Diane Ninemire: champion, mentor, legend

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When asked for one word to describe her former coaching partner Diane Ninemire, Cal softball’s interim skipper Tammy Lohmann barely needed a second to think.

“Passionate,” she said. “No, no. With capital letters, all the way across.”

Fifteen years alongside Ninemire would have been more than enough time to ponder that question. Lohmann served as second-in-command for almost half of Ninemire’s 32-year tenure as the Bears’ head coach. During that time, she witnessed the work of someone dedicated to the extreme — someone who cared not only about box scores and batting averages, but about every individual name on the lineup card.

Ninemire stepped down from her position this season due to health concerns, but her name and legacy are truly entrenched in collegiate softball history. She won 1,355 games — the most ever by a single coach at Cal — while leading the Bears to the Women’s College World Series 12 times.

In 2002, prior to the start of the year’s national championships in Oklahoma City, Ninemire took her players out to center field and, instead of running drills, simply read a newspaper article to them. Mike Candrea, coach of the defending champions, Arizona, had said in an interview that no one could underestimate a freshman-heavy Cal side.

Oh, how right he was.

The Bears stunned team after team en route to the final, where they faced none other than the Wildcats with the title on the line. Pitcher Jocelyn Forest tossed a complete-game one-hitter to bring home the blue and gold’s first and only national title and through it all, Ninemire was there in the dugout.

“She was a coach that I looked up to even before I got here,” Lohmann said.

Behind the accolades and statistics on the field was a leader that saw the importance of life beyond her sport. Now more than ever, some college programs value athletics over academia and for a select few, it makes perfect sense. When an early-round draft selection and a multimillion dollar signing bonus are within reach, a college degree can seem like an afterthought.

For Ninemire, that was never so.

“We’re not going to make a million dollars playing softball, but where our young ladies could make a million dollars is in the workforce,” she said. “I think that being an athlete and being a student at Cal puts them head and shoulders above the rest because they’re the kind of people that a lot of companies would love to recruit.”

It’s no secret that the best softball player in the country today will fall well short of the paychecks doled out to the NFL’s marquee first-rounders. The chance to be challenged academically at Cal, however, is an immense asset to players who see their futures off the diamond.

“I’ve been at Cal since 1982,” Ninemire said. “I think that what’s always kept me here is the understanding that it was the only place in the country where you could win a championship and graduate from the number one school.”

Her emphasis on academic achievement has shown in the players she’s coached. Ninemire has led 73 Pac-12 All-Academic selections and four Academic All-Americans through Cal’s high-intensity classrooms, enough players to fill the Bears’ roster more than three times over.

“This is my 40th year since I’ve graduated from college myself, and I used my degree every year that I coached,” she said. “I think my students will do the same as they move into their own lives, and having a degree from the University of California is something that they should all be very proud of.”

Senior Jordan Fines is one of the Bears who will carry on Ninemire’s history of academic success and earn her degree this year. The sociology major and utility player took the field for the last four seasons under Ninemire, and she’s well aware of the contributions her coach has made to Cal Athletics.

“I think that she’s been a huge advocate not just for Cal softball, but for all women’s sports at the university and for that we’re very grateful. It was definitely an honor just knowing that we were able to carry on that legacy with her,” Fines said.

In the meantime, Lohmann will carry on as interim head coach of the Bears until a final decision is made on the position. Even with the absence of Ninemire, Lohmann said no expectations will change. As the team moves into its upgraded confines in Strawberry Canyon in 2021, the winning mentality of players and coaches will stay the same.

As for Ninemire, she’s currently weathering the uncertain times caused by COVID-19 from the safety of her home. And although she may not be on the field come next season, her dedication to the team isn’t going anywhere.

“You know what they always say — once a Bear, always a Bear,” she said. “I will always be a Bear, I will always be proud of being a part of the program, and I will always support the University of California and the Cal Bears.”

Chanun Ong covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].