Diane Ninemire’s blue-and-gold-collar legacy at Cal is far from over

Kavya Narendra Babu /Staff

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I’ve never seen anyone maneuver a golf cart quite as skillfully as Diane Ninemire did in the cramped parking lot of Levine-Fricke Field, the humble home of Cal softball that is tucked into the folds of Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon.

“You’re going to get stuck!” yelled one of the assistant coaches observing the spectacle unfolding before us. Ninemire had worked herself into a tight corner of the lot and needed to turn a 180 in order to reach the field.

But Ninemire only laughed, threw the cart in reverse and flipped the tiny vehicle around in one fluid movement. She pulled up across from me, a sly smile on her face, and disembarked, clutching a white and gold chevron clipboard with the mantra “Go Bears!” written in bold blue calligraphy on the back.

Before even speaking to her, I knew that Ninemire is not one to shy away in the face of adversity — in fact, she’s one to drive a golf cart at full speed right toward it.

Ninemire has been coaching at Cal for 36 years, but becoming skipper of the sovereignty that is Bears softball started with a much smaller seedling.

Born and raised in the rural town of Fremont, Nebraska, a city with a population of less than 20,000 when she was born in 1957, Ninemire grew up with sports as a guiding force in her life.

Ninemire, who would go on to letter in both softball and basketball at the University of Nebraska Omaha, started playing softball in fourth grade and was asked to join a team composed entirely of junior high and high school students at the ripe age of 10.

“I had two older brothers who played sports and a dad who loved sports — Nebraska football is a big thing in our state — and just having the opportunity to play sports as a female was really a lot of fun.”

Once it became apparent that her knack for the game could take her far, Ninemire chased an opportunity all the way south to work under famed coach Donna Terry at Texas Woman’s University, doing a softball teaching assistantship while in graduate school. The two became fast friends, and their coaching dyad soon proved nearly unstoppable.

“In 1982, she got the call to come to Berkeley, and I soon followed her — she called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve never had an assistant coach before. Will you come out there?’ So I loaded all my goods that I had in my little MGV, and I drove all the way from Texas all the way out to Berkeley, kind of ‘sight unseen’ and just took that leap of faith that this was going to be a good opportunity for me.”

With Terry at the helm, Cal’s softball program reached heights never before seen — the Bears earned two Pac-10 titles and a third-place finish at the NCAA championships in her five years as head coach.

“Everything kind of fell into place for me, just being here at the right time in the right place and being under the right person,” Ninemire said. “I could not have asked for a better mentor — someone who could really guide me and teach me a lot about the game and take on a position like this.”

The sun was shining on the Golden State and Ninemire’s shoulders, but especially in Berkeley, fair weather can hardly ever be trusted for long.

T
erry died June 27, 1988, at the age of 41 after a long and arduous struggle with hepatitis C, leaving Ninemire with a gaping void not only on the field, but in her heart.

“It was very hard on me, it was hard on the team — you know, losing someone that was so instrumental in trying to turn Berkeley into a national powerhouse,” Ninemire recalled.

Now coachless and reeling from the loss of the program’s figurehead, Cal softball seemed to have hit a dead end. But Ninemire stepped up to the plate at a critical time — this time, not on the diamond, but for the sake of the program.

“I can tell you it was the biggest shoes I’ve ever had to fill, but if there was someone that I could honor and try to imitate and go on to be successful, I didn’t have to look far but look at her to know that I can do this,” Ninemire said of Terry.

So began what would evolve into Ninemire’s legacy — after becoming the head coach in 1988, the Nebraska native was on the way to becoming the winningest coach not only in Cal’s history, but also one of the most successful in the history of college softball coaches.

Averaging more than 42 wins a season, Ninemire has led the Bears to regionals every year except one and amassed 1,317 total victories in 31 years, making her the sixth-most victorious softball coach in history. The team won the College World Series in 2002, and in storybook fashion, Cal won the inaugural Pac-12 Championship in 2012 — Terry won the first Pac-10 Championship in 1987.

But even with such staggering statistics, Ninemire insists that she could not have built such an empire alone and is always sure to credit her own mentors: “It’s because of the Donna Terrys and all the players that have played here before.”

Ninemire beamed as she recounted her story to me while we sat on a faded, seemingly misplaced treatment table just outside of Cal’s field. The meager, almost arid outfield that stretched before us suddenly seemed the most fertile piece of land I’d ever laid eyes on.

D
espite having to transition from mentee to mentor in a matter of days, Ninemire has more than lived up to the task. She has become both one of the most decorated coaches in softball and one of the most revered.

“She’s definitely taught us that you can persevere through anything,” said senior star Lindsay Rood of Ninemire. “I can’t even imagine the things she’s been through in her years here, and so, just knowing that she has that kind of experience under her belt is amazing to play under.”

Ninemire has coached some of softball’s greatest, including Olympians and members of the national team. She stresses the details and fosters a dynamic that encourages the growth of the whole player, athletically and academically.

“I want them to be able to excel on the field, and I want them to excel in the classroom, and I don’t want them to have to pick one or the other,” Ninemire said about her players.

Having remained steadfast even in the face of challenges inherent to a woman’s experience in the sports world, such as Title IX, discrimination and a severe lack of program funding, Ninemire’s legacy is unique because it has been built on the hard work of herself and others and defied societal odds often stacked against her.

“I did it, and we all did it with nothing. We are a very blue-collar sport who is willing to roll up our sleeves and dig deep to find a way to overcome (well-funded) programs,” she said. “If everyone knew the real story behind it all, I think they would be amazed at what this program has been able to accomplish with such little help.”

Ninemire remains an esteemed mentor for a team composed of 18 players and four other staff members, and she is remembered with fondness by the hundreds of athletes who have come before.

“I always tell people I’m the luckiest woman in the world because I get to go to recess every day, and I love recess. I love watching these girls really compete and really dig in.”

So if you happen to be in search of a mentor — whether it be for life, softball or driving a golf cart — I suggest you look to none other than Cal’s own Diane Ninemire.

Emily Ohman is an assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.