Earleywine: "As long as there's a score ... I'm in fight mode."

May 24, 2015

Columbia, MO



Missouri softball coach, shown talking to Taylor Gadbois, leads the Tigers into the NCAA super regionals on Saturday at UCLA. (University of Missouri photo)


COLUMBIA, Mo. • You’re not going to find a more compelling interview subject at Mizzou than softball coach Ehren Earleywine. He’s brutally candid with his answers. He’s aware of his flaws and refreshingly thoughtful. Saturday’s Post-Dispatch featured a profile on the 44-year-old coach as the Tigers prepare for this weekend’s super regional series at UCLA, which starts at 7 p.m. Saturday (St. Louis time) on ESPNU.  

Last week, I visited with Earleywine for an extensive interview, touching on several subjects, including his famous temper, his perception in the softball community, recruiting challenges and his future in coaching. Here is the full Q&A:

P-D: You said after Saturday’s win over Kansas, you appreciated winning the regional more after not winning it last year. Did you take that approach, that mentality into this season?

Earleywine: Yeah, I did. Just going home that early stung. I didn’t want to feel that again. The unfortunate part of it, we may have won that regional if Tori (Finucane) would have been healthy. We don’t know. But I thought (last weekend), Here we go again. I’m without my hottest pitcher (Paige Lowary) and we’re going to go home early again. But that, to me, really demonstrated the difference in depth of our pitching this year compared to last year.

I’ve been bitter ever since it ended last season. We didn’t just lose. Nebraska throttled us. I don’t forget that. Coming into this year, I took a lot more thought and a lot more passion into this regional than I have in a long time.

(Lowary lost 10 pounds last week with what Earleywine described as a stomach and kidney condition. She was expected to pitch in the super regional, but Earleywine was unsure how much stamina and velocity she’ll have against the Bruins.)

P-D: What about your approach to this season in general? Was it any different?

Earleywine: One of the things I’ve tried really hard to do and have been moderately successful at has been less critical, less ornery for a lack of a better word. Sometimes I just run out of nice. My temper is always there. It’s always with me. But I’m trying to mature to where I can see things differently sometimes. It’s been intentional. It’s not fun. It’s work. The hardest part of what I do is trying to fight my instincts. But I know there’s a need for it, because the feedback I get from current and former players is of that note. So, I think I’ve been better. I’ve had my moments. I think the umpires got some of my bubble over. I’ve done a C or C-plus in that area where I used to get an F.

P-D: Is there a bigger stigma with those incidents in a women’s sport? In baseball, the managers and coaches who get ejected for arguing with umpires are portrayed as colorful characters. But because it’s softball we’re talking about it being something you have to work on.

Earleywine: Yeah, in baseball I’d probably be a mild-natured middle of the road type of guy. But in women’s sports there’s a lot more sting. There’s a stigma. Then I look at Geno Auriemma and I think, man, that’s a tough guy. And they win national championships every year. I’m torn. But one of the things I’ve learned, whether you like it or not, you’ve got to listen to your players. The feedback has been: Ease up. Be patient.

What I try to tell them is I’m only coaching you the way I wanted to be coached. This is never a personal deal. This is about winning. If they knock the scoreboard over and unplug it, then I’ll take a different approach. But as long as there’s a score and a winner and a loser, I’m in fight mode. If I do go there, that’s not a personal thing. That’s business.

P-D: Where did that competitive fire come from? Has it been there as long as you’ve been playing sports?

Earleywine: Yeah, I can remember my earliest memories of my childhood playing any sport, any competition and being just full of anger and competitive spirit — on the verge of crying after losing little league games. I’d fight that back as hard as I could. That’s how much it meant to me. I think I got that from my dad. My dad was an intense competitor. Still is. I just grew up in a family that hated to lose. It compounded the issue because I was always the underdog because of my size. I had to call upon those passionate things flowing through my body. It was the only way I could compete with bigger and better athletes, to play with more heart, more passion, more competitiveness and smarter, too.

P-D: Were there any times where that fire took you over the edge, where you crossed a line?

Earleywine: When I was young and playing for various coaches, there were times I felt like I knew what was best for the team more than they did. I was so competitive that I just said it. I broke a knuckle punching a dugout wall (in college). I’ve had my incidents where it boiled over.

I regret those things now that I said to coaches being in their position. I see how difficult it is. It’s not as simple as players sometimes think it is, to move this player here or move this person in the lineup. There’s a lot more to those decisions, and whether I liked them or not I should have kept my mouth shut. There, again, when you talk about crossing the line, I did it a handful of times and regretted it. I’m still trying to mature through that.

P-D: As a coach how do you harness that intensity and try to control it?

Earleywine: One thing that’s helped is seeing these girls as someone’s daughter. I couldn’t do that had I not had a daughter of my own. That’s been really helpful. I wouldn’t want anyone to be demeaning to my daughter. Critical and helpful is fine, but it has to be done where you care about the person first and the player second. That has been the most important place I’ve gone in my own head, when I get in those situations where I can feel that intensity coming on. This is someone’s daughter.

The other part is, the more that I live, the more I realize that there’s a lot more to this life than sports. It minimizes the importance of hounding on every play or every pitch. I guess just seeing the bigger picture and getting older, you get softer because you realize it’s not that important. Things happen. People die. Tragedies happen. You start to see diminishing size of the importance of sports the more you view things.

But you’ve got to remember, growing up, that’s all we did. That’s what we talked about at the dinner table was sports. We didn’t talk about the news. We talked about competing and winning and teams and players. It was just my house.

P-D: What did you play other than baseball?

Earleywine: When I was really young I played everything. As I narrowed it down and got to high school, I played baseball, basketball and football but I quit those (other) sports my junior year just so I could play baseball more. Playing football at Jeff City when Pete Adkins was there, it was year-round. You couldn’t miss time. In basketball, it was the obvious. I was pretty athletic and could shoot from the outside and do all the things a little man should do, but it’s a big man’s sport.

P-D: You’ve mentioned this before, but what was the job you had in St. Louis after college?

Earleywine: It was a delivery freight service. I would try to talk to companies about using us as their carrier. Good money. Really good money. I probably would have elevated pretty quickly in the ranks. But just hated it.

P-D: That was probably the first time you were away from sports, right?

Earleywine: Yeah, and after about six months, I started finding myself waking up and dreading the day and living for Friday. I said this is not living. This is dying. It was funny because just about that time I got a call from the AD at Westminster, who said, “You want to come back and be an assistant coach?” It was just good timing. Phil Bradley came and all those things worked together so well. So much of life is timing. Thank God those things came together when they did or I wouldn’t be sitting here today.

P-D: You were still playing softball on the weekends?

Earleywine: I was playing men’s fast-pitch softball for the company. That’s why they gave me the job. It was a package deal.

P-D: Then you joined Phil’s staff. What was that experience like?

Earleywine: I made $1,500.

P-D: A year?

Earleywine: Yeah, and I did lessons on the side. I just barely had enough to eat sometimes. I did that for three years. Phil retired and then I started making $24,000 and I thought I was rich. (In 1996, Earleywine replaced Bradley as Westminster’s head coach.)

It was so valuable, for one, because I learned under Phil. When he left it was just me and 35 baseball players. It taught me how to be organized. I worked so hard there. I’d get in at 5 in the morning. We’d lift and then the pitchers would practice in the morning, then the infielders would lift in the afternoon. I’d get home at 10 or 11 at night because very seldom could I have everyone practicing at once because I couldn’t’ oversee it. There were different practices throughout the day. You get to a place like (Missouri) and I have all these coaches. I’ve got a strength coach, a psychologist, equipment person. I did all of that at Westminster on a $13,000 budget. So, I learned everything there the hard way. If I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t have the organizational skills I have now.

A lot of kids now, especially in softball, they have a couple good years, they’re an All-American or whatever, and as soon as they graduate they get a full-time assistant coaching job. It’s funny because they don’t know what they’re doing and they got the job because they were a good player, which has nothing to do with being a good coach or very little. You’re not going to see that in college baseball. There’s so many good college coaches that have paid their dues as graduate assistants. You don’t see that in college softball. You graduate as a good player and you want to coach, you’ll coach somewhere full-time Never happens in college baseball.

P-D: Do you ever see yourself going back to coaching baseball?

Earleywine: The thought enters my mind about every six months. I’ll just think about it and where I’m at in my life. Sitting where I am right now I’d lean towards saying no. But I could wake up a month from now and my mind would change. It would just depend on the scenario. I think the roots are so deeply imbedded in this program that it would be hard to leave it. We’ve built a lot here. The connections are immense. The reputation is good. I don’t know if I’m young enough to do that again. Maybe if somebody paid me enough money. Maybe. But it would have to be an extraordinary amount.

P-D: Your style and your program are really popular here in Missouri. What do you think the perception is in the world of college softball nationally? Is it different?

Earleywine: Yeah. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s good. I think a lot of people out there misunderstand me as a person. Those who work with me and know me privately know that to be the case. They tell me, “You’re the most misunderstood person I know.” I think the reason for that is I’m a different person on the field as I am off the field. On the field, that’s not time for pleasantries. That’s a competition. It’s a form of a fight, so to speak. Off the field, I’m a major cut-up. I’m the one at home my kids go to when they get in trouble because they know I’m the soft place to fall. That’s why I’m misunderstood. I also think teams think we’re dirty or maybe that we don’t play fair. But anyone in our program would tell you everything we do is by the rules. There’s no stricter compliance department than the one at Mizzou. We adhere to it and do a great job in that regard.

I think people want a bad guy. There’s not many of those in softball. I’m the only close one to it. A lot of times they paint me in that dark corner. If I was a baseball coach I’d just be another guy.

P-D: Does that perception bother you?

Earleywine: I guess the more I’m in the public eye the less it bothers me. I’ve come to a place in the last three or four years where I’ve taken so much criticism that I’ve gotten kind of numb to it. I realize that it’s just part of being a public figure. No matter what you do there will be people that don’t like you. I’ve gotten better at that. Early on, it was hurtful. I was hoping everyone would approve and like me, but that’s impossible.

P-D: Is that more of a nationwide perception with other coaches? It doesn’t seem like you get much criticism locally.

Earleywine: The local coaches know me. They’ve worked camps here and I help them when I can with kids who I feel can’t play here. I consider myself the leader of them in that regard. I’ve tried to mentor a lot of them. Nationally, we don’t have that effect because I don’t interact with those people that often. I’m so competitive that it probably feels to them like a streak of hate but it’s not. It’s just competitiveness. I have a few buddies out there but not a whole lot.

P-D: Does that make winning on a national level more satisfying?

Earleywine: It does because it goes back to who I am as a person. I’ve always thrived as the guy who’s been counted out or the guy who’s been criticized. That plays on all those old buttons that when you hit on them, I immediately put my dukes up. We wear it well. It fits here. It fits me. It makes me perform and work harder. All those people, those naysayers, they inspire me.

P-D: When you recruit players, do they have to fit that profile or do you train them to be like you?

Earleywine: No, they have to fit it. There’s a doctor at William Jewell who invented the personality profile test for athletes. It’s never been used in women’s sports. He’s used it for the NFL combine, for Major League Baseball and all the high-dollar major sports. Who are we getting when we draft this person? That’s what I want to know. We buy it. It was expensive. We did it this year. One of the first sheets that I read was on Sami Fagan. One of the things it found out about Sami through all these questions was that Sami would be a kid who wouldn’t work hard. I said, “Well, this is obviously the most inaccurate thing I’ve ever seen.” Because Sami is the hardest worker I’ve ever coached. Ever. I called the guys and talked to them and they said, “It could be because you’re talking about a female athlete. We’ve done Navy SEALS, we’ve done NFL guys, Major League guys. But we’re going to have to do some studying to see what kind of results we get with women.”

That’s the extent of how I’m trying to recruit personalities that can play for me. Because not everybody can. What I’ve done now is I ask people, “How can you handle a coach who’s tough? Can you take that?” If the answer is no, then I say, “This is probably not the best place for you. I’m going to have to re-recruit you every year because you’re probably going to want to leave if you can’t take an ass-chewing every once in a while.”

P-D: When you bring in players, they know what to expect?

Earleywine: They come in here knowing that when you walk through that gate over there (at the stadium), you better put your work boots on. When I first got here I had some issues, kids that didn’t fit my style and personality. We lost a few. There are kids across the country who won’t respond to us because they know. There’s not a lot but there’s some. That’s fine. We are who we are and I’m proud of it. To me, I think the people of this area identify with that style. This a blue collar area. I grew up in Jeff City. That’s blue collar. I think the silent majority of people in this state who follow us appreciate it.

P-D: That speaks to last weekend. You had three other rah-rah teams that do the chanting and singing in the dugout. Then you have your dugout and it’s completely different. Doesn’t that fall in line with who you are and who you want your players to be?

Earleywine: Absolutely. I want the focus to be on things that are important. Enthusiasm’s important but synchronized cheering is not. What I always tell my girls is, “You can do all that stuff as soon as you know everything that’s going on on the field. If I ask you at any random moment what inning it is, how many strikes there are, how many balls, how many outs, who’s batting, who’s on base … if I ask you at any second, you better be able to answer me. If you’re cheering and I ask you, you better answer without looking at the scoreboard.” That to me is the most important thing. What’s going on out here? Cheering is a lot of smoke and mirrors.

P-D: I think your fans have gotten to the point where cheering from other teams seems foreign.

Earleywine: Like it annoys them? I know it annoys me.

P-D: And it almost seems like those teams cheer more when they’re playing Missouri.

Earleywine: Probably. They want to prove to us it works.

P-D: You’ve had your dad on your staff. Why’s that important to have him here? (Larry Earleywine is MU’s director of player development.)

Earleywine: He’s my best friend. He’s the only one who can reach me in a real relational level. I totally trust him. Most important, just the opportunities I get to spend with my dad. Someday when he’s gone I’ll look back on those moments favorably. I’m just taking advantage of it as much as I can.

P-D: Is that relationship similar to what you have with Phil Bradley?

Earleywine: Yeah. My dad has filled that void and then some. Phil has been in many ways to be like another father to me. I’ve been blessed to have two human beings and male role models around me as much as I do. I was worried what it was going to be like this year without Phil, but my dad has filled that role. (Associate head coach) Pete (D’Amour) also is a great friend of mine. We’re a really relational team. As tough as we are on our kids, we’re family.

P-D: What was Phil like to coach with?

Earleywine: He was more stoic than I ever thought about early on. I realized at that point that the mechanical points is what wins games. He taught me that. He taught me things I never even thought about. For a guy who was kind of quiet in that regard, he soaked up a lot of info in the big leagues. I also took on some of his demeanor. He was pretty cold. He was hard to please. But it wasn’t in a way that was demeaning. It was more like, this is a business. What’s funny about Phil now is that he’s a totally loving guy now. He’s softened so much. He’s an encourager. He’s a lover. He’s a put-your-arms-around-you guy. It was good for me to see that, too, because I looked up to him so much. You can still be a real man and do that. As a matter of fact, it takes a real man to do that. It’s opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable to people. Neither he nor I were very good at that young in our lives. He grew out of that. I’m hoping I do.