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.

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.

Nuber also irritated many of the team members' parents. Mostly, they voiced the usual parent complaints: that their daughters weren't getting enough playing time, weren't being coached precisely as the parents believed they should be.

Nuber's relationship with Nelson continued its downward spiral. In February 1995, she was late turning in a University Interscholastic League form that demonstrated her players' eligibility. Nelson's letter of reprimand starchily informed her that "any further UIL violation could jeopardize your position as a head coach in Pearland." Nuber says she called the head of the UIL, who told her that, so long as the players were eligible, being a little late with the form wasn't a big deal.

Later that season, an academically floundering softball player lost her eligibility to compete. Nuber didn't know of the girl's troubles and unknowingly violated rules by allowing her to suit up and ride the team bus to the game. By happenstance, the girl didn't play -- but if she had, the Lady Oilers would have been forced to forfeit the game, a matter of no small importance to the team.

Nuber, for her part, maintains that Nelson was fully aware of the player's ineligibility a day before the game, but failed to relay that information to her. But in his memo to the coach, Nelson took no responsibility for the lapse and minced no words about its consequences: "If you should have any more ... critical mistakes in judgment on your part, you will be subject to immediate dismissal as head softball coach at Pearland High School."

Nuber received the reprimand as the Lady Oilers were advancing in the playoffs. Already on edge, the coach wondered what might constitute a "critical mistake in judgment."

"Would it be starting a certain player over another?" she asked Nelson in her written reply. "Calling for a bunt and an athlete not executing it properly? Working a certain defensive strategy?"

Nonetheless, the Lady Oilers continued to win. The team T-shirt was emblazoned with boxes to check as Pearland racked up new prizes. The girls checked off the district championship, the bi-district championship, the area and regional championships. And when only one box remained -- the state championship -- softball aficionados predicted that the Lady Oilers stood a good chance, that the finals would most likely be fought between Pearland and Dobie.

To fire up the team, Nuber and her assistant coach, Amber Maier, each agreed to add one pierced earring to their right ears for every playoff victory. The garnets and diamonds -- chosen to match the team colors -- marched up their ears, six apiece by the time the Lady Oilers headed to Austin for the tournament.

But Nuber and Maier had no need for new piercings. In a heartbreaking semifinal game, Pearland lost to Midland Lee, 2-1. "The team was young and nervous," Nuber says simply. "It got the better of us."

The loss wasn't the last of her disappointments that spring. In Nuber's end-of-the-year coaching evaluation, Nelson rated her "Needs Improvement" or "Unsatisfactory" in more than 20 categories. Her response was impolitic, but heartfelt. She annotated the rating form with angry, scribbled commentary: "Gee what a fucking crock of SHIT AGAIN"; regarding the players' unsatisfied parents, "I CAN'T BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR."

The Lady Oilers had heard rumors about their coach's sexuality, but none of the players seems to have been perturbed. "It wasn't an issue," says Danya Serrano. "She was a good coach and kept the team together."

At the beginning of the '96 season, a fresh rumor flew through Pearland High: if Coach Nuber didn't bring home the state championship this year, she'd lose her job. Players say it was common knowledge that their coach locked horns with the athletic director.

The girls wanted the championship mostly for its own sweet sake, desiring it all the more because they'd come so close the year before. "We had it in our hearts to win," says second baseman Ashley Oswald. "This would be our year." The new team shirt offered only one box to check: "State Champions."

Nuber desperately wanted to check off that box, and she believed that her team could do it. The '96 Lady Oilers overflowed with talent. Pearland boasted the best pitching staff in the area: right-hander Melissa Coronado was only a sophomore but already a strikeout force to be reckoned with; she rotated the spot with Missy Ladd, a junior and almost equally unhittable. The team was also noted for its batting prowess and hunger to win; some girls even met with a group of fathers to practice on Sundays.

As Nuber saw it, her main challenge was to mold the outstanding individuals into an outstanding team. She continued to coach as she'd always coached: with high expectations and positive feedback. She gave pep talks; she didn't scream. When her players critiqued their teammates, she required them to offset every negative comment with three positive ones. Even Nuber's worst critics concede that she excels at building her players' self-esteem.

Which is not to say that the team was all sweetness and light; winning demands ferocity. Graceful shortstop Lea Mishlan, a senior, served as the unofficial team captain. Before games, she'd lead the Lady Oilers in the same fierce cheer every week, varied only by the school colors of their opponents. For Dobie High, the chant went like this:

Orange bird with white wings
Sitting on my window sill.
Let 'im in with a piece of bread
Then I smash his little head.

In pursuit of the championship, Nuber tried to leave nothing to chance. She spent hours scouting the Oilers' competition. Superstitiously, she and the team refused to utter the words "state championship."

She campaigned for the district to adopt the yellow softballs used in the playoffs, so that her team could grow used to the slightly different feel. Nelson commanded her to drop the subject and not call other coaches in the district. Memos on the subject were added to her file.

Afraid that Nelson would once again disturb her concentration during the playoffs, Nuber went over his head and appealed to Bonnie Cain, the executive director of the Pearland Independent School District. Cain ordered Nelson to save his criticism until after the playoffs.

Finally, in mid-May, the Lady Oilers headed once again to the Final Four. In their semifinal game against Keller, neither team managed to score in the regular seven innings; Melissa Coronado was pitching a no-hitter. Finally, in the bottom of the ninth, with Pearland at bat, Coronado hit a double, then stole third. Freshman Tanelle Zapate drove her home with a single, and with a 1-0 win, the Lady Oilers advanced to the big game.

They faced San Marcos, their last rival. At the top of the last inning, Pearland was winning, 1-0. But with only one out, San Marcos runners occupied first and third base, and seemed likely to tie the score. Nuber called a time-out.

Another coach might have exhorted her team to stop a run at all costs. Instead, Nuber told her players that even should San Marcos make the run, not to give up, that the Lady Oilers could still come back in their turn at bat. The important thing was to stick together.

A San Marcos player hit a sacrifice fly, and the player on third made it home. But the Pearland team continued unfazed, their confidence unshaken by the setback. And -- just as Nuber had predicted -- they came back in the bottom of the inning. With three runners on base, Melissa Coronado hit a single, and Miranda Knight ran home. The Lady Oilers won, 2-1.

When a Chronicle reporter approached the players, Lea Mishlan had trouble formulating her thoughts. "Wow?" she said through tears. "Oh my God? I'm sorry, but it's just hard to describe how I feel. I just know there isn't a closer team, and I think that's what pulled us through."

Nuber's exhilaration didn't last long. On May 29, at 10 a.m., she met Van Nelson to hear the criticism he'd been saving during the playoffs. The litany was long.mmmmm On May 18 -- the day the Lady Oilers won the championship -- Lea Mishlan's parents, Debra and Andy Mishlan, had written Nelson a three-page letter of complaint. "We feel that Ms. Nuber is not doing all of her job this year," they stated. "We also feel that she has not been doing all of her job throughout the four years our daughter has played for the Pearland High School varsity softball team."

The Mishlans held that Nuber didn't heap enough glory on individual players. They complained that in 1995, she named the entire team "Most Valuable Player," and that in 1996, she failed to nominate her players for various honors and neglected to inform the media of players' accomplishments.

"Her view that individual awards are not what our team is about seems truly idealistic and, in our view, a naive way of viewing the team," they wrote. "Most of the girls on the team have been playing softball for many, many years with good, solid coaching from volunteers within and outside of the Pearland community, and they are not naive. They know they need to stand out in a crowd if they hope to get a scholarship."

The Mishlans' letter wasn't Nelson's only ammunition. Nuber stood accused of dancing on the bus with her players and of urging bus drivers to go fast over speed bumps. On the trip home from the championship game, her players had stuck their heads out the bus' trap door -- making the parents driving behind them fear they'd be decapitated by low-hanging limbs or bridges.

The biggest complaint of all seemed to be that, on the bus trip to the championship game, Nuber had allowed the girls to watch Boomerang, an R-rated Eddie Murphy movie. A memo from principal Greg Smith painstakingly inventories the film's curse words: the word "dick" was used five times, "fuck" six times, "pussy" 11 times, and so on.

Nuber could see her annual evaluation sitting on Nelson's desk. On its last page, he recommended that she not return as head softball coach.

Maybe Pearland High didn't discriminate against Nuber. Maybe no coach could have lived up to its standards.mmmmmmmmm The league's other softball coaches side firmly with Nuber. Rhonda Foster coaches at Dobie High School, which won the '95 state championship. According to Foster, coaches commonly suffer the slings and arrows of zealous parents. "What they don't understand is that it's actually harder to coach talented players. They got attitudes and egos," she says. "The parents don't realize how tough it is to hold them together as a team."

Foster and other coaches belittle the parents' complaints about awards, saying that Nuber's behavior was well within the bounds of professional conduct. "I don't know what this awards stuff is in Pearland," says Foster. "You have a bunch of busybodies there."

James McClanahan, the softball coach at Elkins High, says that he doesn't give any individual awards to his team, and has never suffered repercussions. He readily admits that Nuber benefited from the talented kids on her team, but he praises her abilities as a coach. "She, as the coach, molded that team," he says. "You can't give her credit for scoring the runs, but you can't take away the fact that she is responsible for molding the team that won."

Another coach, who asked to remain anonymous, was shocked to hear Nuber had been fired. "Ninety-nine percent of coaches lose their jobs when they don't win," she says. "You think winning a championship at state level is job security."

That coach belittles Nuber's transgressions. "We all show videos we maybe shouldn't," she said. "We all fail to fill out some forms. When you start looking in files, you'll find that."

On examination, the issue of the Eddie Murphy video seems especially trivial. During the same time period, the Pearland High School library offered three R-rated films for checkout. A Pearland ISD spokesperson says that the school wasn't aware of the rating, and has now yanked the videos.

A letter from Chronicle softball reporter Jerome Soloman negates the accusation that Nuber failed in her press relations. "Obviously she has permanently etched my phone number into her automatic redial," Solomon wrote Nelson, "because besides sending weekly faxes of the team's latest statistics to me at both my home and at the office, I was guaranteed a day-after-the-game telephone call from Coach Nuber touting the exploits of her squad. No other coach is more aggressive, willing or accessible than Coach Nuber."

At 9:10 on Monday morning, the vacation Bible schoolers at First Baptist Church pledge allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. Assistant pastor Rod Compton then announces a surprise for the church kids: a visit from the championship girls' softball team.

Eight of the 14 Lady Oilers burst through the sanctuary door and run down the aisle -- fresh-faced, upbeat, hometown heroines with ponytails swinging behind them. The Bible schoolers applaud.

Lea Mishlan acts as the team spokesperson, telling the kids how hard the Lady Oilers worked to accomplish their goal. Many of them, she says, played together in Pixie leagues, practicing long hours for years.

She never mentions Nuber, and it's no wonder. First Baptist Church is conservative even by Pearland's standards; it's certainly the wrong place to praise a coach suspected of lesbianism. Earlier this year, pastor Rick Scarborough published Enough is Enough: A Call to Christian Involvement. In the book, he decried the amorality of gays and lesbians; "sodomites," he called them. In a chapter titled, "From the Closet to the Classroom," he states that homosexuality is wrong, and so is silence in the face of it. He urges increased Christian involvement in schools and government, and rejoices that three members of his church serve on Pearland's City Council, four on its school board. He explicitly praises the principal of Pearland High.

After their Bible school appearance, the players spill into the church foyer, where they meet a reporter. Once again, Mishlan speaks for the team. The other girls gather around her -- all but Melissa Coronado, who stands a few feet back from the group.

The girls laugh as Mishlan explains what it takes to win a championship: "Team bonding." They fondly recall the dance they did on the bus before every game, the cheer about bashing the bird's head.

Still, no one mentions the coach. When the reporter finally asks Mishlan about the firing, she replies, "I knew that question was coming." She also knew the firing was coming, she says. Rumors had been in the air.

Mishlan takes her parents' position: the firing was fair, and she has no complaints. Other players nod in agreement.

"I think this team can win next year with a new coach," Mishlan says, and no one contradicts her. Even post-season, the team obviously doesn't lack for self-esteem or cohesion. The only individual excluded from the cozy, cheerful group seems to be Holly Nuber.

On a Monday evening, more than a week after Nuber filed her grievance, the Pearland City Council is meeting to proclaim June 2430 "Lady Oilers Week." The team sits in the front rows of the chambers. Nuber is nowhere in sight.

The night before, on the phone, she said that she was nervous about tonight's event, about facing the team and the town for the first time since her grievance raised the issue of her sexual orientation. On one hand, she feared she might be booed or hissed. On the other, she felt she had nothing to be ashamed of. When she heard about the team's appearance at First Baptist, Nuber wasn't angry that the girls had appeared at a homophobic church. Instead, she simply felt left out, sad that she hadn't been invited.

A few minutes before the Council presentation begins, Nuber appears wearing her trademark maroon fedora. A team father mumbles that he's surprised to see her, but no one boos or hisses. The players scoot to make room for her on the front row.

Mayor Tom Reid asks Nuber whether she has anything to say, and she talks a little about the hard work and team spirit behind the championship. "They are a great group of girls," she says. The words get stuck in her throat, and she ends the speech there.

After the Council meeting, Lea Mishlan doesn't say much to the coach. Other girls hug Nuber good-bye. Outfielder Ashley Oswald protests that the firing was unfair. "I'm upset," she says. "She was my friend." Melissa Coronado asks Nuber to sign a softball.

Nuber then heads to Pearland High, walks to the athletic field and settles onto a metal bench. The sky is pink and dotted with clouds. "I guess I'll see the rest of the games from the bleachers," she says.

She has until the end of the month to decide whether she'll return to her teaching job at Pearland High. She says she's still thinking. She likes teaching health, and has won teaching awards. But she's not sure whether she's willing to work at a school that won't allow her to coach.

She hasn't yet abandoned all hope of regaining her coaching job, though. "Sometimes you teach best what you need to learn," she says. She looks across the empty baseball diamond. "I need to do what I tell the kids .... I have to stand up for myself.

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