Why in the world a defunct school in a town called Wahoo matters to Oklahoma's 3-peat bid
WAHOO, Neb. -- The name doesn't come up when talk turns to the greatest college softball teams of all time. It rarely comes up in conversation about much of anything these days.
It goes largely unspoken as Oklahoma pursues a third consecutive national championship. If successful, the Sooners would match UCLA as the only schools to win three NCAA softball titles in a row. That last part -- NCAA -- matters. Because the fact is, Oklahoma would not be the second team to win the Women's College World Series three times in a row. Nor was UCLA the first.
John F. Kennedy College claims that distinction. More than that, the team from tiny Wahoo, Nebraska, is the only one to participate in the Women's College World Series without ever being eliminated.
Dethroned not on the field but by the times in which they played and, eventually, time itself.
In an admittedly informal survey of about a dozen Division I coaches this spring, only one had heard of John F. Kennedy College, which closed in 1975 -- long before the NCAA started sanctioning women's championships. That was the same year Carol Hutchins arrived at Michigan State to play softball. She went for the education, too, but Michigan State was then a rare school where women's athletics had a foothold. A school where a softball player could hope to compete in the Women's College World Series.
Now in her 34th season at Michigan, the winningest coach in NCAA history was the lone outlier surveyed who wasn't stumped by the mention of John F. Kennedy College. She remembered. The school was already out of business by the time she won the World Series with the Spartans as a freshman in 1976, playing the championship game on a football field because the rain-soaked softball diamonds in Omaha were unusable, but the name resonated.
"The only opportunity we had to win a championship was AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), and it was as important and as real to me and my teammates as today's championship is," Hutchins said. "And they don't count it. Before the NCAA, women's athletics didn't exist? It did exist. It was certainly not high profile, and the university didn't really regard us, but everyone who was a student-athlete regarded themselves as an athlete and carried ourselves like athletes.
"We were in pursuit of being great."
They were in pursuit of what John F. Kennedy College started in 1969 in the most unlikely surroundings.
Despite a population that wouldn't fill Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, current home of the Women's College World Series, Wahoo shows few signs of decay these days. A coffee shop in the small downtown bustles on a weekday morning. Storefronts are still in use, not always so in the small towns that emerge out of the flat expanses of the plains, places where church steeples and grain elevators are all that interrupt wide open sky.
It takes only a few minutes to drive from one side of town to the other. Fittingly for a place that produced not only college softball's first champion but also baseball Hall of Famer "Wahoo" Sam Crawford, ballfields demarcate the eastern and western extremes. But even here, the college is a fading memory. Doing maintenance at a municipal softball field, parks department head Bob Graves apologizes for not being able to offer more insight about the school. He hasn't lived in Wahoo long enough to remember it, he explains. He's lived here more than 30 years.
John F. Kennedy College opened in 1965, part of a boom of small, ultimately short-lived, liberal arts colleges. It used the same grounds as the former Luther College, which opened 14 years after Wahoo was founded (archival college material tells its own story of the place -- 40 of 52 students in the initial 1884 class were born in Sweden). John F. Kennedy was similarly small, fewer than 200 students when it opened and never more than a few hundred.
At a time when authority, in the form of the Division for Girls and Women's Sports, had only recently deemed competitive college athletics appropriate for women, John F. Kennedy College quickly seized on women's athletics as a way to distinguish itself and attract female students. In addition to softball, the school was a powerhouse in women's basketball to such a degree that after winning an AAU national championship, it represented the United States on a 1973 tour of China connected to the "Ping pong diplomacy" of the Richard Nixon administration.
They were very, very good players, good athletes. I don't think they ever had any problem winning.Connie Claussen
A member of both that basketball team and the last of the school's three World Series champions, Juliene Brazinski Simpson grew up in New Jersey as the girl who snuck onto baseball fields with her long hair tucked under her cap. She knew her older brother would pick her to play, but she knew the men in charge of the field would kick her off if they knew she was a girl. It was a world in which a high school basketball season might span a dozen games, and opportunities to play in college were scarcely more promising. Women's athletics existed but were an afterthought.
So when her high school coach showed her some brochures from John F. Kennedy College, she figured it was at least worth filling out the attached questionnaire.
"Next thing I knew they were at the house," Brazinski Simpson said. "This was in the 1970s -- who ever came to talk to women about sports?"
One of the first things she did after her parents dropped her off in Wahoo was purchase a pair of bib overalls. It felt like the thing to do, given a sense of the Midwest derived largely from movies and television. That done, she tried out for the softball team to stay busy until basketball.
During one early practice, she faced pitching ace Georgia Gomez. As Brazinski Simpson recalled the story, but unbeknownst to her at the time, Gomez assured teammates that no freshman would so much as foul tip the ball against her. Simpson managed to do just that against the drop-baller. The next pitch hit her squarely in the shin. Respect came only after the freshman shook it off and stepped back in, despite feeling like her leg might be broken.
"Absolutely hard nosed, I loved catching her," former battery mate Cathy Buell said of the late Gomez. "She was just such a colorful personality. I don't want to say she had to be in a good mood to pitch, but when she was on, she was really on."
She was also a good example of why the softball program, then only in its fifth season, was already a powerhouse. Hired to start the program in 1967 after coaching Buell and others at the youth level in nearby Fremont, Nebraska, head coach Don Joe sought out talent at a time when recruiting in women's college athletics was frowned upon, not to mention financially impractical. Gomez, a member of the nearby Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, was a force in the local softball scene, so Joe convinced her to come to John F. Kennedy College. He brought in players from industrial leagues in Des Moines, Iowa. He mastered the secret of championship coaches everywhere: find good players.
The spring college season was initially mostly prelude to the summer. That was when, free from classes, players worked in the fields on local farms to earn the money needed for barnstorming tours across the country. They would pile into two large Ford vans, outfitted with sleeping bunks, and as the alumni recalled, play perhaps 100 or more games in a variety of states against women's amateur teams. One tour would see them play the mighty Raybestos Brakettes in Connecticut, another would take them to California to play the Orange County Lionesses.
But so close to Omaha, home since 1950 to baseball's College World Series, Joe started talking after a year or two about the idea of staging a similar event for college softball. That eventually led to local softball leaders putting the first Women's College World Series largely in the hands of Connie Claussen, then in charge of the physical education department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
"John F. Kennedy College wanted to claim to be national champions in softball," Claussen said.
Thus was born, with the blessing of the men's event, the Women's College World Series.
There was no selection committee and no RPI. There were no regionals. There was just a tournament in Omaha and Fremont, open to any team that registered and could pay its own way. Claussen figured that if her school was hosting, it ought to have a team. And so was born varsity women's athletics at Nebraska-Omaha.
It was made possible by John F. Kennedy.Karen Nicodemus
"We let a lot of the colleges know they were certainly welcome to come," Claussen recalled. "It was just a matter of sending a lot of letters and letting people know. The first year, the teams were pretty much around the Nebraska area -- Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, South Dakota, Colorado. Then it got larger when the AIAW got involved, and then they would have regional softball tournaments and we'd have teams from every region. We didn't have money to do much."
Nine teams competed in the first World Series in 1969. It would have been 10, but -- according to an Amateur Softball Association newsletter that year -- the flight carrying Far Eastern University of the Philippines experienced mechanical problems that forced the plane to land in Tokyo and abandon the trip (the global part of the event's title was not mere hyperbole in the early years -- a team from a Japanese university reached the 1973 final).
According to the late Bill Plummer's history of the Women's College World Series, "A Series of Their Own," John F. Kennedy College won all five of its games in the 1969 World Series by a combined 39-4 score. Though not perfect the next two years, losing one game each in 1970 and 1971, the Patriettes defended their titles both times.
"They were the best teams," Claussen said. "They were very, very good players, good athletes. I don't think they ever had any problem winning."
It wasn't on the field where John F. Kennedy lost its hold on college softball. Its downfall started with the issue of athletic scholarships for women.
While many know the AIAW as the NCAA's predecessor in women's sports -- and then its competitor for a decade -- the Women's College World Series began before even the AIAW came into existence. The first four World Series were therefore jointly sanctioned and staged by the aforementioned DGWS, the closest thing there was at the time to a national governing body for women's college athletics, and ASA, amateur softball's national governing body.
That John F. Kennedy awarded athletic scholarships for women's basketball was not a secret. Like Wayland Baptist College, the first school to award full athletic scholarships for women, doing so helped put the program on the map but also made the basketball players ineligible for all but AAU championships. But those softball players at John F. Kennedy who received financial aid were in theory on "activity scholarships" not specifically connected to one sport (tuition, room and board in the early 1970s was around $500 a year).
While DGWS guidelines had always prohibited athletic scholarships, the arrangement at John F. Kennedy was sufficient for the first three years of the World Series -- the event that was, after all, in large part Joe's brainchild.
There is disagreement about how matters came to a head. Simpson Brazinski recalled that she and her teammates learned a matter of weeks before the 1972 World Series that they would not be allowed to participate because of the scholarship issue, though nothing at the school had changed from their perspective. To them, it had all the appearances of a decision from people tired of losing. Claussen described the ineligibility as a known part of the transition to AIAW rules -- which also initially prohibited athletic scholarships.
In Plummer's history, the late Carl Kelley, among the Omaha-area officials in charge of the World Series, explained the underlying rationale for the scholarship ban as "a girl should go to college primarily to get an education."
Softball continued at John F. Kennedy, but the World Series continued without its three-time champion.
By the time the AIAW, in response to a lawsuit unrelated to John F. Kennedy, reversed its stance on athletic scholarships in 1973, it was too late for some. Still unaccredited and nearing bankruptcy, JFK closed in 1975.
Despite attempts over the years to find alternative uses, the small campus remains visible and vacant even now. Overgrown grass obscures the walkways of what was a typical college quad and a handful of derelict buildings still stand on the private property. There is little left to suggest this was the birthplace of the World Series. It is a far cry from the days when caravans of cars followed the team to nearby tournaments and players were more than minor celebrities in town.
"You could go in any store and you would be welcomed because we had just won a tournament or they had children that they wanted to follow in our footsteps," Buell said. "It all feels like fantasy now. We were pretty much big fish in a small pond. We were pretty well elevated to a wonderful status. And it was such a surprise to us because we weren't used to it."
Now the posters on the walls of the coffee shop downtown lay out the football and baseball schedules for the University of Nebraska, 30 miles away in Lincoln. Even Sam Crawford Field is now a baseball-only facility -- softball games are played at the park on the other side of town.
It doesn't mean none of it happened.
Brazinski Simpson said an advisor, emblematic of the times, once told her that it would be wise to get her teaching certificate because the skill would travel well when she inevitably moved to follow her husband's career. Instead, it was her husband who taught school for 40 years and moved along with her coaching career. The co-captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic basketball team, a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and now athletic director at the College of Saint Elizabeth in New Jersey, she didn't go to Wahoo for school. She went to play sports. But she came away with a passion for teaching, not to mention the husband who followed her on her journey.
It was a similar story for others like Buell, a retired teacher who now runs an animal rescue center in Florida. Or for Karen Nicodemus, another Nebraska native and former John F. Kennedy softball player. She had no plans for going to college until someone asked her if she wanted to play softball at John F. Kennedy. She went on to get a doctorate and retired in 2009 after more than a decade as president of Cochise Community College in Arizona.
"It opened doors for me," Nicodemus said. "Had the college not been there, and had I not been recruited and that opportunity not been available? I'm sure I would have had a good life, but it was one of those life-altering decisions for me. It was made possible by John F. Kennedy."
It wasn't a fantasy. It was the first step in their lives and for the sport they played.
While officially called the Division I women's softball championship, the NCAA doesn't shy away from referencing the final stage of its annual tournament as the Women's College World Series (indeed the NCAA is the exclusive licensee of the trademark held by Major League Baseball).
Except that when you look in the NCAA's "Women's College World Series Record Book," there is no mention of the world before 1982. There is no mention of John F. Kennedy College or any of the schools that won under the subsequent AIAW banner.
For the most part, those who played back then seem to hold little animus. Claussen hasn't been to the World Series in Oklahoma City, but she loves to watch it on television. She joked about the hair bows so many players seem to wear, brightly colored accessories that wouldn't have survived an afternoon at a practice in Wahoo. Brazinski Simpson said much the same.
Buell, too, talked about a world changed for the better, where opportunities abound for girls to play sports, whether or not they continue playing all the way through college.
Yet she finds it difficult to watch the World Series unless she finds participants with stories that sound familiar. It isn't about them paying homage or even knowing about John F. Kennedy College. She doesn't need that. She just wants to feel that they don't take their opportunity for granted.
"They don't know how hard it was -- and how passion-driven the early teams were to succeed," Buell said. "We didn't have pitching coaches and hitting coaches, private coaching and so forth, that [is available to players] now.
"So yeah, it's kind of a bittersweet deal."
Bittersweet but not bitter. She still has the memories of the best four years imaginable and remembers the feeling that came with winning those first World Series, the sense that those wins mattered.
"The feeling was let's keep doing this," Buell said. "Because it looks like it might have a future."