Meeting with reporters Sunday after the Missouri softball team’s regular-season finale, embattled coach Ehren Earleywine professed no shame.
A Tigers player circulated a statement in the University Field press box before Saturday’s game, announcing a team-wide protest sparked by an investigation of Earleywine by the athletic department, specifically athletic director Mack Rhoades.
Answering questions about the protest for the first time, Earleywine struck a matter-of-fact tone during a 10-minute postgame session with reporters.
He said the monthlong investigation, which the Missouri athletic department confirmed Saturday in a statement, centers on player complaints.
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“There’s a couple of kids on the team that probably have things, exchanges between myself and them or different scenarios, that they would have liked to see handled differently,” Earleywine said. “ … I’m tough on kids. I make them accountable and there’s discipline in our program. I’m a throwback. If that’s demeaning, maybe, but it’s not about them, the person, it’s about their performance as a player.”
Earleywine didn’t offer any details and didn’t apologize, but he seemed to indicate that he understands his job’s at risk if he doesn’t adapt.
“There have been some suggestions, but I don’t have total clarity on what it is that I need to do,” Earleywine said.
He compared his demanding style with that of former Mizzou basketball coach Norm Stewart.
“I’m a little bit of a throwback into a millennial culture of people,” Earleywine said. “It forces you to evaluate how you coach. It’s not easy changing who you are and your instincts, but I know there are things I can do better. At the same time, I’m very proud of all that we’ve built and accomplished and achieved here — my staff as well. I’m not ashamed of anything.”
Earleywine’s fiery temperament has been problematic in the past. He was suspended for two games last season after making contact with an umpire while protesting a blown call against Mississippi State.
He served a one-game suspension later that season for his second ejection based on Southeastern Conference bylaws.
Earleywine also received a public reprimand from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association for an uncivil email exchange with Missouri State’s Holly Hesse, for which he later apologized.
Still, Earleywine isn’t convinced his actions with regard to players have substantively crossed the line.
“I’m trying to build resiliency and toughness in people, and hoping that they’ll be better people when they graduate from here because they’ve been through some tough stuff,” Earleywine said. “Have I used some inappropriate language? Yes. Is that grounds for firing a coach? I think if you set that precedent, there won’t be a coach left in America. Outside of that, I’m not ashamed of anything that I’ve done.”
Earleywine appreciated the support from the Tigers’ home crowd Sunday, including a standing ovation when he took the field and signs that were distributed among the fans.
It appears that an email earlier in the season from a group of players to Rhoades, indicating widespread frustration with Earleywine, triggered the investigation, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Coupled with complaints from former players, Mizzou had no choice but to probe the allegations, even if the Tigers’ sentiment apparently has changed.
Three Mizzou players — sophomore third baseman Amanda Sanchez, senior right fielder Emily Crane and sophomore pitcher Paige Lowary — addressed the media after the game, but the trio declined to discuss the protest.
Sanchez called Earleywine a “father figure” and Lowary indicated that the Missouri team, as currently constituted, is united in the hope he’ll return next season.
Earleywine said he didn’t know about the protest until after Saturday’s game, when Missouri executive associate athletic director Tim Hickman, who oversees softball, and Ryan Bradley, MU’s senior associate athletic director for strategic communications, met him in the dugout after the game.
Earleywine said he was instructed not to allow the Tigers to speak with the media after the game, but he met with his team.
Mizzou softball has a unity council — senior shortstop Sami Fagan, junior left fielder Natalie Fleming, sophomore infielder Paige Bange and freshman infielder Jolie Duffner — comprised of one player from each class, who is selected by the team and serves as a voice for the team.
Earleywine said he learned in Saturday’s postgame team meeting that the unity council met with the team in right field before a doubleheader sweep April 13 against Wichita State, allowing players to “vet out their feelings and all that.”
That’s when the idea of a protest regarding the ongoing investigation was hatched.
Earleywine said he supported his players’ right to have and express opinions, “but I can’t pick sides of whether I support the protest or not,” Earleywine said. “I told them before this game that everyone in the team room, each one of you has a different spin on this or a different feel or opinion, that’s fine.”
Earleywine described his relationship with Rhoades, who attended Sunday’s game, as a “business relationship” and said he doesn't have an indication if he’ll be retained moving forward.
Earleywine — whose teams boast a 450-151 record in 10 seasons as the Tigers’ coach, including a 39-13 record this season — have won 10 of the last 11 games and finished sixth in the Southeastern Conference.
“If I survive, it will be my best coaching job to date — if I can survive,” Earleywine said.
No. 16 Mizzou opens SEC tourney play with a rematch against South Carolina at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Starkville, Miss.