjoyed the strategies and trying something new. The greatest part, however, was watching the kids grow ... from that first year to the senior year ... how they emerged into strong, mature people.
Your opponents probably will remember that when you coached, you wore the same uniform of the players. Why did you like to?
When I first started coaching, it was my chance to put on a uniform. I never had an opportunity to play for my school, so this was a great feeling. There was always something special about having the uniform on, with the pants pulled down just right over the top of the socks. Back in the early days, it was not uncommon for coaches to wear the team uniform.
Tell us about some of the changes in the sport during your coaching years.
One of the biggest changes was that we had more choices about which schools we wanted to play prior to the scholarship era. Our little college would play Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State and UNI every year, and that was always a lot of fun. I understand the reasoning for where we are today, and why conference competition is so important.
Facilities have changed tremendously. We played on a grass field with a snow fence as our outfield fence for several years. The next thing we did was to skin the infield and put down a limescreen surface. Later we moved the entire field closer to the Field House, fenced around it and put up the electric scoreboard. I’ll never forget the feeling of awe I experienced when we stepped on to one of the well-groomed fields at the Wide World of Sport complex in Orlando.
You were very involved in the early structuring of the sport through the NFCA (then called NSCA), AIAW and the NCAA. What are your memories of those times?
When I got started, there was just physical education for women and no athletics department, per se. As physical education people, we were very careful about the whole movement. But, after Title IX was enacted in 1972, we started to look more carefully at what the men had and tried to duplicate those opportunities in the women’s program. It was from 1972 to 1976 that things really started to happen. Schedules expanded, facilities improved, travel arrangements were enhanced, and
scholarships and awards emerged.
In Iowa, we held our first AIAW state softball tournament in 1972 hosted by Iowa
State at Ames. We lost to Iowa State in about our fourth game, and had to come back in the losers’ bracket and then beat Iowa State twice to win that state championship. After that, I walked around my house for about a week, saying to myself, “We’re state champions – I can’t believe it!!”
I served as a representative to the board of the NSCA and remember the need to change our name. The National Strength and Conditioning Association used those same letters, and our mail would keep ending up at the wrong site. Later, when we became affiliated with NCAA, I served about six years on the NCAA Softball Committee. I got credit for more than I deserved! We owe June Walker (Trenton State College, now called College of New Jersey) so much for the growth of Division III softball. Without her insights and aspirations, we would not be where we are today. I was just there to agree and help move things along.
Where did you stand when schools had to choose between AIAW and NCAA?
That was a really difficult thing for me to deal with. I was very supportive of the AIAW, and I thought the world of Christine Grant (a former president of AIAW and the women’s athletics director at Iowa). I didn’t want to change, and at that time I didn’t understand the problems some athletics directors were having with applying the NCAA rules for men’s sports and the AIAW rules for women’s sports. I resisted initially because the AIAW had provided great benefits for the previous 10 years.
Now that you’ve been retired for awhile, what keeps you busy?
I play golf regularly, and I’m on the sports committee at the country club where I am a member. Currently, we’re planning our first Tuesday event of the summer season.
I also sing in the choir at First Lutheran Church, and I do a weekly Bible study there. I do like to read and recently have been reading a book called Jewish Literacy, which has been very interesting. The book, Three Cups of Tea, was another fun one to read.
Also, I’m working with Luther College on an historical project to celebrate Luther’s 150th anniversary. It’s been really fun and quite enlightening to discover that the men had to start from ground zero, too. Men’s athletics at the school started in the late 1800’s, with the first baseball teams on campus in 1872. Back then, they had about six different campus teams and they would play among themselves. The first intercollegiate baseball game was in 1891. We also had football, but it was more like a rugby team. Apparently, there were as many as 75 players on one side in the game, and each had to pay five cents to play; that was so they could buy the football. The teams usually traveled by train for their games. In 1925 they chartered a I play golf regularly, and I’m on the sports committee at the country club where I am a member. Currently, we’re planning our first Tuesday event of the summer season. I also sing in the choir at First Lutheran Church, and I do a weekly Bible study there. I do like to read and recently have been reading a book called Jewish Literacy, which has been very interesting. The book, Three Cups of Tea, was another fun one to read. Also, I’m working with Luther College on an historical project to celebrate Lu- ther’s 150th anniversary. It’s been really fun and quite enlightening to discover that the men had to start from ground zero, too. Men’s athletics at the school started in the late 1800’s, with the first baseball teams on campus in 1872. Back then, they had about six different campus teams and they would play among themselves. The first intercollegiate baseball game was in 1891. We also had football, but it was more like a rugby team. Apparently, there were as many as 75 players on one side in the game, and each had to pay five cents to play; that was so they could buy the football.
The teams usually traveled by train for their games. In 1925 they chartered a bus for a football game with Macalester in St. Paul, but the rain made the dirt road so muddy that the athletes had to take turns pushing the bus (while some of the men still pushed from behind the bus) to help make their way through the mud. It took them all day to go the 12 miles to the state line where there was crushed rock on the road, and the bus travel could continue. They did recover, and won their game the next day.
The students really ran the athletics program in the early days, and I’ve been reading some of the old minutes from their meetings. An interesting note I just read from the 1920’s was a debate on whether they should charge 50 cents for admission for the baseball game or 75 cents. One of the questions was if a male student brought a date to the baseball game, shouldn’t the date get in for just 50 cents?
I also thought this was interesting — in 1925, the track team lost their small outdoor track because the college was building a new gym on that site, so the track team would go over to the horse racing track at the County Fairgrounds to train, sometimes running on the same track while the horses were being trained. By the time Luther College cut down enough trees and removed stumps to clear a new area for football and track, 1931 had arrived.
My father passed away a couple of years ago, and I bought his house up in Wisconsin. I have two brothers who live not very far from there, so I go up to visit as often as I can. Now it means going up weekly, since the grass needs mowing once a week.
I still enjoy running and I have enjoyed competing in some track events for seniors. I have competed at a number of national meets (Senior Olympics) and did the 400m, 800m and 1500m at Louisville, Kentucky two years ago. My most successful meet was at Baton Rouge where I won the 400m (by 13 hundredths of a second) and the 800m and took second in the 1500m. Yippee for FITNESS!!