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The Sky Above, the Field Below

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Cal softball coach Diane Ninemire has guided the Bears to 26 straight postseason appearances and the Women's College World Series title in 2002.


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Cal football beat writer

FEBRUARY 17, 2014

Before Diane Ninemire forged her legacy at Cal, she was Donna Terry’s assistant coach at Texas Woman’s University — but she was also much more than that. She was Terry’s balancing act, her partner in crime and her understudy.

Unbeknown to Ninemire, both of their futures would change one day in 1981 when Ninemire was in Texas, no longer coaching softball after TWU shut down the softball program. Terry was in Puerto Rico, still coaching softball.

That day, Terry was running on a Puerto Rican beach. But she didn’t run away when she saw the two men approach her, eyeing her jewelry. She hurled her Walkman at them when they tried to grab her. She tried to fight them off but was slashed, the blade tinted with the brownish tone of her blood.

Former Cal softball coach Donna Terry led the Bears from 1983 to 1987. She passed away in 1988.
Former Cal softball coach Donna Terry led the Bears from 1983 to 1987. (Cal Athletics/Courtesy)

Terry ran, this time back home. Her roommates rushed her to the hospital, where she received a blood transfusion. But the blood was contaminated with Hepatitis C, a condition Terry would have to deal with for years to come.

The consequences weren’t limited to just Terry. If Terry hadn’t been stabbed and if she hadn’t been infected with Hepatitis C, maybe Ninemire wouldn’t have ended up as Cal’s head coach.

This isn’t just a story of tragedy. It’s also a story of triumph — how Diane Ninemire became the winningest coach in Cal softball history, a Hall of Famer and a mother figure to those she coached.

Ninemire wanted to coach the best, so when she was an upperclassman she wrote letters to the top-three college softball coaches in the country. Ninemire, a highly successful softball and basketball player at Nebraska-Omaha for three years, received an offer from Donna Terry at Texas Woman’s University to be her assistant coach.

But after the 1980 season, the university decided it wanted a library, and the softball program was cut from its budget. Terry, offered the head coaching position for the Puerto Rican national team, jettisoned south. Ninemire stayed in Texas to continue her graduate work. As far as she knew, her one year spent learning under Terry was just a blip on the radar.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to see Donna Terry ever again,” Ninemire says.

A phone call in July of 1982 — one year after the stabbing — provided the chance for a reunion. Terry was making a return to the college game at Cal, and she wanted Ninemire to resume her role as her assistant.

Ninemire agreed. She packed up her car, drove home to Nebraska to drop off her stuff and traversed the 1,500 miles to Berkeley. When she arrived, she didn’t see the palm trees and beaches she had imagined.

“It was Berkeley, and it was kind of weird,” Ninemire says. “Berkeley had a little bit of an edge, and being more a country girl and a more small town person, it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.”

“Berkeley had a little bit of an edge, and being more a country girl and a more small town person, it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.”

— Diane Ninemire

After checking into a hotel on University Avenue, Ninemire met with Cal’s woman’s athletic director, Luella Lilly, who delivered some bad news: Terry was having second thoughts, contemplating staying in Puerto Rico. But Lilly also mentioned the team needed someone to straighten out the undisciplined program, and she asked Ninemire to phone Terry in Puerto Rico on her behalf.

Ninemire made the phone call.

“I called Donna in Puerto Rico … I knew one thing that would get her here, and I lied,” Ninemire says. Knowing the extent of her friend’s faith, Ninemire told Terry, “There’s a lot of God’s work here for you to do.”

Three weeks later, Ninemire drove to the airport. Terry had landed in Berkeley.

From 1983 to 1987, the dyad led the Cal softball team to 165 wins, including the inaugural Pac-10 championship in 1987.

Ninemire (left) and Terry (right) coached together for five seasons at Cal and one season at Texas Women's University.
Ninemire (left) and Terry (right) coached together for five seasons at Cal and one season at Texas Women’s University. (Cal Athletics/Courtesy)

Before practice, Terry — a former pitcher — would warm up her arm so she could pitch to the team. Ninemire would spend hours catching Terry, restarting the count if Terry missed any of her spots by the smallest of fractions. If it was raining, Terry and Ninemire would head down to the basement of Hearst Gym, where they would throw the ball. Lit by one dingy light bulb, Terry threw 50 pitches at every spot. They would also run three to five miles. And Ninemire continued to learn from her boss.

“I learned a lot from Donna, as far as I don’t take no for answer,” Ninemire says. “Any kid on the team will tell you I won’t take no for an answer. But there are a lot of great qualities as far as … being organized, attention to detail, those kind of things.”

While the two shared the same coaching philosophy and work ethic, they were polar opposites when it came to their roles on the team.

“Coach Terry was very intense, and some of us were afraid of her,” says Evelyn Fernandez, who played center field for Cal from 1984 to 1988. “(Ninemire) was a great counterbalance. Everyone gravitated towards her. She was almost like our mom away from home.

“(Coach Ninemire) was the caretaker. Coach Terry was the commander.”

Before 1992, when extensive screenings of blood supplies began, Hepatitis C was commonly spread via blood transfusions. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that can last an entire lifetime, sometimes resulting in liver cancer.

Terry’s was severe, and she was in the process of finding a liver transplant. But in a time when news about HIV and AIDS filled the airwaves, she began to have suspicions that her diagnosis was more than just Hepatitis C.

“She picked me up and we’re driving to work and she said, ‘You know what? I think I’ve got some of these symptoms,’” Ninemire says. “And I just said, ‘Oh Donna, you probably just caught a bug or something … you’re fine.’ Because she was like a specimen — I mean muscle, just great shape.”

The summer of 1987, Terry’s health began to deteriorate. She took a summer-long sabbatical while Ninemire handled recruiting. Ninemire began to beat her boss on their daily runs.

One August day, Ninemire went over to Terry’s house, where she found Terry nearly comatose.

“She was just burning up profusely, and almost getting in a coma,” Ninemire says. “I mean, just so hot that she didn’t even know where she was.”

“(Coach Ninemire) was the caretaker. Coach Terry was the commander.”

— Former Cal softball player Evelyn Fernandez

Ninemire drove Terry to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. According to Ninemire, doctors there informed Terry she was HIV-positive.

“Why wasn’t it diagnosed earlier?” Ninemire says. “I don’t know. But she was a woman that would never take no for an answer. She would fight you to the very end, and that’s how she lived.”

Ninemire took over as interim head coach for the 1988 season, as Terry was forced to step away from the team. For the first time in her coaching career, Ninemire found herself without her mentor. Despite an offer to coach at Santa Barbara, Ninemire stayed in Berkeley, determined to continue what Terry had started five years prior.

“(Terry) was a woman that would never take no for an answer. She would fight you to the very end, and that’s how she lived.”

— Diane Ninemire

“I knew how sick she was — I wasn’t about to walk out on the team and her when I knew that she really needed me to be there for her,” Ninemire says. “She would trust me with her checkbook. That’s about how trustworthy and loyal she knew that I was to her, as far as making sure that everything was done right.”

Ninemire and Terry shared the same coaching philosophy — an emphasis on mastering the fundamentals of the game by focusing meticulously on the little details — but the start to Ninemire’s interim head coaching gig headed in the wrong direction. After five years of success under Terry, the team lost nine of its first 14 games under Ninemire.

“When someone is sick in your family, there’s ups and downs and highs and lows,” says Lynda Bettencourt, a Cal outfielder from 1984 to 1988. “(Ninemire) had the hardest job of all, because she knew the details. She was dealing with her having to work through that, take on now the head coaching interim position, and she was still having to be a coach and a mom to all of us at the same time.”

The 1988 team turned it around, finishing the season with a 39-24 overall record.

An Associated Press article on the death of Donna Terry on June 29, 1988. Terry passed away at the age of 41.
An Associated Press article on the death of Donna Terry on June 29, 1988. Terry died on June 27 at the age of 41.

“She showed us that the traditions and the goals that coach Terry had were not going to go away,” Bettencourt says. “They weren’t going to die with her.”

One month after the season, on June 27, 1988, Donna Terry passed away. She was 41.

When Ninemire was growing up near Omaha, Neb., her life was simple. She behaved in class because she hoped she could convince her teacher to let her have more time at recess.

“I always tell people that I really always lived for recess when I went to school,” Ninemire says.

The older boys who challenged her to a race never won. And soon, the eighth-grade girls wanted Ninemire, a fourth-grader, to play on their softball team.

Today, Ninemire is no longer a small-town country girl. She’s a well-worn warrior, a Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in Cal softball history. She’s reached the postseason in all 26 of her seasons at Cal. And while she attributes much of her success to Terry, Ninemire has known from the beginning that she could never be her — there was only one Donna Terry.

“I took all the good that Donna had — and she didn’t really have any bad — but I had to form my own philosophy of who I am,” Ninemire says. “I couldn’t be her.”

In 2002, Ninemire’s attention to detail and work ethic paid off when Cal won its first Women’s College World Series. But she hasn’t built her program by being a drill sergeant like her former boss. The first time Cheyenne Cordes, Cal’s junior shortstop, met Ninemire, she couldn’t believe how funny she was.

“You expect these college coaches to be super evil because they have these great programs, and in the back of your mind you’re wondering how they got here,” Cordes says. “But coach is the exact opposite of that. If you take the time to get to know her on a personal level, she’ll invest her time into you.”

The game has changed since her days spent catching Terry’s fastballs in the dimly lit basement of Hearst Gym. Softball season doesn’t end in summer anymore. Now, she’s working year round. She vacations in Hawaii once a year, but she can’t turn off her phone in case someone needs her. She lives on a golf course, but her golf cart sits idle in her garage. When she goes home after a day spent at the Simpson Center and Levine-Fricke Field, she watches film, looking to gain an edge on her adversaries.

“I always tell people that I really always lived for recess when I went to school.”

— Diane Ninemire

“You’re kind of married to your job,” Ninemire says. “There is no downtime. I never feel like I can walk away from this job anymore and not have it in the back of mind.”

Ninemire’s happy, insisting that when her passion is gone, she’ll step down. She doesn’t know when that day will come, but when it does, she’ll walk away. But for now, the passion is still there — it still runs deep.

“I have a lot of heart and passion for what I do,” Ninemire says. “I always tell people what I do here at Cal is not a job. This is purely being in recess.”

Diane Ninemire (right) celebrates winning the 2002 Women's College World Series.
Diane Ninemire (right) celebrates winning the 2002 Women’s College World Series. (Cal Athletics/Courtesy)
Sean Wagner-McGough is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.

FEBRUARY 19, 2014