Feb. 4, 2013
By Brian Davis, NFCA Director of Media Relations
You can picture the scene. The lights are on. The excitement is building and the tension in the air is palpable. Fans are in attendance, ready to provide support for their favorites. Finally, with hours of preparation complete, it's time for the competition to get underway.
Now you might assume the scene above describes those last moments before the start of a softball game. In the case of University of Louisville head coach Sandy Pearsall, however, it could just as easily mark the beginning of another competitive passion she possesses, showing dogs.
With balance vital to anyone's life, especially for those embroiled in the stressful world of coaching, dog shows were something that Pearsall got involved with during her youth and have been a big key in providing not only an escape from some of the softball pressure but also the companionship that only a dog can provide.
"My mom showed German Shepherds when I was very young, so I grew up around (dog shows)," Pearsall said. "I used to go with her to shows where they did obedience and tracking competitions.
"Of course when I went to college, I sort of got away from it. I didn't have the resources, obviously while living in an apartment, and didn't really have the time stay involved. I really started getting back into showing dogs once I moved to Louisville, and about 7-8 years ago, I fell in love with Leonbergers. I just loved the breed and managed to get my first one. Then I went back into the show ring. I hadn't been there since I was a young kid with my mom, but I'm competitive, that's the problem, I fell in love with going into the ring because it's competition. It's political and it's judging and a beauty contest, but it is competition, and I fell in love with it. Sometimes I'm probably too competitive, and I get really excited and jump around when I win. They don't really do that in the show ring, but I do it anyway.
"Sometimes you just need an outlet from everything, something you can just enjoy doing. Everyone has something they truly love. There was a period before I got back into showing dogs where my life was 24 hours a day of softball. And the truth is I got a little bit worn out by that.
"So that's how I got into it, and I've been doing it now for the last 5-6 years. All of my dogs have championships, and I got a new dog in December that I have really high hopes for. This is something I know I can do long after I decide to walk away from softball, whenever that is, and is something that's still competitive and fun for me."
Competitive and fun for certain, but Pearsall's first competitive passion, however, has long proven to be coaching softball, and that's something that Pearsall has shown to be very successful in time and again.
A former standout player in her own right at Oregon State, Pearsall was tapped to start Louisville's softball program from scratch starting with the 2000 campaign after successful head coaching stints at San Francisco, Florida A&M, Colorado State and Miami (Ohio).
From humble beginnings, she quickly built the Cardinals into a nationally-recognized power, having guided U of L to five conference championships and nine consecutive NCAA regional appearances in 13 seasons at the helm. Along the way Pearsall has managed to pick up 756 career victories with 506 of those coming at Louisville.
Most recently she led the 2012 Cards to a program-best 55-5 record while capturing the BIG EAST regular season and tournament titles. U of L spent the majority of the season ranked in the top 10 of the ESPN.com/USA Softball and USA Today/NFCA coaches' polls, appearing as high as Nos. 7 and 9 respectively. The season culminated with Louisville earning a No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and serving as host for the NCAA Regionals.
Of course with all that success now, it's not to say she didn't face some challenges at the start, as building anything from scratch takes boundless energy and effort as well as a strong support staff and individuals willing to take a `leap of faith.'
"Initially (building the program) was a challenge because softball in the state of Kentucky had just transitioned to fastpitch," Pearsall said. "It wasn't a well-known sport in the area, and there wasn't a lot of talent in the local regional area, so we had to recruit from the west coast and get people interested in coming to be a part of something that had no tradition. People really didn't know about Louisville. We had to help get people to understand that Louisville is a great city with a great university. At the time we started the program, we were recruiting to a gravel parking lot. There was no softball field.
"A lot of those early players, especially from the west coast, took a big, huge leap of faith that what our drawings showed for the future was really going to happen. Of course Tom (Jurich, Louisville Director of Athletics) did a tremendous job making that happen the right way and on schedule. It was convincing players we could build this program, that we had the money, that we had the scholarships and that we had the full allotment of coaches. Those were things that helped us, but it was also trying to get out to people that the Louisville program was going to go places, that you just had to believe in us. That was probably the biggest challenge. Getting the fans out was also a challenge and getting them there to see that softball is a great sport to watch. The more success we had, the more people we got."
The more people they got indeed, as last year's success brought a lot of fans out to Ulmer Stadium. In fact, the Cards averaged almost 2,200 in attendance during a season-finishing, four-game stretch while hosting the NCAA Louisville Regional. The high-water mark occurred during a May 19 elimination contest when U of L saw a staggering 3,124 fans enter the facility to support their team to a 3-2 win over in-state rival Kentucky.
"We're certainly happy with the progress we've made, but we're not happy in the fact that we've not gotten where we want to and that's the WCWS," Pearsall said. "We want to get to the point where we're in the position to get there every year. Our mindset is that way, and our fans mindset is that way. With our success, we've been able to recruit better and better players, and as players come to visit, they see something here that's unique and helped our program grow a lot and that's that there's a commitment to all our sports across the board at Louisville."
At the end of the day the true secrets to her success on the diamond during her coaching career haven't strayed far from what's also required in the dog ring when showing her beloved Leonbergers, as preparation, hard work, support and the right mentality are key.
"The underlying basis behind practice is basically the same in the dog ring as it is in softball," Pearsall said. "If my dogs Emma, Zaba and Summitt don't do the right things in practice, they won't do the right thing in the show ring. On the softball field, we can get our kids ready but they have to execute on game day, and they have to have the mentality that they want to win every game they play.
"From a team standpoint, our players know that when they come play at Louisville, they're going to work very hard, because we value hard work and loyalty in our program. We show our players that if you come out every day and get the job done on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom, you're going to have great success. Our program is about a team effort. We're not going to win with one player. We're going to win by being a team with every player doing something to help us be successful. That work ethic and team concept and loyalty as far as wearing that Louisville across your chest is really what we're about.
"From a personal standpoint I tell people what you see is what you get with me. I'm not smoke and mirrors, I'm very up front, very honest and hands on in working with my players. I'm not going to judge them on everything in their lives. Sometimes it's just listening and joking around with them. My team will tell you that I'm very sarcastic. I'll just throw things out, and they'll laugh. My invaluable staff (Associate Head Coach Carol Bruggeman, Assistant Coach Courtney Scott, Director of Operations Lisa Pinkston and Volunteer Assistant Coach Jay Miller) and I try to help them get where they want to on the field so they have success. We also try to guide them in picking good majors so they get a good degree, so they can do something later on that they will enjoy in life."
Finding something later on that they'll enjoy in life regardless of what that might be. It's a lesson in balance that Pearsall took to heart during her own life experience and one that Louisville fans no doubt hope that she'll be around to pass along to U of L softball players for years to come.
Q&A with Louisville head coach Sandy Pearsall
1) How has the game of softball changed over the years since you've been coaching?
Wow...it's changed a lot since I started. The caliber of athlete has gotten so much better, by just sheer numbers. The skill level is so much better now, because players receive much better coaching at a younger age than they ever got when I started in the game. Finally, the equipment, there's no comparison in the equipment between now and then. The game has also become so much more popular than it was when I first started coaching, it's such a big deal now.
2) What are some problems that coaches now face that are different from when you first started coaching?
Recruiting has become a nightmare for us all, because we have to recruit now so far in advance that it's become difficult. That's one of the more negative things that has probably happened to us all. Social media is good in recruiting, but it's hard sometimes for players to understand that what they are putting out there for everyone to see from a personal standpoint isn't the best thing. The competitive mentality can also be a problem now. Kids play so many games in the summer now, their attitude sometimes can almost become `oh well there's another game tomorrow.' Back when they didn't play as many games, winning was everything, now it's just like oh well, it's a showcase, we'll play again in an hour.
3) If you knew then what you know now, how would your coaching have been different?
(Laughing) I might have made some better choices in some of the schools I coached at. Back then, I looked at a job and said `hey I'm going to get that job.' I didn't really consider if it was the best job, if you could recruit to that school, did they have the resources to win there. I tell young coaches now to make sure that they are making good choices, and to ask themselves if they can learn from that head coach. To ask is this a good job that will help me move to another job in the future? I might have been a lot smarter, but every job I took back then taught me something, whether it was becoming more frugal with recruiting or by having to teach more. I wish I'd had a little better mentoring when I was younger, because that'd have would have helped me a lot more throughout the course of my coaching career. I think good mentoring is vital for a young coach to grow.
4) Is there a secret to success in your opinion?
(Laughing) Yeah...recruit studs! You have to not only be able to recruit great talent, but also be able to work with them. A part of our success at Louisville has been that we've been able to get great talent and players that really want to be with our program. When they have that feeling, then they excel for you. I think having great communication with your staff and players and having all of them understand their role, is a key. It isn't always easy, but if you make that effort, it will pay off.
5) What would your ideal season be like?
Going 55-5 (2012 Louisville record) but making it to the WCWS. Honestly, last year was a lot of what I'd want my ideal season to be. It was a fun year, not just because of all the winning. The team and seeing how much fun they were having, and the chemistry with the group jelling together as a family and having every player give something as part of the team's success, that made it an amazing experience.