Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine essentially was given his walking papers by then-athletic director Mack Rhoades early into an investigation of alleged verbal abuse of players.
“It was probably mid-March and Mack called a meeting with me,” Earleywine said. “No pleasantries, he basically looked at me and said, ‘You need to start looking for another job.’ That was pretty much the end of the conversation.”
Two months later, the investigation went public after a group of players announced they were playing in protest of the investigation. The Star learned in late May that he was under a Title IX investigation as well.
Earleywine spoke with reporters for the first time since the end of last season after the first game of the fall slate Friday at University Field in Columbia.
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“The rest of the second half of the season was extremely difficult, knowing that I wasn’t going to be the coach here and trying to be invested while at the same time knowing I was being booted,” he said. “It was a difficult thing, but I managed.”
The investigation continued into August before Missouri announced Earleywine had been cleared of wrongdoing in the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX’s investigation. Two weeks later, Mizzou announced Earleywine would be retained for the 2016-17 season after a meeting with executive associate athletic directors Tim Hickman, who is the administrator in charge of softball, and Sarah Reesman, who was the department’s interim athletic director.
New athletic director Jim Sterk signed off on the decision and “has been in my corner since he got here,” Earleywine said.
Still, the months-long investigation had an impact on Earleywine.
“It makes me cautious of what I say and what I do,” he said of the fallout from the investigation. “ … The days of coaching on instinct and passion may be a thing of the past. I’m a little bit more cautious, and you have to pick your words a little more carefully, because we’re in a place in our country that I don’t like.
“I think everybody’s so politically correct now that people get their feelings hurt and kids have more power than they should have. The inmates run the prison a lot of times. It’s a shame, but it’s where we’re at and I either need to adapt to it or ring a bell at Walmart of something, because those are my two options right now.”
Sterk said last month that Earleywine wasn’t placed on a social contract that outlined expected behavior moving forward, but Earleywine said Friday he’s agreed to a “list of conditions” that he must adhere to or risk discipline, up to and including dismissal, in the wake of the investigation.
“Quite honestly, I feel 110 percent confident that I’ll be able to meet all those expectations,” Earleywine said. “ … I think I’m just being watched a little bit closer on those things, and that’s fine. I’ve proved people wrong my entire life. I think there’s a lot of people that don’t think I could adhere to something like that, but I will and those people motivate me to do that.”
Part of Earleywine’s confidence also stems from a better rapport with Sterk.
“I’m super-excited about his leadership and the direction that he’s taking our athletic department,” Earleywine said. “I think he’s headed us in a different direction than we were in and I think it was important that we got that. I’m really excited about his leadership, his temperament, his experience. Everything I’ve seen so far, I’m a fan.”
When Rhoades resigned in mid-July to accept a job as Baylor’s athletic director, Earleywine — a native of Jefferson City and lifelong Mizzou fan — had renewed hope he might keep his job.
“I knew from the minute I heard that he was leaving for Baylor that things were going to be different and I was just hoping and praying for a great guy, a great leader and I couldn’t be more happy than I am with Jim,” Earleywine said.
Does he think the investigation became personal with Rhoades?
“Maybe, I can’t say for certain, because I’m not in Mack’s head, but I think that behind closed doors I’m probably not his favorite person in the world,” Earleywine said. “But I don’t know how much of that weighed into his decision to analyze whether or not I should be coming back or not. You’d have to ask him that.”
Asked if he felt he was treated fairly, Earleywine — after a pause — said, “I probably shouldn’t answer that.”
He believes the investigation should have been dropped “the first day and moved along with things, but that’s just me,” Earleywine said.
If he has a regret about the situation, it’s that it prolonged an already tumultuous and difficult year for Mizzou, which also endured a football boycott in November amid protests sparked by a series of racist episodes.
Earleywine said his “educated guess” as to why he wasn’t fired in midseason — after that meeting with Rhoades — was an effort to avoid disrupting the season for the team “and probably was hoping that I would fade calmly into the sunset.”
That, of course, didn’t happen.
“Obviously, it didn’t turn out like that, and it ended up being quite a black eye for all of us,” Earleywine said. “That’s the thing I regret more than anything. Before being a softball coach at Missouri, I’m a Missouri fan, and it’s bothered me what’s happened — not just with that incident, but, over the last year or two, some of the things that have gone down. None of us like it, and I didn’t want to be a contributor to that. I felt like that situation was just another nick and, to be a part of that, made me sick. I wish it wouldn’t have gone down like that, but I’m not the one who started it.”
Earleywine is 453-154 in 10 seasons at Mizzou, including an NCAA regional appearance each season and eight trips to the super regionals. The Tigers reached the Women’s College World Series three straight years during 2009-11.
“I’ve had days that were really hard, that equaled the pain that we felt last year, but nothing over that amount of time,” Earleywine said. “It just wore on me. It wore on our team. It wore on our fans. It was a burden for all of us to bear.”
“It gave me a new appreciation for the reason that I got into this in the first place was to teach softball,” he said. “I love this game. Last year, when I was carrying this burden around, I couldn’t really think about that, because there was the weight of everything else.”
More from Earleywine:
▪ There has been substantial turnover during the last season.
Longtime pitching coach and ace recruiter Pete D’Amour also left, becoming head coach at Kennesaw State. He took MU volunteer assistant Doug Gillis with him as the Owls’ new pitching coach.
“I’m going to miss Pete as a friend more than anything,” Earleywine said. “We’ve been through a lot together. He’s a great friend and he’s a great person.”
Earleywine said he has identified D’Amour’s replacement, but some paperwork still needs to be signed before a formal announcement.
▪ Earleywine said the investigation hasn’t impacted recruiting. Of the 25 players in eighth through 12th grades who were committed to the Tigers, none de-committed — a fact he attributes to personal relationships.
According to Earleywine, the 2017 recruiting class is the third-ranked collection of prospects in the country.
“I don’t think this is going to be the best team I’ve ever had, but we’re going to be competitive once again and we’re going to be competitive at the national level,” Earleywine said. “That’s saying something after the year we’ve been through.”
▪ There’s ample reason for excitement for Earleywine and his team, which should move into a new stadium in March.
“Our first home game will be Oregon on a Friday night on March 3, and they’re saying that the timeline is March 1 for the completion of the stadium,” Earleywine said. “I would think that would be awesome night to start against a great team like that on a Friday night and that place would be full.”