The other night, I spent an hour clicking through an online photo album of the UCLA softball team. Refreshingly, the pictures did not fall in line with the recent trend of college coeds coerced into their underwear as part of some athletic admission process.
Instead, these photos illustrated the product of an admirable initiation: a rite of passage into the most storied softball program in the country. The proof was in the megapixels: squared shoulders, high elbows, two hands, hips over toes, compact swings, textbook cover schemes. You need only to examine the Bruins in action to notice they are living tutorials of coach Sue Enquist's teaching methods.
In fact, perhaps the only thing more remarkable than their on-field precision -- UCLA has won 11 national championships -- is their equally impressive performance when they're not in uniform.
While some of the nation's most respected college athletic programs are seeing their reputations dashed in the instant a 19-year-old drinks their good judgment under the table, the UCLA Bruins manage to preserve a paradigm of class and conduct.
Enquist is the mastermind behind's UCLA softball success. While her sport might not garner prime-time press, her accomplishments in blue and gold reach epic proportions. As a player, Enquist led UCLA to its first national championship in 1978 and became the school's first softball All-American. Now in her 27th year on the coaching staff (she was first an assistant and then co-head coach with Sharron Backus from 1989-96), her 46-7 Bruins are blazing through the postseason in hot pursuit of their 12th national title. They play host to South Florida in this weekend's NCAA super regionals (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU; Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
It's an unrivaled softball domination, but beyond the statistics and trophies is a coaching legend with a passion for the game and for the responsibility of her athletes.
"I worry so much," she says with a deep breath when asked about raising a group of young women in today's environment of social pitfalls and temptations. "I worry about them way more than they think I do. I am extremely protective. I am their coach and I want to be their leader and teacher, but my biggest concern of all is their safety."
Her genuine concern is palpable, but I wonder if Enquist can even imagine her team making one of these infamous, program-damning missteps.
"Oh yes, it's something that I think about," she said. "You have to. And it's something we talk about a lot as a team. There have always been those subtle reminders that we discuss with our student-athletes, but lately there is very direct conversation -- we talk about Duke and we talk about Northwestern. Lapses in judgment are a part of growing up, I understand that, but at the same time, I know that there is something very rewarding about being able to learn from the mistakes of others while not having to live them first hand."
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Coaches at any level of every sport should consider a prospective athlete's reputation and behavior before bringing them into their locker rooms (see Marcus Vick, John Rocker, Ricky Williams, et al). A player's character too often takes a back seat to potential star power in a coach's recruiting portfolio, but Enquist holds integrity as a prerequisite for consideration into her clubhouse.
I ask Enquist what she does when she discovers a blue-chip talent in the recruiting pool who has been known to go big on and off the field.
"The first thing we do is find out all of the information directly," she said. "I know enough to know that you cannot go by hearsay and rely on what has been said about a kid second-hand. We have looked at athletes who have had reputations which preceded them. We've investigated their situation openly through interviews with them and their family, and at times, we've found out that, yeah, they have reputations but it's because they never had good leadership or coaching structure and they've never been asked to act otherwise. In those cases, we've taken chances on kids when we feel confident that they are capable of coming into our program and buying into the support and structure that we will offer them. We've placed standards on them and all of a sudden, they are successful and have developed into the student-athletes that we thought they could be.
"Now, at the same token, there have been many top athletes that we have simply let go because I did not see the opportunity for a change."
While many coaches would be willing to turn a blind eye toward a player's dicey behavior, Enquist refuses.
"At the end of the day, I'll sacrifice talent and go with the individual that wants to be a part of the team concept," she said. "Their individual accolades, to me, come secondary to their ability to adapt to our team's image."
And UCLA softball maintains a meticulous image, one that does not allow much room for demonstration of anything but athleticism and clean conduct.
Explains Enquist, "The student-athlete comes to UCLA and, upon joining us, they've agreed to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. Personal tastes and desires therefore become secondary. Although I believe that they are at an age where it's important for them to express themselves, I ask them to make sacrifices in their social comportment on behalf of the image that we are trying to portray as a team. Team concept and image come first at UCLA -- it's simple.
"And it goes right down to how we present ourselves externally -- your shirts will be tucked in, and you're not going to be wearing tons of jewelry, and you're not going to have tattoos all over your body. You might very well want to throw your bat into the dugout or cuss on the field but you are not allowed to, not on this team. If you don't want to buy into that, then you don't play here."
Enquist pauses for a moment and then makes a statement reaffirming the philosophy that seems to lie at the beginning and end of every precept she upholds: "Having said that, I know that I must give them their freedom to have fun and enjoy themselves, and most of all, love this game."
The Bruins won national titles in 2003 and 2004. They are ranked second (behind Arizona) in the most recent ESPN.com/USA Softball top 25 poll and are the overall top seed in the tournament field of 64. They make waves on Web sites for winning, not for parading around in their skivvies.
To me, this begs a question: Why not? Last week, I admittedly read headlines about teams under fire and thought, "This happens everywhere." I was quick to generalize the sad state of affairs unfolding on several campuses. I imagined that it was just the aspiring Annie Leibovitzs of the world who got nabbed by presenting their sophomoric stumbles on jpegs. Then I talked to Sue Enquist.
That's when I checked myself, and re-evaluated. No, not everyone is doing this. And why not? What's the deterrent for teams -- college kids -- not to get sloppy, not to get stupid and not to get rocked by the subsequent consequences? Knowing what I know about UCLA softball, I'd have to say that a great coach is a great source of good sense.
Said senior Andrea Duran, Pac-10 Player of the Year and an Academic All-American, "Coach Enquist is such a big part of our experience here, she instills something in us that just makes us want to succeed."
Or maybe, equally, makes them not want to disappoint. Because everyone wants to succeed, but when you think back on what made you duck away from a potentially gnarly situation, I'll bet first and foremost it was the idea of disappointing someone you deeply respect. And likewise, when we do make mistakes, the most difficult consequence is facing those pillars ashamed.
It doesn't take much prodding for the Bruins to disclose the prototype in their lives.
When I ask if there is one thing that makes UCLA's program so dominant every year, senior second baseman Caitlin Benyi says simply, "Coach." She then looks at senior catcher Emily Zaplatosch seated next to her, who says, "Yeah, Coach," with a nod.
But when I ask them to describe the most amusing coach Enquist moment, they are not so quick to respond.
"Uhhmmm," Duran says, "What did those guys say?"
They artfully dodged the question, I tell her.
"Well, she has another side that we see that is something different that you would not get from TV or in a media guide," Benyi said.
Zaplatosch explained with carefully chosen words, "What's good about coach is that she kind of has two different sides to her so that when she needs to be that hornet, if you will she can do that and lay down the law and we totally respect her and then "
"In the next breath, she can love us up and hear us out," Benyi finishes.
Still curious, I went to the source for a description of the dynamic that exists between coach and player at UCLA.
"My relationship with the girls is well, if you interviewed my girls, they would tell you that I'm not the kind of coach that will go and have a juice with them at lunchtime," Enquist said. "I've never done that. That's not me."
And to those of you who act surprised at that comment, I ask, if you read the same sentence coming from the mouth of UCLA men's basketball coach Ben Howland, would you think twice?
No. But it's often expected in women's college athletics that a female coach must be a friend and a shoulder and an outlet. But that's what friends and teammates are for; a coach is there to discipline and motivate and instruct, three things no one does better than Sue Enquist.
And in return, she fields a successful team of decorous young women whom she, of course, is still reluctant to take credit for.
"The first thing I have to do when they get to UCLA is deprogram them in the sense that OK, the pressure is off, you made it," Enquist said. "You've arrived here to play with the best. Now we are going to work really hard every single day and we are going to have a blast doing it."
And if you think that working hard and having a blast is just a line from an idealistic, media-savvy coach, may I present the sentiments of a player.
"When I was looking at colleges, and going on recruiting trips," Duran said, "I remember being really open to every school. UCLA was the last visit I made and I remember I was on the way home in the car and I said to my parents, 'That's where I want to go.'"
What did it?
"It was just so much more relaxed than other programs. The coaches, the attitudes, the girls, the atmosphere it was just different, laid back."
If this doesn't make sense, know that a relaxed environment wasn't the response that I expected from Duran either. Enquist manages to somehow keep these fierce competitors low-key, and she herself is a modest personality -- perhaps because she makes an effort to remove herself from the softball bubble at day's end.
"When I'm with my family, I don't want to be coach Enquist, I just want to be Sue," she says. "I want the people that matter in my life to know that I am present. You know, if you came to my world and my home you would never know I was a softball coach."
An interesting thing to note here is that Enquist resides in Huntington Beach, Calif. -- Surf City -- which is about 50 miles from the stadium she calls home. Enquist was an amateur surfing champion and a professional for two years after college, but great waves and all, it seems like a long trek, even before you do the L.A. freeway timetable conversions.
Still, it seems this setup is all by design, allowing Enquist to make the Clark Kent-type transition each day.
"I love living in Orange County; the surf is really good down here, I grew up down here and I can live this part of my life," she says.
Enquist swears that it's relatively easy for her to relax and says that she has never had the sense that the world is on her shoulders. And truth be told, it's not. She's just a softball coach, right? But there is no denying that American softball expects Ruthian achievement from her program every single season -- with this year's NCAA Tournament just another annual example. That is something Enquist does not deny.
"But I've never felt that this program was about me," she said. "I've never felt like I was the reason for our success so I don't bear this incredible amount of pressure. I really don't. I make hundreds of mistakes every day. This program is bigger than me. I'm just a steward taking care of a giant entity. First and foremost it's about the players that created this legacy, not me."
I have to smile here at the humility of a woman who credits not her own efforts but the players that created the empire.
It's ironic, of course, because it was Enquist who led the team that took home the Bruins' first national championship. It was Enquist who played four years on the first scholarship ever awarded to a softball player at UCLA, and Enquist who earned the first All-American honors and first induction into the university's Hall of Fame.
The program she has been involved in as a player and coach for 30 years now stands as a work of art for all to admire, and I can't imagine anyone whose signature belongs at the bottom of the portrait more than Sue Enquist.
Mary Buckheit is a former college softball player and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.