April 7, 2012
(NOTE: This story originally appeared in the ASU Alumni Magazine. With our baseball and softball coaches both being Sun Devil graduates, we figured it might be a good time to revisit.)
By Brian Hudgins, a freelance sports writer based in Lafayette, La.
A select group of Arizona State University graduates have come home to rejoin the Sun Devil Athletics family and to chase championships after pursuing a variety of post-graduate adventures: head coaches and assistant coaches who are alumni.
Members of this cadre originally came to Tempe from as far away as Australia; now, no matter where they've been in the meantime, they are all pursuing their career dreams at ASU.
Several have performed at the highest levels as students and coaches. Head softball coach Clint Myers, a 1976 graduate who played baseball for three seasons under legendary coaches Bobby Winkles and Jim Brock, led his squad to the 2011 NCAA Women's College World Series title. Each alumni coach melds his or her experiences as a Sun Devil athlete with a love of the university to provide coaching that continues ASU's tradition of excellence on the field.
Head Baseball Coach Tim Esmay '87 B.S., who played for the Sun Devils in 1986 and 1987 under Brock, said that he learned from his ASU experience that "giving back to ASU with passion and attitude is part of being a Sun Devil for life."
"It is a brotherhood for life," Esmay said. "You are not making it up (as a coach). I lived it as a player. Trying to uphold what (Bobby) Winkles, Brock and Pat Murphy have done, and to have the keys to this program, is an honor."
Missy Farr-Kaye '90 B.S., associate head coach for the women's golf program, has been a serious Sun Devil since childhood. She and her late sister, Heather Farr, received an early introduction to ASU when her father took both of them to football games.
Farr-Kaye's bond with ASU was strengthened by her days as a student-athlete when she played under Linda Vollstedt.
"The camaraderie among teammates was great," Farr-Kaye said. "We got to travel the world together. We wanted to win and wanted to do well in school. You have a special bond (with teammates) as years go by. Not many people can share that. It is rather unique."
Now, Vollstedt provides a vital source of advice and a coaching model for Farr-Kaye.
"There is definitely a similarity (in our styles),"Farr-Kaye said. "Linda is very understated. Instead of telling us what to do all the time, she would want us to get to our own conclusion."
Other experiences have influenced her coaching style, as well. Farr-Kaye, who is a breast cancer survivor, said she learned something from battling that disease that she frequently shares with her players.
"It (cancer) teaches me perspective," she said. "When you have a player who lives and dies by her game, we have to keep it in perspective."
Clint Letcher '05 B.I.S., an assistant coach for the women's tennis program, also provides perspective to his players about the student-athlete experience. Letcher, an Australia native who played from 2001 to 2005 under Coach Lou Belken, says he stresses to today's players the importance of enjoying the whole gamut of academic, athletic and social experiences available at the university.
"The big thing is, the time goes quickly," he said. "You have to soak it in and enjoy the moment."
Not every alumni coach went directly into coaching as a profession. Kari Ward '05 B.S. utilized her finance degree by working for a couple of years as an accountant. Eventually, however, she returned to work with the man who coached her during her competitive days - ASU head gymnastics coach, John Spini, himself a 1977 graduate of the university.
She reports that the two of them work well together as a coaching team.
"As a new coach, I am looking to gain experience, "Ward said. "I am lucky to have someone like John show me the ropes. He is a stronger personality and I am a softer personality, so we have a good balance."
The atmosphere that surrounds being a student-athlete at ASU is something Ward carries with her today.
"I loved going to Utah, where 10,000 people were in the stands, (and they) were ranked No. 2, and we beat them," Ward said. "I hope my athletes get to enjoy that."
Ward has not been the only alumni coach to pursue opportunity elsewhere before returning to Sun Devil Athletics. Head wrestling coach Shawn Charles '93 B.S., a standout wrestler from 1988 to 1992 under former ASU coach Bobby Douglas, said he enjoyed the opportunities he had to coach at several other universities, including Iowa State University and the University of Missouri. But ASU provided an opportunity to come home.
Charles has established the Sun Devils as the only western team to win an NCAA team title. He works with another alumnus, assistant coach Brian Stith '07 B.S., and says that part of his team's secret is that he tries to pass on the sense of commitment that was instilled in him by his coach.
"Two things I took from (Bobby) Douglas are the importance of learning the sport and discipline," Charles said. "We focus on being the best students and best wrestlers we can be. We get up early to make sure they are committed to why we are here."
And why is Charles here?
"It is important to give back to a place that gave so much to me."