Husband-and-wife coaching tandem leads Tennessee
OKLAHOMA CITY -- After a big victory against Southeastern Conference rival Florida on the first day of the 2013 Women’s College World Series, Tennessee junior Ellen Renfroe referred to her head coach as Ralph.
It seemed a bit strange considering Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 2011 and earned a Bronze Star during the Vietnam conflict. However, around Lady Vol softball it is a family affair.
“It really feels like a family atmosphere,” said Renfroe, who pitched Tennessee into Friday night's championship bracket game against Washington. “It is kind of hard to get used to at first, but both our coaches want everybody to be comfortable, on a first-name basis. [The coaches] want this team to act like one big family. I think that is important when you are together so much during a long season.”
To say Tennessee softball is in good hands is a major understatement. Families usually have a patriarch or a matriarch, but not often both. Tennessee, in terms of softball and guiding student-athletes toward a positive future, has a pair of leaders unequaled by most programs.
Ralph Weekly graduated from Arizona State in 1973. He eventually earned a master’s degree from Pacific Lutheran. During service in Vietnam as a member of the United States Air Force, Weekly earned a Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He began coaching softball while serving and eventually retired from the Air Force in 1986.
A legendary collegiate coaching career soon followed.
At Pacific Lutheran, Weekly coached his team to two NAIA championships. A stint at Tennessee-Chattanooga followed, coupled with service to USA Softball where, among other accomplishments, he was the hitting coach for the Olympic gold medal-winning squad in 2000. He served as USA Softball National Teams Director from 1999-2001, then returned full time to Chattanooga.
After the Lady Vols finished 24-35 in 2001, the administration was looking for a change.
Ralph’s road to Tennessee is impressive. Karen Weekly’s road to the SEC is equally impressive.
A two-sport star and two-time Academic All-American at Pacific Lutheran, the former Karen Kvale was an All-American in softball and three-year starter in basketball. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science magna cum laude in 1987. Three years later, it was a Juris doctorate from the University of Washington School of Law.
Talk about a powerful and influential couple. The choices and decisions were not always easy, however.
Moving from Seattle to Chattanooga, Ralph coached softball and Karen worked as an attorney. The pull back to the diamond for Karen began with teaching business law classes at Chattanooga, then as a volunteer assistant for her husband’s team. Ralph left to work with USA Softball and the Chattanooga administration offered Karen the full-time position in her husband’s absence.
“I had to ask myself if I wanted to give up teaching, give up a law career,” said Karen about Tennessee approaching the two to become co-head coaches. “It just kind of evolved into what it is. We both have a passion for softball and enjoy being around young people, coaching female athletes.
“There are a lot of couples, with one of them being a coach, who spend a lot of time apart. Working together, it allows us to spend a lot of time together. Of course, like any married couple, it can be challenging at times.”
Tennessee softball has not been the same since the Weeklys’ arrival.
In 2002, UT finished 35-25-1. Since 2005, the Lady Vols have advanced to the WCWS six times, making Oklahoma City an annual vacation for the orange-clad family.
“I think there is probably something to that,” said Renfroe, who has two sisters on the team. “There are ups and downs during the season, and Ralph and Karen, of course, are part of that. They have this influence over everybody. They are very serious, the kind of coaches who have the respect of everyone and help us work through the tough times.
“And having them, a husband and wife running the program, that makes it even more like a family.”
It might appear that a program with coaches and players on a first-name basis be informal.
“That respect is earned,” Karen said. “Ralph has a background in the military, so there is that distance. When it is time for practice, for games, everybody is committed.
“I really do think it helps in recruiting. These kids, when they visit campus, they hear us kind of going back and forth about things around campus, about the program, and we remind them of mom and dad.”
Following Thursday’s win against Florida, Ralph deflected any praise for mom and dad to his players.
“Right now, it’s all about these kids right here,” Ralph said. “I’ve been so proud of our kids the way they faced adversity against Alabama and came back and won, and I want to make this brief, but I want to say one thing:
“When the score was 3-2, I called them together before we went to bat and I said, ‘You are not going to back into a championship. You have to explode and you have to explode right now or they’ll come on and take it from you.’ And they did the rest. It’s all about the players.”
Tennessee swept 2012 WCWS champion Alabama in a super regional last week. On Thursday, the Lady Vols beat a Florida team that took two of three games from them during the regular season.
In the first game of the 2013 WCWS, the Weeklys sent Renfroe to the circle. In five career NCAA tournament games, Renfroe was 1-4 with a 2.31 earned run average. But, the family remembered a 13-strikeout performance in 3-1 win against the Gators on March 16.
“They had faith in me, told me that I was the one [Thursday],” Renfroe said.
Almost like a father and mother having faith in a daughter.
• Tennessee opens WCWS with win vs. Florida