ReNUing An Era

May 7, 2007

Wildcats may be its mascot, but a purple cow has somehow emerged as the Northwestern softball team's symbol - so much so that a life-sized replica of the purple-spotted farm animal had been planted in the right-field stands for at least one regular season series this year.

The symbol is based on a business marketing strategy that head coach Kate Drohan borrowed before last year's Big Ten Tournament and one that the team has held on to.

The idea comes from the image of someone driving down a road, caught up in the monotony of seeing cow after cow, when all of the sudden something remarkable and unique comes into view.

Enter the Purple Cow.

"If you see a purple cow on the side of the road, you want to pull over and want to figure out what makes this cow so different," said Drohan.

The technique was a way to motivate the team to show the conference and the country why Northwestern was so unique. By the time the Wildcats advanced to the championship series of the 2006 Women's College World Series, the buzz was already growing.

Despite eventually losing to Arizona in a decisive Game 2, the Purple and White had set a precedent. After Michigan became the first team east of the Mississippi River to capture a national title just a year before, Northwestern cemented the fact that Midwestern and Big Ten softball was indeed "for real."

The appearance of two Big Ten schools in back-to-back championship series affirmed that any inequalities among college softball had grown increasingly smaller.

Pac-10 schools UCLA and Arizona have established reputations as the Yankees of the West. One could despise them for winning year after year while respecting them at the same time for their repeated success. The Bruins have tallied a staggering 22 World Series appearances and 10 total national titles in 24 years while Arizona is second in the nation with 18 appearances and seven titles. Only six other teams have won the World Series since 1982, and only 10 schools outside the Pac-10 have even made it into the final draw.

Northwestern's romp through the postseason was no surprise to its opposition. In the highly competitive Big Ten, the Wildcats had secured the conference title during an anti-climatic final regular season weekend. NU finished with a 16-3 (.842) mark to earn its fifth title in program history and first outright title since 1987.

In addition, Northwestern's regular season title had broken up a two-team monopoly on the Big Ten Tournament by becoming the first school other than Iowa or Michigan to ever host the event.

For a younger generation, Northwestern seems to be emerging as a new powerhouse, fighting for position at the top of the Big Ten standings, while older and wiser generations see it as a return to dominance for the Wildcats.

Before Michigan and Iowa, Northwestern dominated the softball scene as the first true Big Ten softball dynasty. Under Hall of Fame coach Sharon Drysdale, the Wildcats accumulated five Big Ten titles and three College World Series appearances in the mid-1980s.

In 2006, Northwestern became the only team other than Michigan or Iowa to host the Big Ten Tournament.

Drysdale had arrived on the Evanston campus in 1979 to build a program with a team that only had 11 wins in three years combined. Behind her success was a Northwestern administration in full support of its women's athletics - a big deal in those days when universities were putting little money into female sports programs. When the Wildcats won the first-ever Big Ten Tournament in 1982, NU was the only Big Ten school that had committed to the NCAA though others would follow a year later.

Drysdale points to associate athletic director Joanne Fortunato and former athletic director Doug Single as huge proponents for NU women's athletics. Fortunato was a softball enthusiast who hired Drysdale, and Single came from Stanford where he served as an associate director of athletics and assistant football coach. Hired in 1981 and at the age of 29, Single was the youngest athletic director in Division 1-A history.

"Single prided himself on the fact that if he came in and threw all the budgets on the table you wouldn't be able to tell baseball from softball to volleyball from men's tennis," said Drysdale. "He really did support Title IX when it wasn't popular. While many institutions were fighting it, he embraced it. "

While social attitudes were slowly shifting, it was still much different from Drysdale's childhood. Growing up in her hometown of Toronto, Drysdale always had her twin sister to play with, but opportunities for girls to participate in sports were limited. By the time she was a teenager, her family had moved to the United States. But it wasn't until college that opportunities like honors teams, telegraphic meets and sports days were just getting started. Drysdale remembers practicing from 10 p.m. until midnight most nights when the gym finally became free to use.  

It's a wonder why Drysdale or any other woman would want to get into a career that was so limited. But back then it was simple.

"The love of sport and competing was what led most women athletes to become physical education majors," said Drysdale. "At that time it was pretty simple for women. You were either a teacher, secretary or nurse."

After graduating from Brockport (N.Y.) State in 1966, Drydale began her coaching career as a basketball assistant at Eastern Kentucky, where she received her master's degree in physical education, before earning her doctorate at the University of Iowa with a specialization in coaching and a concentration in social psychology. Drysdale then headed to Kansas where she compiled a 64-17 record, directing the Jayhawks to top-10 finishes in the AIAW Softball World Series in each season of her short four-year stay. By 1979, Drysdale walked onto the Northwestern campus with expectations to build another program like she had so many times before.

"When you graduate from college and get your degree, you are very mobile," said Drysdale. "I started out my career building programs. I had not really sustained anything. I liked to take over a program that was just starting or struggling and build it and then I would move on."

Twenty-three years later the legendary coach would leave Northwestern with over 600 wins and a field dedicated in her honor. A pioneer in the sport, Drysdale continues to be a mainstay in the softball community. She holds several chair positions on different sport governing bodies. She most notably helped pen the NCAA softball rule book and is responsible for writing the bylaws for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA). In 2004, Drysdale took over head coaching responsibilities for the New England Riptide, a professional softball team that was established by the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league.

Enter Drohan.

Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan took on a slumping Wildcat program and sent it to the school's first-ever Women's College World Series championship in 2006.

Drohan was a four-year assistant under the legendary coach when she took over for Drysdale. The softball landscape had changed a lot since Drysdale's early years and Drohan was the best person to take the Wildcats into that new era - An era where there were many more opportunities for girls to play sports and a time when being a female athlete was becoming increasingly popular.

"She had a presence even then," said Drysdale. "Even though she had limited experience in the Midwest and on the national scene, her skills and qualities shined through."

With a philosophy based on her experiences as a walk-on at Providence that grew under Drysdale and Northwestern's emphasis on a well rounded athlete, Drohan took over a Wildcat program that was struggling to find its previous success. Gathering up a team that had just finished eighth in conference, Drohan, now at the helm, was not afraid to set her sights high.

"To win the national championship by creating an environment that calls forth the greatness in each of us individually, and as a team, as we live and learn commitment, passion, unity and growth," said Drohan of her early vision.

Drohan knew talk was cheap and winning a national championship would not happen overnight. More than telling her team what they were going to accomplish, she made sure they knew how they were going to get there.

"The first part of our vision (to win a national championship) was just a clear goal that you could measure, but it's the rest of the vision that tells us how we are going to do it every day and the kind of the standards we are going to live by," said Drohan.

The Wildcats listened and learned, and Northwestern improved in each successive season. By her fifth year, Drohan was standing in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, ready to take on Arizona in the College World Series finale on national television.

The effect was far-reaching and could be found in the seemingly most unlikely of candidates. Just ask former Illinois first baseman Jenna Hall, a three-time All Big Ten selection and All-American for the Fighting Illini from 2002-06.

"That summer I sat with some of my teammates on the edge of my seat cheering for Northwestern the entire series," said Hall. "During the season we might play against them, but when the season is over for us there is no reason not to give them the support they deserve. It didn't matter it was Purple and White we were cheering for, Big Ten softball was being represented." 

As a player one understands that individual success is only as gratifying as when the team succeeds. Hall understood that the Big Ten's success was important to the bigger picture - No matter what colors she was rooting for. Drohan, an excellent recruiter in her own right, fed off the recent success of Michigan and Iowa to help recruit the players she needed. While 10 years ago it took a lot of effort to lure kids to the Midwest, many girls now consider looking to the Big Ten as a top option during their recruiting whirlwind. Not only as an opportunity to play, but an opportunity to win.

It was a far cry from the early days when Drysdale, who also doubled as the field hockey coach, would try to recruit athletes who could play both field hockey and softball because of limited scholarships.

While it may be difficult to persuade a student-athlete to travel across the country it is even harder to recruit someone who values the student as much as the athlete. Northwestern is a school mostly known for its academics rather than their sports teams so finding a player that can and will succeed in both the field and in the classroom is something Drohan always has to take into account.

The Wildcats earned primetime national exposure in the 2006 WCWS. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Tammy Williams got her shot in the spotlight in an interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe.

Along with the great pool of Illinois talent, the Wildcats have found success with West Coast natives such as former players Courtnay Foster (P/Tuscon, Ariz.), Jamie Dotson (C/Santa Ana, Calif.), Cari Leto (IF/El Cajon, Calif.) and Erin Mobley (OF/Santa Ana, Calif.) and current players Eileen Canney (P/Paradise, Calif.), Katie Logan (OF/Tempe, Ariz.) and Garland Cooper (1B/Mission Viejo, Calif.). In 2006, NU swept the conference's postseason awards. Cooper earned her second-consecutive Player of the Year honor, Canney was tabbed Pitcher of the Year and Roscoe, Mo., native Tammy Williams earned Freshman of the Year accolades while Drohan was named Coach of the Year for the second time.

In 25 years, the game of softball has changed immensely. It has gone from a defensive- minded approach with dominant pitching to a more long-ball mentality like baseball. Northwestern has flourished in both trends. The intensity of Big Ten competition will never subside, yet the respect will always be there. When Michigan woke up the softball world by claiming the 2005 national title, Northwestern solidified the Big Ten's standing in the softball national spotlight. With Ohio State hosting this year's Big Ten Tournament, becoming only the fourth school to host, the Wildcats have inevitably helped move the softball scale that much more into equilibrium.

In the mean time, people from all over are pulling over to check out that Purple Cow.