Coaching Legend Blevins Seeks Win No. 1,137

Feb. 12, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It didn’t take Gayle Blevins long to discover that she loved athletics and hated losing. The problem was, growing up in Dayton, Ohio, there were no opportunities for Blevins — or any other girls — to win or lose at athletics. So Blevins, sandwiched in age between two brothers, played countless hours in a park in summertime, was relegated to a spectator at local little league baseball games, and when school was in session, anxiously awaited physical education class.

“There was nothing for girls in my community,” Blevins said. “I remember sitting watching my younger brother play little league baseball and longingly wanting to be out there. There were no teams for girls — none. I can assure you, because I would have known. I was at the playground all the time.”

Through the years Blevins the coach evolved from her desire to have opportunities in sport. She participated in fencing and volleyball in high school before attending the University of Dayton, where she played volleyball, basketball, softball and tennis. All Blevins ever wanted was an opportunity. When one arrived, she grabbed it in a hurry.

“I knew I wanted to be involved in athletics long before anything was available to me,” Blevins said. “I literally lived at the park. I would have played anything just to be on a team.”

Now firmly established as one of the most successful softball coaches in NCAA history, Blevins looks forward to her 21st season at the University of Iowa. Her lengthy resume includes seven Women’s College World Series appearances (four at Iowa), eight Big Ten championships (five at Iowa), a combined 11 Big Ten, Region and National Coach of the Year awards, and a whopping 1,136 softball victories. When putting the awards and accolades in perspective, Blevins assumes an historical posture.

“More than anything else I think about all the people I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” Blevins said. “That’s the first place you go. Then you think about all the people you had a chance to coach with and how the environment has changed in the time you’ve been in the sport. My gosh, 30 years ago I don’t think I could have imagined the game being like it is today. That we would have a Big Ten sport channel that’s going to cover softball. It’s the growth of opportunity for women.”

For a first-generation child attending college, Blevins found solace at the University of Dayton. Her high school volleyball coach, Rose Jo Stewart, convinced Blevins that college was the route she should pursue. Once at Dayton, she met Elaine Dreidame, her volleyball and basketball coach, who also impacted her life. At the time, Blevins said the “big four” career paths for women were teacher, nurse, homemaker and secretary.

“I was very fortunate to think I had a lot of instrumental teachers who said, `you need to do this,'” Blevins said. “You never had to worry about me getting in trouble in college because I had no time to get in trouble. I was so busy doing everything you could imagine.”

Not only did Blevins participate in four sports, but the softball and tennis seasons ran congruently.

“I would travel with two different sets of equipment to events,” Blevins said.

The packed schedule was a blessing, not a curse. Blevins graduated from Dayton in 1973 with a degree in health and physical education. She taught at Stebbins High School in Dayton, where she began her coaching career in volleyball and softball (she also assisted one season with basketball). After five years as a teacher/coach, Blevins decided to attend graduate school at Indiana University on a teaching assistantship. While pursuing a master’s degree in administration, an assistant softball position for the Hoosiers became available and Blevins snatched the chance.

“Initially I came here because of Dr. Christine Grant. I knew the affect she had on young girls and women in sport and I looked forward to working under somebody like her. I was watching Vivian Stringer’s success (coaching UI women’s basketball), too. I felt coming to Iowa would be a great opportunity for validation for the sport of softball and the school.”
UI head coach
Gayle Blevins

“I was really fortunate that I had that opportunity,” she said.

Blevins was named head coach at Indiana prior to the 1980 season. She compiled an eight-year record of 300-146 and won three Big Ten championships. While competing against conference foe Iowa, Blevins noticed a community atmosphere surrounding the Hawkeye program and she envied the support for the Iowa women’s athletics programs. Blevins came to Iowa in 1987 and in her second season led the Hawkeyes to 40 wins, a league title — the first of 10 consecutive top-three Big Ten finishes. Blevins and the Hawkeyes won conference championships in 1989, ’90, ’97, 2000 and ’03.

“Initially I came here because of Dr. Christine Grant,” Blevins said. “I knew the affect she had on young girls and women in sport and I looked forward to working under somebody like her. I was watching Vivian Stringer’s success (coaching UI women’s basketball), too. I felt coming to Iowa would be a great opportunity for validation for the sport of softball and the school.”

Blevins has a career record of 1,136-529-5 (.680 winning percentage). Two games — both at the UI — stick out among those 1,000-plus victories. Blevins recalls the 1-0 victory at home against Michigan State in 1989 that gave the Hawkeyes the Big Ten title in her second season as head coach (Iowa was fifth in 1988).

“Everybody knew what was on the line and we finally managed to win it,” Blevins said. “That’s one that really sticks out.”

The other came six seasons later in 1995 when the Hawkeyes made their first trip to the World Series following a 2-1, nine-inning, victory against Fresno State.

“We finally broke through and got to the World Series by the most indirect path anyone could imagine,” Blevins said. “We were one of the last teams chosen for the NCAA Tournament that year and then we were sent to California, where no one from the Midwest had ever won a game, and we went out there and won the regional. It was kind of like a Cinderella Story.”

Iowa defeated Cal-State Sacramento and took 2 of 3 from Fresno State to advance to the World Series. The Hawkeyes finished third in the nation with wins over Michigan and Cal-State Fullerton to go along with two losses to UCLA.

Luring top talent to Iowa City — especially from warm-weather recruiting hotbeds like Arizona and California — would seem like an insurmountable task to most coaches. Blevins scoffs at the notion that cold and snowy winters lead to a talent freeze on the diamond in the spring.

“Why not? Why can’t we recruit to Iowa?” Blevins rhetorically asked. “Iowa is a wonderful school. The key is to get students on campus and see first-hand what makes Iowa unique. Look at the environment our players get to be a part of. To be embraced by the community of Iowa and to be special here is something a lot of young women in college programs across the country never get the chance to know.”

There are still a few tweaks Blevins would like to make to the NCAA rule book. She endorses the 2009 schedule that will reduce the maximum number of games to 56. In an attempt to create a more level playing field for teams in “cold-weather” states, Blevins would also like to see the season starting date pushed back at least two weeks, ideally to March 1 (currently the NCAA season begins play the first weekend of February).

So what is the key to attaining 1,100 victories? Blevins features an aggressive offensive mentality and enjoys being assertive and creating.

“If I had the perfect world, I’d love to have everyone run 2.7 (seconds) down the line and run like deer,” Blevins said. “They would all be at the left side of the plate and they all could slap and they could hit and they could bunt. I love the element of coaching speed. You have to have good defense and solid pitching, too. One thing I haven’t figured out how to do is steal first base. But once we get to first base we can do a lot of things to score runs.”

Blevins begins her quest for victory No. 1,137 on Feb. 15 against Western Illinois at Minneapolis, Minn.

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