Alabama's coaching tree grows
The conference portion of her team's schedule only just under way, Samford softball coach Mandy Burford was already missing the ace of her pitching staff and her most productive hitter, each player sidelined by a season-ending injury. A potentially promising second season for one of the youngest coaches in Division I had turned into a test of tactical and motivational acumen.
And that was before one of her players, already one of those farthest from home, showed up heartbroken by news that her dog had died.
A coach can attend seminars on recruiting, study the intricacies of the flex position for months and pour over hours of tape on opponents. Good luck finding the proper response to the death of a beloved pet in any manual.
"I offered for her to dog-sit for my dog [that night], hoping that would not make her sad," Burford recalled.
You can coach to win games. Or you can coach people. That much Burford and Ashley Holcombe Bell, her assistant at Samford, saw firsthand as players at Alabama. It's what the Crimson Tide believe is the core of the program's success, why almost without fail, current and former players talk so much about it being a softball family. It is not a gender-specific philosophy. But while Alabama's head-coaching job has been held by a man since the program's inception -- all but two of those seasons in the form of current coach Patrick Murphy -- Tuscaloosa is also home to some of the more influential women in the profession. And to the generation who hopefully will follow them.
A tree with many branches
For Burford, Holcombe Bell and the classes who came before them, longtime assistant coaches Alyson Habetz and Vann Stuedeman shaped their experiences. For the past two seasons, it has been Habetz and former Crimson Tide All-American Stephanie VanBrakle, who gave up the head job at Samford in Birmingham, Ala., and returned an hour south to Tuscaloosa when Stuedeman became the head coach at Mississippi State.
Coaching trees get attached to head coaches, but as the number of former Alabama players coaching in some capacity at the college level climbs into double digits, the roots of the tree go deeper than one person.
"That was how I became the coach that I am," Burford said of her time in Tuscaloosa. "It had a lot to do with Murph, but it has probably just as much, if not more, to do with Aly and Vann. … They handled all the problems. They managed us in ways that [resonate] now, trying to be that manager, having 18 girls together all the time and have them get along and have them not get their feelings hurt, and whether they're playing or they're not playing, or their boyfriend breaks up with them. Or their dog dies."
In the case of Habetz, promoted to associate head coach in 2007 and now in her 15th season alongside Murphy, it's a bit of softball serendipity that someone now doing so much to stock the profession with a new generation of talent never had any plans to stay on the field beyond her own playing career. Then again, she never had any plans to play softball at all. The daughter of a high school baseball coach in Louisiana, she grew up at a time when fastpitch was a foreign idea for girls in the South and high schools throughout the region still sanctioned only slow pitch. She played baseball instead, a move that required a lawsuit just so she could get on the field against boys in her native state, and attended Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) on a women's basketball scholarship.
It was only in Lafayette, missing baseball badly, that she walked by a softball practice and saw in it a way to scratch an itch. She walked on to Hall of Fame coach Yvette Girouard's team and worked with a young assistant from Iowa, Murphy. That was still as far as she expected to go with softball. After college, she played baseball for the Colorado Silver Bullets, the touring professional women's team, and planned to attend law school. A call from Murphy, recently named the head coach of an Alabama softball program entering its third year, pulled her back in.
"Really, I came because I wanted to help him," Habetz said. "I didn't really see a future in it, I really didn't. I just wanted to help Murph because I liked him, I thought he was a good guy."
She didn't plan on making it a career. She moved to Alabama, but she still took the LSAT exam that is a prerequisite for applying to law schools. And the job itself wasn't easy. She absorbed a lot of coaching philosophy growing up around her dad (he still calls after games to discuss -- and dissect -- strategy), but she struggled to figure out how to teach what came instinctively to her as a player. When players didn't get it, she just wanted to do it for them. She still doesn't go quite so far as to call coaching her career, but after a decade and a half, it is a more comfortable role. And a role in which she complements Murphy.
"Just when it comes to things like confidence, he thinks that they should already have confidence," Habetz said. "It should be in them because they're good -- how do they not believe in themselves? … I know that it's tough for [female athletes] because we feel like we want to please, we don't want to let anybody down. I think a guy's mindset is a little different than that, more cocky. So I love bridging the gap between him and them."
That is not to give short shrift to her technical skill or pigeonhole her as the coach in charge of emotions. Habetz is one of the primary reasons Alabama churns out prolific hitters year after year, both All-Americans like current stars Kayla Braud, Kaila Hunt and Jackie Traina and players like Burford. An Alabama product, Burford wasn't a star recruit and barely played her first two seasons with the Tide. The college game, by her own admission, was too fast for her. The coaches saw the natural athleticism and the instincts that made her more of a grip-it-and-rip-it hitter than a cerebral analyzer, and figured out how best to work with the raw material.
"She just had that grit about her that she was bound and determined to earn a spot," Habetz said.
Drawn to Alabama for the right reasons
Burford emerged as one of the team's most productive hitters in her final two seasons. It was during those seasons that she said she truly fell in love with the game and realized she wanted to stay involved in it beyond her playing days. After a year as a radio analyst for Alabama games while she completed a master's degree in marketing, she joined VanBrakle's coaching staff at Birmingham-Southern College and moved with her to Samford, taking over as head coach when still just 26 years old.
Follow that journey, and it starts to make sense when Habetz talks about still getting goose bumps in the first-base coaching box when she sees a player finally turn hours of work into tangible success.
"She's the glue," Alabama junior Molly Fichtner said of Habetz. "She holds all the girls together. She's so positive. She's a go-getter. She's the type of coach that makes you want to work harder every single day. Just the way she comes to practice, she's always ready, she's always fired up. She never has a bad day, and even if she does, you would never know it being a player."
That's part of what brought Fichtner to Alabama. A junior transfer from Texas-San Antonio, the 5-foot-2 catcher and infielder was one of the best players in the Southland Conference in her first two seasons, the league's freshman of the year in 2011 and its student-athlete of the year across all sports in 2012. She traded all of that certainty, the playing time and a potential bookcase worth of awards and accolades for what was likely to be a part-time role with the defending national champions.
"I thought about [playing time], but it didn't matter to me," Fichtner said. "I knew that I would learn more from this staff, and I knew that graduating from Alabama and playing with a team like this would outweigh anything else. It's just the experience that I'll get here, playing or not playing, is far more than playing all the time somewhere else."
Because unlike Habetz and unlike Burford at the same point in their careers, Fichtner knows she wants to be a college coach.
"She eats it, sleeps it, drinks it, wants to talk about it; she wants to watch video," Habetz said. "I can definitely tell in talking to her what she wants to do. She's going to be great at it. She really will be."
Players leave Tuscaloosa understanding how to win. The results speak for themselves on that count. Those who aspire to coach also leave understanding something else.
"It's about caring for them as people and understanding -- and this could very well be something we were taught in college -- that softball is great and wonderful, but at the end of the day, I care about each one of my players individually," Burford said. "To make sure that they're taken care of in the best way, and that they're happy and what's best for their well-being, those are the decisions I'm going to make. …
"I think it's about understanding they're people."