Julie Wright knows she doesn't have an easy job ahead.
Hired last summer, she's Maryland's fourth head softball coach ever but its third in three years. She arrived in College Park via Idaho State, where she built up the Bengals to win a program-best 98 games over three years and earn Big Sky regular season titles each of the last three years.
Now, Wright's in a new place and a tough neighborhood. The Big Ten is one of the country's better softball leagues, generally headlined by a juggernaut at Michigan. Maryland had some good moments over its ACC history from 1995 to 2014, but softball has never broken all the way through here – not in postseason play and not in the hearts and minds of Maryland's student body.
When longtime coach Gina LaMandre departed after the 2005 season, Laura Watten took over and guided the Terrapins to three NCAA Regional appearances, packed together into the middle of a nine-year tenure. After Maryland cratered to 11-35 in 2014, Courtney Scott-Deifel took Watten's job. But after one year, Scott-Deifel left for the same job at Arkansas.
Enter Wright, whose job isn't just to win but to sell the Terps to recruits, donors and Maryland's student body.
I visited with Wright in her office at the Xfinity Center last week. Here's our conversation:
Testudo Times: You were hired back in the summer, so it's been a few months. Does it still feel like a new job? Are you settled in?
Julie Wright: Yes and no. We're settled in, in the respect that we've got some things moving in the right direction and we've set some baselines for the team and that kind of stuff. But in this kind of job and this kind of atmosphere, you do something new, for the first time, every single day, especially when you are new. I would say that, yes, we're settled in, but also, yes, we are still learning as we go?
TT: What do you learn about your team on a day-to-day basis as you go? What's become clear to you?
Wright: There are different stressors that come in at different times during the year. Right now, the stressor is that we're getting ready to travel a ton, play a ton and now everything counts and it matters. It's no longer work time; we're going into performance time. So you see different stressors on them emotionally and mentally, how their bodies are going to hold up to the rigors of the season, so there's lots of things you see for the first time.
TT: It's been three coaches in three years for the program, and there's been a lot of turnover. Has that made it more challenging since you've been here, or how has that come into play in your job?
Wright: It's more challenging in the relationships that I don't have in the community, that this program doesn't have in the community, because there's been so much turnover at the top. And I think that plays a large part in how we develop our program, as far as even just financial assistance or getting fans in the stands, things like that that really matter, that our program would rely on to have success.
As far as me being the third head coach as it relates to the team, that's gone very well. I've been really pleased with their all-in type of approach. So that hasn't seemed to affect too much. To be honest, this is the second time I've done this. When I was hired at Idaho State, I was the third head coach in three years. So I had a sense of what to do and how they were probably feeling, so that part wasn't a big deal to me.
TT: How have you found that College Park is different than Idaho State so far?
Wright: It's nice to be living in a city again. I appreciate that. I love living in big cities and big places, so this is more my personality. Idaho State was a very small town, more animals than people.
TT: Good potatoes, though.
Wright: You know what? They don't taste any different. I've got to be honest.
TT: You're serious?
Wright: Serious. It's a myth, total myth.
TT: Incredible. And with that program, over five years, do you get a sense of how to build a program and different lessons you can take just from being in a place for that period of time? What kinds of things from that experience, being that long, can you bring here?
Wright: There are some similar things, actually. When I first got there, they hadn't had a ton of success. It took us a couple years, and then we managed three championships in a row, and I think this team is built similar to that team, in that it's a leadership thing for them. There's some talent here, there's work ethic. These young women want to win, but they haven't had any direction on how to win for a while, and therefore their focus goes on different things.
When you can bring a group together in one direction, that's where you're really going to see the biggest amount of success. Those are definitely some of the similarities, and some of the lessons I learned at Idaho State, I can kind of transfer into Maryland.
TT: Last year, I came to my first softball game. I'm a senior, and that was my first game. It was really fun. It was a good atmosphere, good stadium, and the team played pretty well. The quality of play was pretty high. They were facing Michigan and they didn't get a hit, and they lost 1-0. Do you feel like the program has gotten to the point where it might just need a couple more years to get over the top, or can be close to being competitive with those programs? Or at last to somewhere above where it's been?
Wright: Absolutely. It needed someone to take care of it. I think we have the staff in place that are taking care of the program The team and the players see that, and therefore I think everybody does things a little bit better. Everybody wants to do things a little bit better. And just with that sort of work ethic and then with bringing in some high-level recruits, those things paired together should equal pretty good success.
TT: For recruiting, I'm curious. Where can this program put a footprint down geographically?
Wright: Anywhere I want. Anywhere I want. That's my bread and butter. I'm a salesman by heart. I sell every day, and I believe in what I'm doing, so that's a big thing for kids and parents that I think they see in me right away. But I can get kids – I feel like I have roots in the Midwest, of course, because that's where I'm from and I've coached a lot in the Midwest. I have roots in the West just from being at Idaho State, and that's really the hottest recruiting source for softball. And the South is very hot right now and I've got a southerner on my staff.
So I feel like if we see a kid we want to go after, we're going to go after her. I think Maryland has a ton to offer anyone in the country, and it just depends: Do you want to walk into a program that is, or do you want to walk into a program that you can help be?
TT: That gives me a sense of this, and you don't have to get too far into character. But say that I was a high school junior and wanted to play softball somewhere.
Wright: You'd be a high school freshman, because that's how early it's starting these days.
TT: Say that I was a high school freshman. What is your pitch beyond just, "This program could be good?" What do you say to recruits to sell them on coming to Maryland?
Wright: It depends on what they can offer Maryland. Those types of young women are going to be extremely talented on the field, but for me it's about character. It's about the whole student-athlete package. It's about their family; I recruit families. I don't just recruit young women. So it's about their family, their character. It's about them as students, about their athletic ability.
We are trying to build not just a team here and not just a program, but a family, and one that when people graduate from it, they're extremely proud to say they were a part of. And I don't know that we have that right now, so that's something we work toward, and that's something I talk to them about: "If you're the kid who wants to come to this program and put your stamp on it, help me put a thumbprint on it that will last as long as this program goes, then now's the time."
TT: You say, "Now's the time." Given the way Maryland has shifted in the last few years – It's now a Big Ten program, where softball is pretty popular – do you think you stand to benefit from in the Big Ten even though it's a tougher level of play?
Wright: I wouldn't have taken this job if it was still in the ACC.
Wright: Yes. The Big Ten is my home, No. 1. I grew up in the Big Ten. I coached in the Big Ten before as an assistant (at Wisconsin). It has great human beings as head coaches, and it's a conference that you can make strides in, if you know what you're doing. It brings money. Maryland was so smart to make this transition, because in five years, it'll look entirely different, because the Big Ten has a ton of money.
TT: How do you think it might look different?
Wright: You're going to see facility changes, the ability for Maryland to do things that other high-level universities with a lot of money can do, because they have everything but the money needed for that. And now they're in a conference that has that, and that'll really help them.
TT: What do you think you can do as a program to convince students on campus, who frankly haven't shown much enthusiasm in the past for softball, to come out to the field and watch this team play?
Wright: It's funny you ask that question. We just had our team retreat (two weekends ago), and we spent a lot of time talking about our program and how we're going to get ourselves into the community and build a fanbase, and what does that look like? I actually had my team split up into some smaller committees, figuring out what we can do to reach the student body. Because we want to be a team that has rowdy student fans that want to sit out there on a hot day and yell at the other team. So a lot of the things that we're talking about are getting involved a little bit more, talking with the Greek system and trying to connect there, being a little bit more vocal in our classes about softball.
The game's fun, like you said. Last year, you came, and it's so different than what people may know about it. If you love baseball, you'll love our game too, because our game's a little bit faster. So it's nice. It's a little bit shorter and runs a little bit faster. It amazes people a little bit more. There's more of an "Oh my God" effect, because when you watch, in many people's minds, "How did a female athlete just do that?" A lot of people think that way, when they see a young woman hit a bomb, who's built like me.
TT: It's probably harder to hit a softball than a baseball, too.
Wright: Because of the rise plane. There's just a couple more planes, yeah, that make it a little more difficult. But we're going to be there. We're going to win. We know we have to win. To get interest, we know we have to win. There's no question. That is the golden rule. But involving students is something of a priority for us, and we're going to be active in trying to connect with student support.
TT: I'm sure you're going to go into every game wanting and expecting to win. But as you look at the program, the team did lose some of its best contributors after last year. Do you view this as a rebuilding job?
Wright: Not so much rebuilding as discovering. I think there's some underdeveloped talent on this team, and we spent the last three months trying to develop it like crazy. I think some things that were done in the past weren't beneficial for some of these young women to flourish, and I think they're flourishing. So I think there are going to be some names out there this year that people are like, "Huh, she wasn't even a starter last year, or whatever."
That's our approach right now. "Rebuilding" is a little stretch for me. I don't think it's devastated like that. But I do think we're missing some pieces that we're actively seeking.
TT: You mention things that were done in the past that weren't beneficial. What can you do that wasn't done before?
Wright: I think the mentality's a little bit different. It's positive. There's no fear of failure. Failure's part of this game, so we talk a lot about managing that. There's been parts in the past where they've spoken about being afraid to make mistakes, and we're trying to eliminate that, because if you're afraid to make a mistake, you're playing passive. And if you're passive in our game, you're crushed. So, aggressive mindset, knowing we're going to make mistakes, that it's OK to make mistakes, that we want to see that number drop as you move through and you get better.
It's a little bit more fun atmosphere. You can have fun. A lot of the difference between professional sports and even the collegiate level is the fun. We need to have fun. These are young people, and they need to have fun – as do the coaches around them, because we work our tails off for this every day. And our lives are so different from maybe the normal student, so it's just crazy, the differences in what a normal student does and the work that they do all day, and then what our work looks like. It's totally different. Not that it's more or less. It's just so different, our worlds are so different, that you need to have fun. You definitely need to have fun.
TT: What's the day-to-day that you put your players through during the season?
Wright: We're up at 5 a.m. We're working out by 6, and then we're recovering from that. We're studying, we're going to class all day, we're coming back for practice. In between that is training room, film, anything you can to do get a little bit better on your own if you're doing some of your own workouts. We're working out some of them extra with our strength coach to get a little bit better, a little bit faster, a little bit something. It is a full-time job without question. Plus. It's a crazy day, and you might get home about 8 when it's all said and done. And you sit down, you shower, you eat and then you study and it's midnight. And then you're up doing it again the next day.
TT: If I recall, softball has one of the higher APRs and academic success rates in the athletic department, right?
Wright: These young women have done very well. It's a priority for me as well. We travel so much. We'll start traveling Feb. 11, and our first home game is toward the end of March. In that, we won't have a break. There's no weekends off once Feb. 11 comes until May. So they have to do a lot on planes and on buses and in hotel rooms. When you're doing that much together and you don't have a lot of time, you know how it is: We can procrastinate or we can just go do, so you're a little bit better. I think that's why. The schedule is crazy.
TT: You're coming in at a time when there's been a lot of change in the administration over the last few years. They just hired a new football coach and a new women's soccer coach as well. Have you found anyone to bond with over being a new coach at Maryland over the last couple months?
Wright: The thing about all the coaches on this floor, and the administration upstairs, is they're here if you need 'em. Absolutely. All you have to do is ask. That's very welcoming and a nice thought. It's very comforting to know you can pop your head out of this office and look down the hallway and be like, "Hey, Kerry" – who's the wrestling coach – "Have you ever seen, have you ever done?" or whatever. It's amazing. The support here, the camaraderie, it's awesome. Maryland's a really cool place to be.