Mike White turns Oregon around
When people extol the real estate virtues of location, location, location, they rarely mean latitude. And yet prime placement on a parallel played a role in a Pac-12 fixer-upper becoming one of softball's hottest properties.
It might have looked like a recipe for sleepless nights to others, but Oregon was Mike White's dream job.
The Oregon softball program didn't have a great deal going for it when its coaching position was made available following the 2009 season. Someone had to finish last in softball's best conference, and it appeared the Ducks had taken it upon themselves to relieve their league mates of that burden. Three times in the preceding four seasons, and six times in the first 10 seasons of the new century, Oregon finished last in what was then still the Pac-10.
Not that the struggles were limited to the new century. Up to the point of the most recent coaching change, Oregon's lone winning season in conference play had come two decades earlier. The team made the NCAA tournament as often as not, carried to some degree on the coattails of Arizona, Cal, UCLA, Washington and the rest of the conference, but it rarely made much lasting noise once there. It wasn't softball's worst program. It just wasn't going anywhere.
Now the head coach at UNLV and an assistant at Oregon the past three seasons, Lisa Dodd was a standout on the field for UCLA from 2004 through 2007 and experienced what most did when it came to the Ducks.
"I remember as a player, I mean, no weekend is kind of a down weekend where you can relax, but Oregon just had this feel," Dodd said. "They had a good time. It seemed like they enjoyed their time there, they loved the coaching staff, but they were playing football before the game, before warm-ups. It just had that kind of a fun feel, whereas some of the other schools in the Pac-12 were way more serious."
What the program, or more precisely the Willamette Valley in which the quintessential college town of Eugene sits, had going for it was a climate and geography that reminded a New Zealander of his roots (as White noted, Eugene even sits at roughly the same latitude north that New Zealand does south). The setting helped convince him to make the town his home long after what turned out to be a brief first encounter with college coaching.
Laying the foundation
One of the elite pitchers in the world during a men's fastpitch career that stretched more than two decades, first with New Zealand and later for the United States when he became a citizen in the mid-'90s, White's first college coaching experience came as an assistant at Oregon in 2003 and 2004. Not coincidentally, the Ducks went 79-40 in those two seasons (they were just eight games better than .500 over the rest of the decade). But with three young daughters, he wasn't ready to commit the time college coaching demanded. He left the job but remained in Eugene, giving pitching lessons, coaching high school softball and his daughters' travel ball teams and studying the craft of coaching.
When Oregon went looking for a new coach after the 2009 season, it didn't have to leave the city limits.
"I think that helped me," White said of the years between stints. "That time, doing things by myself, led me to believe there's no one way of doing things. You had to learn how to communicate with people in different ways, so that's what I developed. I basically developed a bigger toolbox. So when the opportunity came up at Oregon, I felt really confident I was going to be able to come in and make the changes and make a difference to this program."
When the opportunity came up at Oregon, I felt really confident I was going to be able to come in and make the changes and make a difference to this program.Mike White
He believed Oregon could compete for championships. The trickier part was convincing the players to believe the same thing. Or in some cases, convincing them it was something worth believing in the first place.
As Dodd recalled, "We literally had a senior come into our office midyear [the first year] and say, 'I get what you're trying to do, but this is not what I came here for. I don't want to do it that way. That's not what I want.' So it was a combination of getting kids that fit with the mold and fit with what Mike wanted to do and where he wanted to go."
The Ducks won 36 games in 2010, a 20-game improvement on the preceding season. They won eight conference games, the most since White's stint as pitching coach. They won an NCAA tournament regional for the first time in the super-regional era, going on the road to upset a seeded Georgia Tech team. The results changed quickly. Swings changed, release points changed, drills changed. Remaking the culture remained a work in progress.
"I think the first couple of years, a lot of people struggled with Coach White because he is such a competitor, and he has such passion toward the game and toward being successful," Oregon senior pitcher Jessica Moore said. "I think for a long time, it took a while for people to understand the person and the coach he is and what he was trying to teach. I think some people thought he was a little harsh, maybe, or at times could be."
The regional win in 2010 helped White, Dodd and assistant Jessica Allister, now the coach at Minnesota, sell recruits on rethinking what was possible at Oregon, but the freshmen they inherited then who are now seniors were also indispensable. Samantha Pappas, Kaylan Howard and Allie Burger were three of the team's leading hitters that first season and remain key contributors. They bought in. So did the most important building block of them all.
Centerpiece of the program
Like her coach, the scenery had something to do with why Moore ended up in Eugene at all. A Northern California native, she grew up following Pac-12 softball, which meant she grew up paying little attention to Oregon. But driving through the state on the way to a travel ball tournament near Portland while in high school, she was captivated by what she saw out the window. She liked the state enough to visit Eugene and eventually commit to the Ducks. And she wasn't put off by the new coach, partly because he wasn't entirely new. White had worked with Moore at a softball camp in Eugene before the Oregon job was a consideration. She got so much out of it she wondered if she could take lessons from him when she came to college. It turned out she got all the instruction one pitcher could take. Moore came to college as a proven hard thrower but a raw pitcher. She leaves as the Pac-12 pitcher of the year.
"I've been tough on her," White said. "I think if there's a player in this program that I've been tougher on, I don't know who it would be. Because I see the talent Jess has physically, and she's mentally strong, and I can see where she could be. So I'm tough on her because that's the expectations I have for her."
She, nonetheless, swears by him, rather than at him. More than that, she has become an extension of him, coaching freshman standout Cheridan Hawkins and sophomore Karissa Hovinga when White is elsewhere during practice.
The ace in place, Oregon's ascent continued. It returned to a super regional in White's second season. Last season it made it to the Women's College World Series for the second time and the first time since 1989. The first Pac-12 championship came this season, along with the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. It's no longer just the landscape and the quality of life that brings the recruits whom Moore often hosts.
"People do look at Oregon, I think, much differently now," Moore said. "A lot of people are coming up and curious about it, wondering why we're doing so well and what's different about us than other people. I think the recruits are getting a lot more excited about the Oregon Ducks and what our softball program has to offer."
All that's left to change is the scenery.
Oregon will stage a super regional for the first time when No. 14 Nebraska comes to Eugene. The Huskers, who play in a stadium barely a decade old that holds more than 2,000 fans, may raise an eyebrow at their surroundings. Built in 1936 as the home of Oregon baseball, Howe Field is touted by the school as "one of the most historic and scenic settings" in college softball. Translated, it's old, but you can sure see a lot of nice trees.
"We're the last piece of the puzzle," White said of a campus where new and refurbished athletic facilities have been popping up on a regular basis in recent years. "We're the only team that doesn't have an updated facility. I think [the administration] realize that, they know that. I've met with some architects from the school of architecture at the University of Oregon. They're drawing up site plans and some stadium plans. At least I'm seeing some progress toward that because when it comes to recruiting, especially on the West Coast, we're falling behind the SEC as far as their stadiums, and we need to stay competitive."
To stay at the top of the sport, in other words. Which isn't something Oregon ever figured to have to worry about.