Hardball

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

In 1990, she landed a job as a high school health teacher and softball coach in Pearland, a town of 32,000 about 20 minutes south of Houston. Girls' softball was just beginning to explode in Texas. In 1992, the University Interscholastic League -- the organization that sets standards for sports played by the states' public schools -- recognized the sport for the first time. That season, 213 teams competed in the state. By 1996, the number had grown to 680.

The softball boom was fueled in part by Title IX, a federal law that requires schools to fund girls' sports on the same level as boys'. But societal, as well as legal, factors played a role: in Pearland, a new breed of parents were taking their daughters' athletic endeavors as seriously as their sons'. In the early '90s, the Lady Oilers benefited from an influx of girls who were enthusiastically coached by their dads, and who aspired to athletic scholarships. Those girls practiced year-round, and their parents attended games religiously. Some, such as Lea Mishlan and Danya Serrano, had played on non-school teams since they were eight years old.

Such players suited Nuber fine. They cared as much about the game as she did.

Cynthia Doyle, UIL associate athletic director, explains that coaching softball has grown far more demanding as the sport has increased in popularity. Where once the coach's responsibility began and ended on the field, the job now entails mounds of paperwork, fretting about students' grades and scouting other teams. Out-of- town games mean a coach doesn't get home till after midnight; practices fill a coach's weekends; and reporters, parents and team members feel free to dial a coach's home number. "It's like being a doctor," Doyle says. "You are always on call." Handling those responsibilities added only $3,000 to Nuber's $28,000 teaching salary.

Her first year, the Lady Oilers posted a 16-14 season. And each year afterward -- as all of Texas began paying more attention to softball -- their record only improved.

Nuber's grievance states that she was denied "her right to equal protection on the basis of her sexual orientation," but she refuses to say whether she is or isn't a lesbian. "I keep my private life private," she replies. "I keep it separate from my professional life. I do my job well."

By all accounts, Nuber never discussed her sex life with team members, parents or students, and she says that she chose to live in Houston to protect her privacy. But people talk in Pearland; rumors spread like kudzu. In the high school halls, speculation held that the softball coach was a lesbian.

Coach Holly was certainly unafraid to stand out from the crowd. Sometimes she drove a white pickup truck with an American flag painted across the hood; the silver front bumper warned, "Don't mess with Texas." She never wore dresses, and at games occasionally appeared wearing cutoff denim shorts and decidedly nonregulation hats. Instead of a baseball cap emblazoned with a "P," she'd sport an Oiler-maroon straw fedora.

Until the end of the 1992-'93 school year, Pearland High seems to have tolerated those eccentricities. Up to that point, Nuber's file held only one complaint: that during a heated game, she had allowed Pearland parents to behave badly and had too vigorously contested an umpire's calls. The accusations were eventually ruled unfounded.

But at the beginning of the next school year, a new athletic director took over Pearland High. Van Nelson stands more than six feet tall and has a beefy build and a gruff voice. Female coaches say he looks like "a fat Hitler" and report that he uses his height and weight to intimidate them. By the third time Nuber met with Nelson, their relationship had already begun to sour.

Nuber believes that Nelson perceived her as a lesbian. "I don't wear makeup," she explains. "I tend to be aggressive and stand up for myself. I don't walk light on my toes, and I'm a strong woman." Friends reported back to her that he assumed she was living with a woman.

According to the grievance Nuber later filed, on one occasion Nelson told a former assistant coach, Amber Maier, that Nuber was "weird" -- which Maier interpreted to mean "homosexual."

"I didn't imply that," Nelson maintains. "But I did say she was hard to work with and weird."

Another time, according to the grievance, Nelson pulled aside a member of the booster club and said of Nuber, "We don't want that lifestyle in Pearland." Nelson denies ever making the comment and, furthermore, says he knows nothing about Nuber's "lifestyle": "I have no idea of the sexual preference of any of my coaches. That's not part of the hiring process."

At any rate, complaints began to fatten Nuber's file. Nelson charged that she didn't get along with other coaches. He noted that she tried to order softball-field maintenance that he hadn't approved. He upbraided her for not properly notifying him of the times and sites of games. He commanded her to wear an official coaching shirt. Via memo, he chided her for a mess in the softball team's storage area.

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