Softball coaching duo begins 25th season
By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Truth be told, Rhonda Revelle knew very little about interviewing for a college head coaching position.
Talking points that now make up Revelle’s coaching DNA weren’t so commonplace to her that day she met with Dr. Barbara Hibner about leading Nebraska’s softball program, which had been declining.
Revelle did her homework, of course, and sought interview pointers from one of the assistant athletic directors at San Jose State, where Revelle had been working as assistant softball coach.
Still, some questions during the interview with Hibner caused Revelle to hesitate. For instance, how long would it take her to lead Nebraska to the Top 25?
“I had no idea,” Revelle said. “I was just making up things.”
Eh, maybe 3-5 years, she thought. Revelle quickly verbalized that as what she deemed a reasonable response.
Hibner, the late Nebraska associate athletic director and senior women's administrator, concurred. She was leading a search committee because Nebraska hadn’t yet selected its next athletic director, Bill Byrne, who would become the replacement for Bob Devaney, who had retired.
Oh, by the way, Hibner gave this stipulation to Revelle: You cut nobody. You honor all scholarships. You let the current players complete their careers, and as those scholarships become available, then you can recruit your players to replace them.
“The first two years, I was nauseous every day,” Revelle said, “because I knew we had a real talent gap and I knew we were in a race against time.”
Each of Revelle’s first two seasons produced losing records.
Early in year three, the Huskers had notched 1-0 victory over top-five-ranked Fresno State that vaulted Nebraska into the Top 10.
“Then everybody was puking,” Nebraska assistant coach Lori Sippel said, laughing heartily.
Sippel, like Revelle, had played softball for Nebraska. One season separated their collegiate playing careers, and while Revelle coached on the San Jose State staff, Sippel had returned to Nebraska as an assistant coach.
She, too, had interviewed for the Nebraska job, and when Revelle needed to choose her lone, full-time assistant, well, yes, awkwardness clouded the situation.
“I took her phone call in the softball office because I was the assistant still at the time,” Sippel said. “I was part of some good years, but as a coach I was also part of the time when we were sliding.”
In that case, would Revelle really want Sippel?
“That was my first question to her,” Sippel said, “because at that point I didn’t feel I had done a very good job of keeping the team where it needed to be as a coach.”
Revelle kept Sippel, and not because she felt obligated.
“I was smart enough to know we were both all about Nebraska,” Revelle said. “She has a lot of knowledge and a lot to give, so why don’t we just combine that force?”
Oh, what a force it’s become.
That victory over Fresno State propelled Nebraska to the NCAA Tournament in just the third year of the Revelle-Sippel regime. The Huskers have made the NCAA Tournament 22 times since then, missing only two in that stretch.
On Thursday, when Nebraska begins 2017 competition against BYU in Mexico, Revelle and Sippel will begin their 25th season together coaching the Huskers.
Revelle, 913-485 at Nebraska, is the all-time winningest head coach in the history of Nebraska Athletics, and the school’s second-longest serving female head coach, behind golf coach Robin Krapfl.
Sippel is the longest-serving female assistant coach in the history of Nebraska Athletics. Since softball became an NCAA sport in 1982, Revelle and/or Sippel have either played or coached for the Huskers in every season except 1984 and 1989. They’ve played in three Women’s College World Series and coached in three.
“Like Lori, I just wanted the softball program to be back at a successful place,” Revelle said. “I was fortunate enough that when I played here we got to go to the first College World Series, and when she came they were going all the time, then the program had taken a real dip. So I think as alumni, we just wanted to restore a lot of pride with the alumni base and the university.”
Or, as Sippel explained, Nebraska hired two people who found their dream job at the same time – two people who’ve virtually molded into one.
“I think we collaborate,” said Sippel, who’s also held the title of associate head coach since 2003. “You ask anybody who’s been a part of the staff, Rhonda hands over trust and respect on a daily basis. We’ve just been in it longer so it’s very much collaborative. She feels like a boss in that I know that somebody has to make some really tough decisions, and I know it’s ultimately going to be her.
“She’s the keeper of the flame in terms of the standard for the program and the overseer of that. I know if things are going off the tracks a little bit I’m going to hear from her. But I also respect that’s the position she’s in and it’s not as easy.”
Revelle said from her position, the ability to give ownership is crucial. That, and trust and respect.
“It’s like any kind of relationship,” Revelle said. “You communicate well, you trust each other and you respect the job the next person has to do.”
Over the last quarter-century, both Revelle and Sippel have had opportunities to coach elsewhere. That’s especially been the case for Sippel, who’s been enticed with leading her own program on different occasions.
The most recent, serious offer came in 2010.
“We’ve had a couple of talks because I’ve had people call and ask for permission to speak to her. I would never want to stand in her way,” Revelle said. “The last one, it was tearful. I said, ‘If you need to check it out, you need to check it out. I just want you to be happy.’ They were ready to hire her. They’d seen enough.”
Two or three days later, Sippel told Revelle she was staying.
“I think everybody just understands this is where I want to be, and I understand this is where I want to be,” Sippel said. “I feel blessed for the opportunities and the people who have called and asked, because I think it really takes your breath away and then you really have to consider what you want.
“Every time I’ve done that, it makes me feel like I’m already where I want to be.”
Sippel has no regrets about not being a head coach of her own program. Besides, she scratched that itch when she coached Team Canada to a fourth-place finish in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As for the Nebraska head coaching position, well, Sippel is thankful Revelle earned the spot.
“Dr. Hibner and the staff that hired her got it right,” Sippel said. “At that point the head coaching job was open and that’s why I went for it, but all I truly wanted to do was coach at Nebraska.
“It wasn’t about the title. It was about being able to coach here. It’s just a wonderful place to be and it’s a big part of my heart.”
Revelle has never seriously entertained other coaching interests, and the word ‘retirement’ practically makes her bristle. She still has the passion and energy. When the day comes that she realizes she doesn’t, she will step aside.
That day seems off in the far distant future.
“I’ve said this all along, that there’s only one thing I would ever change about Nebraska, and that’s the temperature in February and March,” Revelle said.
“But given everything else, there’s nothing else I’d want to change. It is absolutely where I want to be.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.