COLUMBIA — Ehren Earleywine is an honest man. Try not to hold that against him.
“I thought we had a chance to do really good because we’re the only major university in the state of Missouri, so I thought we’ve got a chance to get the kids in the state of Missouri," the third-year Missouri softball coach said. “But sitting here now, we’re so much farther ahead than what I thought.”
Although his statement suggests surprise, there is no shock in his measured and calm voice as he says this. There never is. Whether he’s talking about his program’s promising future or declaring himself dissatisfied with his team after a game, it’s always just the truth, absent of any arrogance or anger.
Maybe it’s because it took a couple of unexpected twists to transform Earleywine from a baseball player set on a career in business into a softball coach, that he’s never learned the art of making vague statements about just wanting to compete or resorted to cliches about one game at a time.
So when Earleywine, feet propped comfortably on his desk, says that he thinks his team will be better a year after making its first NCAA Super Regional appearance, it may not be a guarantee, but it’s more than just talk.
'This is going to be the easiest thing I've ever done.'
The story of how he ended up in this office starts with a strikeout. Three of them, actually.
Returning home to Jefferson City for the summer, Earleywine was "guilt tripped" into playing fastpitch softball for a shorthanded team. Softball, even fastpitch, was for old guys whose bellies bounced as they loped around the bases, not for a finely tuned collegiate baseball player like himself. Or so he thought.
"I was like 'I’m going to wear these guys out. This is going to be the easiest thing I’ve ever done,'" Earleywine said. "I had three at-bats. I struck out three times and had zero foul balls. I didn’t even touch the ball. ... Needless to say that wasn’t going to be my last time to play fastpitch softball. I wasn’t going out on that note."
There is no professional league for men’s softball, and the sport is not on the Olympic program. Instead, teams, often supported booster clubs, play tournaments throughout the summer and compete for the Amateur Softball Association national title, which Earleywine won as a member of the Decatur Pride. One step up is the International Softball Congress world championship, a title Earleywine also won with the Pride. Later, as the captain of Team USA, he won a Pan Am Games silver medal at the top of the international game.
Along the way Earleywine was a six-time ASA All-American and was named to the ISC’s All-World team in 1999.
“When you’re talking about (All-World), you’re talking about the best ballplayers that ever put on a uniform, and Ehren was certainly one of those,” said Denny Bruckert, a hall of fame softball coach who coached Earleywine on several teams, including the Pride and Team USA.
'I was planning on going out and doing corporate America.'
Just as was the case with his softball-playing career, Earleywine’s career as a coach began with an offer he couldn’t turn down at Westminster College in Fulton.
When: Feb 20-22
Where: Boca Raton, Fla.
Florida International University at Missouri
When: Feb. 20 at 11 a.m.
Missouri at Florida Atlantic
When: Feb. 20 at 5 p.m.
“When I graduated, the (athletic director) there asked me if I wanted to stay on and be the assistant baseball coach," Earleywine said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not really interested,’ and he goes, 'Well, before you say no just consider there’s a strong chance that Phil Bradley might be taking the head coaching job.'"
Bradley, who had been a baseball and football star at Missouri before playing major league baseball for eight seasons, was well known to Earleywine.
"I hadn’t intended on coaching. My degree was a business degree, and I was planning on going out and doing corporate America. Then when that opportunity came along to coach with Phil I took it, and the rest is history. I’ve been coaching ever since.”
No one was more surprised at this sudden change of plan than the man who had taught Earleywine the fundamentals of the game and served as his coach for most of his life — his father, Larry Earleywine.
“I was a little bit shocked at first. We’d never talked about him having a desire to coach, so when he called me and told me that he was going to be a grad assistant for Phil Bradley, I thought 'Well, that’s fine,'” Larry Earleywine said.
His son, who served as Bradley's only assistant for three years, pelted the former MLB All-Star with questions.
"I wrote down everything that he said that seemed significant to me," Earleywine said. "And there’s not a day in my practices that go by where I don’t use or incorporate something that Phil passed on to me."
In all, Earleywine spent seven years coaching baseball, but, after a particularly dissatisfying year spent as an assistant at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, he decided it was time for a change.
'You know, I have some credibility in the softball world.'
This time around, Earleywine expanded his job search to include softball coaching vacancies.
“At the time, I was playing on the men’s USA softball team so I thought, you know, I have some credibility in the softball world,” Earleywine recalled.
He landed at Georgia Tech as an assistant softball coach and helped take a team that hadn’t finished above .500 in five years to the NCAA tournament.
“We broke all the hitting records,” said Earleywine, whose forte lies in the batter’s box. “Everything changed offensively. Georgia Tech, I think, needed me, and I needed Georgia Tech.”
Two years after joining the Yellow Jackets, Earleywine was named head coach in 2003. The time demands of his new position ended his softball-playing career, but three years, three more NCAA tournament appearances and one ACC coach of the year award later he was a coaching success.
Stuck in Atlanta, though, Earleywine and his wife, Lisa, were homesick for mid-Missouri.
“The big city life just wasn’t for us,” Earleywine said. “The traffic, the crime, the cost of living, the rat race, the hustle and bustle — it just wasn’t us. We’re just small town, Midwestern folks.”
‘Two months later … I become the head coach at the University of Missouri.’
Earleywine wanted to return home bad enough that he contacted then-Missouri head coach Ty Singleton about an assistant position in 2006, despite the fact that taking the position would have meant a dramatic pay cut and position downgrade.
Singleton wanted to hire Earleywine, a man with a resume that equaled his own as a head coach, but hiring Earleywine would have meant three men coaching the Missouri softball team.
"There are no other staffs in the country that have three males, and so that deal fell through," Earleywine said. "Two months later, Ty Singleton takes the job at New Mexico, and I become the head coach at the University of Missouri.”
Earleywine called the Missouri job offer "a dream come true," and for the second time as a softball coach, he led a dramatic first-year turnaround.
“We came in here the first year and the team before I got here had been under .500. They were 85th in the nation, and sometimes it can take two, three, four years to pull yourself out of that funk,” Earleywine said. “We were fortunate our first year we went 40-24. We ended up 19th in the nation, almost won the Big 12, and then last year we go to a Super Regional (and) we finish 16th in the nation.”
He rattles off these stats from memory in the same matter-of-fact way he says everything else. It's as if he had nothing to do with the improvement, as if he is actually trying to convince his audience it was fortune that decided to crown him Big 12 coach of the year in his first season as the Tigers' coach, and that luck got Missouri within two wins of the College World Series a year ago.
'We want to be in the World Series.'
To be honest, he’s just not that impressed.
"Is our winning to the point to where we want it to be? No," he said. "We want to be in the World Series, we want to be competing for national championships and all that stuff, but it’s been good enough in the past two years ... that we’ve been able to get some really good kids.”
This season the Tigers are picked to finish second in the Big 12 behind one of those kids, freshman pitcher Chelsea Thomas, who Earleywine said could be one of the best pitchers in softball this year, and four returning All-Big 12 players. His biggest concern is that he has too many good players.
“I think the allure is that just because you did good in year one and better in year two, that it’s automatic that you’re going to do better in year three," Earleywine said. "That’s not exactly how it happens, but the truth is, and this is just the truth, I do feel like we are going to be even better than last year.”
This time, his honest answer is reluctant and qualified with caution but, ultimately, underestimating his team in an attempt to quell high expectations just isn’t in the 38-year-old coach. Try not to hold that against him.