Hardball

How softball coach Holly Nuber won the state championship -- and lost her job

Holly Nuber lugs an empty white carton through the gleaming hallways of Pearland High School. She looks every inch like what she used to be: the coach of Texas' championship softball team. Tall and athletic, she wears Bermuda shorts and a green polo shirt, and with a forceful step, walks to her office for what may be the last time.

A tear lands on her nose. This will not be an easy day.
Into the carton, she stuffs remnants of her six-year coaching career. She pulls down a sign from the bulletin board over her desk in the coaches' office. It says, "Before they even finish a race, they win my heart." She opens a desk drawer and sifts through the contents: blue-and-white jump ropes for team workouts, a bottle of pink Pepto-Bismol left from the playoffs. She isn't ready to pack her desk and leave this job. The objects stir memories. A hand-written sign says, "Go Coach Holly." A banner silently cheers, "Go Lady Oilers."

She pitches a few of the usual desk pennies into the carton. "I may need them," she jokes grimly.

Losing her coaching job marks an extraordinary comedown for Nuber. On May 18, Nuber's team won the first 5A championship in the school's history. The Houston Chronicle named her softball coach of the year. All 12 of her varsity players made the All-District team. She had achieved more than most high school coaches dare dream.

But even that remarkable season wasn't enough for Pearland High School. Two weeks after the Lady Oilers won the championship, the school fired the coach.

Nuber charges that Pearland's athletic director, Van Nelson, discriminated against her because she's a woman, and because he believed her to be a lesbian. She claims that he ruthlessly nitpicked her, building a smoke screen of tiny infractions so he could remove her in spite of anti-discrimination laws, and that when she went over his head to complain, matters only grew worse. On June 14, her lawyer filed a grievance to that effect, seeking to have Nuber reinstated.

Both Nelson and the school district deny that discrimination had anything to do with Nuber's firing. Instead, they cite a litany of mostly minor offenses: she missed paperwork deadlines, she didn't get along well with other Pearland coaches, she broke a league rule, she allowed students to watch an R-rated video on the team bus.

Nuber's personnel file is an inch thick, stuffed with official records of other transgressions: she wore the wrong shorts, the wrong shoes, the wrong hats; she allowed students to dance on the bus; she cussed. The file paints a portrait of an ornery individual, unwilling to attend to the fine points of the high school rule book -- the kind of maverick coach who, with a winning team, usually becomes a local legend.

In the weeks since Nuber's firing, much of the town has rushed to defend her. A Pearland Journal editorial termed the firing an "overreaction," and noted that "history shows communities offering an often embarrassingly wide degree of latitude to male coaches -- so long as they are winning male coaches." Irate softball fans commandeered the paper's letters-to-the-editor page, proving that, in Pearland, sports mania can overcome even homophobia. Opined one resident: "It's not the way you swing the bat, but your batting average that counts."

Reaction from those closest to the Lady Oilers has been decidedly more mixed. A few members of the team lament Nuber's firing; others say that it's time for her to move on, that they weren't progressing enough as players.

The players' parents are likewise divided, but the most vocal parents actually urged Nuber's dismissal. Homophobia and sexism had nothing to do with the school's decision, they claim. They complain bitterly about her coaching and supervision of the team, and they credit the championship solely to their talented daughters. The Lady Oilers could have won the state championship without Coach Holly, those parents grumble, but she couldn't have won without them.

The parents' intense involvement in their daughters' careers shows that Texas' obsession with high school sports has finally engulfed girls. In Pearland, at least, softball now arouses the pride and passion once reserved for football. But at the same time as the Lady Oilers were achieving playing-field equality, parents and male higher-ups refused to allow a fully grown woman room to breathe.

Nuber removes other inspirational signs from her bulletin board, mementos of the championship she won and the job she lost. "Winners are ordinary people with extraordinary determination," says one. And: "The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will."

Nuber has declared that the battle for her job isn't over. And as always, she'll play to win.

The revolution in women's sports arrived too late for Holly Nuber's own high school years. Bellaire High School didn't offer a girls' softball team in the early '80s, but she practiced the game at neighborhood summer programs. At Stephen F. Austin, she earned a B.A. in health and physical education, and -- perhaps more important -- was twice named an All-American outfielder. In 1986, her senior year, Stephen F. Austin won the NCAA national softball championship.

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