By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Marla Looper was given more than enough time to rebuild an Iowa softball program that didn’t need rebuilding when she was hired as head coach eight years ago.
It just didn’t work for lots of reasons, including her inability, or reluctance to recruit players from in state.
Iowa announced Looper’s resignation on Wednesday, ending an eight-year run of mediocrity and head-scratching recruiting decisions.
The announcement came as no surprise with Looper’s contract set to expire on June 30th. Allowing Looper to resign was a diplomatic way of saying she was fired
This season was considered make-or-break for Looper, but she failed to make it something worth having her stick around.
Looper compiled a 172-247-1 overall record at Iowa, which is poor under any circumstance.
But Looper also inherited a program that had been a Big Ten power for nearly two decades under her predecessor, Gayle Blevins. Looper didn’t have to rebuild anything, besides maybe the enthusiasm, when she came to Iowa, which had made four appearances in the College World Series under Blevins.
There was some turmoil at the end of Blevins’ reign, some of which reportedly led to her being forced to resign. The facts surrounding Blevins' retirement never have been confirmed, but Iowa is perceived to have chosen the side of some disgruntled players over her side.
That created some hard feelings, but the program as a whole still was solid when Looper took over.
The foundation has since crumbled, while Iowa’s tradition is far from being rich anymore.
Looper basically failed to repair the damage that mostly occurred under her watch. She also had eight years to fix things, which is more than fair.
Looper by all accounts is a terrific person and is widely admired for how she treats people and interacts with the fans.
At some point, though, it comes down to winning, even with regard to a non-revenue college sports program and Looper didn't meet that requirement.
Iowa’s decline under Looper shows just how important it is to hire the right coach at the right time and under the right circumstances.
Some also will say it was the price Iowa paid for treating Blevins unfairly.
It seemed odd when Looper was hired that Iowa would pick somebody with no head coaching experience. Looper had spent the previous 11 seasons as an assistant coach for Texas.
She helped lead the Longhorns to three College World Series appearances in 2003, 2005 and 2006 and to nine NCAA Tournament berths. She also helped guide Texas to back-to-back Big 12 regular season and tournament championships in 2002 and 2003, along with regular season championships in 2006 and 2010.
Looper served as Texas' pitching coach from 1999-2005 and mentored softball great Cat Osterman to the USA National Player of the Year Award in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Texas' pitching staff led the nation in earned run average in three of Looper's final four years as pitching coach, while Osterman led the country in 2003 and 2006 in both earned run average and strikeouts per seven innings.
In 2006, Osterman set an NCAA record with a 15.4 strikeouts per seven innings mark and also led the nation as a freshman in 2002 with 12.7 strikeouts per seven innings. Osterman won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Looper was an assistant coach at the University of Kansas from 1996-99, where she served as recruiting coordinator and pitcher/catcher coach. She helped the Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament in 1997 and 1999.
Prior to her stint in Lawrence, Looper was a pitcher/catcher coach at Iowa State from 1995-96.
So Looper certainly was a coach who deserved respect, but she also had no experience in running her own program when she came to Iowa.
Iowa deserved better than hiring an assistant coach at the time. But you wonder if the way in which Blevins was treated kept other head coaches from pursuing the job out of respect for Blevins.
And if there were hard feelings, do they still exist today?
Iowa announced on Wednesday that Deputy Athletic Director Barbara Burke will lead the search for Looper’s replacement.
Burke wasn’t on the UI staff during the Blevins-to-Looper transition, so maybe she represents a fresh start and a new perspective.
Burke is also a former softball player and coach, so it’s reasonable to expect her to have some connections and knowledge of what it takes to be successful.
The job search comes at a time when Iowa is considering replacing 19-year old Pearl Field, which has had water issues. Burke announced in November that a feasibility study was underway to build a new softball field near the field hockey and women's soccer facilities on the west side of campus.
Whoever is hired to replace Looper will have to re-establish Iowa’s identity within the state from a recruiting standpoint.
Looper’s approach to in-state recruiting was bizarre in that she seemed to ignore certain players who clearly deserved her attention, players like former Ankeny Centennial catcher Kendyl Lindaman, who has been named the Big Ten Softball Player of the Year in each of her two seasons at Minnesota.
Lindaman set an Iowa High School record by belting 71 home runs during her celebrated prep career. She was a no-brainer from a recruiting standpoint, and yet Looper reportedly barely acknowledged her existence.
That wouldn’t have mattered if Looper had been successful at Iowa, but she wasn’t. So the losing combined with the lack of in-state recruiting created a toxic environment that had to change.
Iowa would’ve been justified in firing Looper after last season, but the timing wasn’t right with the discrimination lawsuits and negotiations involving former UI athletic administrator Jane Meyer and former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum both happening at the same time.
As for potential candidates, Drake coach Rich Calvert seems like an obvious choice for at least an interview, assuming he’s interested.
Calvert served as an assistant coach at Iowa under Blevins from 1997 to 2002, helping the Hawkeyes to five NCAA Tournament appearances and two Women’s College World Series, as well as Big Ten Conference titles in 1997 and 2000.
Iowa was 262-104-1 in his six seasons on staff.
Calvert and his assistants Kasey Griffith and Tina DeAngelo won this year’s Coaching Staff of the Year award in the Missouri Valley Conference. They led their team to a 41-10 overall record and a 24-1 mark in the MVC, clinching the top seed and their third regular-season title.
The question with Calvert is whether he holds anything against Iowa for how Blevins was treated?
The Iowa job has lost some of its luster and glow, but the pieces still are in place for the right head coach to thrive.
Look at what Rick Heller has accomplished with the Iowa baseball program, whose tradition pales in comparison to softball.
One person can make a huge difference, both good and bad, as we’ve seen recently with softball and baseball.