Far from finished
Jacquie Joseph has more than 500 wins at MSU, but it’s what lies ahead that excites her
Editor’s note: This story was changed to correctly attribute a quote to senior pitcher Kelly Confer.
Early last week, Jacquie Joseph sat in Jenison Field House looking out her office window. Joseph, 47 years old and now in her 17th year as MSU’s softball coach, has won more than 500 games at MSU and, presumably, can stay at the helm for as long as she wants.
But despite those wins, it’s what Joseph sees outside her window that makes her believe she won’t be calling it quits anytime soon.
Next season, Old College Field will be renovated to include 1,200 seats as a part of a new structure, something that has the outgoing veteran coach even more excited.
“I can tell you that this new stadium that we’re going to get has given me a new real shot in the arm because I’m really excited about the thought of what I could do with a facility,” Joseph said. “Everything I’ve done is fine, but I’m really excited to see how much better we could be if we had a facility that put us at least on par with the rest of the Big Ten.”
Despite being the winningest in MSU softball history by a wide margin (Gloria Becksford won 259 games from 1980-1993), Joseph still doesn’t feel like she’s reached her potential.
“I want to see how good I can be. I know that might sound silly since I’ve been here for 17 years, but I feel like this is startover,” she said. “When I’m in this thing next year, I feel like it’s startover, clean slate, let’s see how good I can be.
“I feel like if I were to get out before I found that out, then I will forever question, ‘I wonder how good I could have been?’ I don’t want to have that doubt. When I get out, I want it to be because I’m out of gas, I’m done.”
Change of plans
Joseph never dreamed she’d be in a dugout for most of her adult life. She was a two-time First-Team All-Mid-American Conference selection and helped guide Central Michigan to three MAC titles, but she had bigger plans — on Wall Street.
In 1985, she graduated with a degree in business administration and stayed in Mt. Pleasant to earn her master’s degree when another opportunity arose.
“Back in those days, there were no full-time assistants. You were a graduate student and you were an assistant,” Joseph said. “I thought that I wanted to work at Wall Street so I was getting my MBA at the time when (Central Michigan head coach Margo Jonker) said, ‘Hey, why don’t you stay and help out?’”
So Joseph stayed in the Chippewas’ softball program as a graduate assistant, something that pleased her coach.
“I asked her to stay because at that time she was a true Chippewa,” Jonker said in an e-mail. “JJ loves working with hitters and that is what she did for us. She is an ambassador for the game.”
As a graduate assistant, Joseph helped the Chippewas win back-to-back MAC titles.
After earning her master’s in 1987, Joseph was faced with a choice — head into the economic world or stay in the game of softball.
When a friend of hers got the head coaching job at Indiana and asked her to join her staff, Joseph passed on Wall Street and jumped into coaching as a career.
“I just felt like if I could create even close to the experience for my players that I had in college, then it would be worth it,” Joseph said. “I had a great experience of athletics in an academic setting and I feel like that’s what we create here.”
After one year at Indiana, Joseph was hired as head coach at Bowling Green. She spent five years with the Falcons before she got the call to revive a struggling MSU softball program.
Rebuilding a power
In the 1960s and 1970s, MSU had a dominant softball program that included the 1976 national championship. But once the NCAA began to sanction women’s sports, MSU didn’t put much money into the softball program, which led to its decline. Joseph’s hiring in 1994 coincided with an increased interest in women’s sports, something that Joseph said was a huge benefit.
In her first season, Joseph won 19 games, the program’s most since 1989 and a sign of things to come.
In 1997, just her fourth season at the helm, MSU won a school-record 47 games and earned the program’s first Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Softball Tournament berths.
Her success was not surprising to her former mentor.
“JJ was passionate about the game,” Jonker said. “She studied softball. She was intense. All reasons I think contribute to being a good coach. She loves and respects the game.”
But once the program reached top-tier success, Joseph found it hard to stay on top. The Spartans won 30 games for three consecutive seasons (1998-2000) but then struggled, finishing ninth in the Big Ten in 2002, before bouncing back with 40 wins the next season.
“The climb is easier than staying there. It’s harder once you’ve climbed it, especially if you don’t come in,” Joseph said. “We’ve tended to cycle more than I would have liked. I would have liked to climb and be uplifted to stay there. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that. The goal is to get there and stay competitive the whole time.”
A family atmosphere
Senior pitcher Kelly Confer has 16 sisters, so coming to MSU was quite a change.
But when she came into the MSU softball program, she found a coach and teammates who were able to fill the role of her large family.
“It definitely feels like I haven’t left my family because it is such a family environment,” Confer said.
Joseph is a vocal and outgoing coach who might intimidate some, but inside the MSU program, players and coaches know Joseph has nothing but love for her family.
“With her outside persona, you wouldn’t see that,” associate head coach Kathryn Gleason said. “But it’s behind the scenes, opening her house, having us all over all the time, that instills a family atmosphere in everybody, making us a part of her family.”
Joseph believes one of the biggest keys to success is the relationship a coach has with players.
“I really, truly believe that the players are extremely intuitive and if they know you’re shoveling s—-, they’re not going to buy in,” Joseph said. “I think it’s imperative that you authentically care about your players, and for me that’s all it is. All this other stuff has just been bonus.”
Although revenue sports at MSU get more public attention, it’s easier for nonrevenue sports to come closer together because there aren’t as many distractions, Joseph said.
“It’s much easier in our program because no one ever notices. (The players) come to (my) house as often as the rules allow; we do things together as a group,” she said. “They know that I’m whatever role they need me to be that day, if they need to be the mom or the dad or the priest or the shrink, they have full-time people here whose sole purpose is to see them succeed. I don’t know if it gets any better than that.”
The family atmosphere and closeness create a comfort level among the team that sometimes can lead to pranks or jokes in the clubhouse. A popular crack that players take at Joseph is her fashion.
“We just make fun of what she wears sometimes, just give her a hard time because she definitely gives us one,” junior outfielder Jessica Bracamonte joked.
For all the cracks and jokes the players make, everyone knows it’s just fun and games.
“Just like every other team, we’re all family,” junior shortstop Lindsey Hansen said. “No matter what we say or do, just at the end of the day we’re all here for each other. We can pull a prank on her and she’ll know we still love her in the end and we all love each other.”
As much as Joseph is able to comfort her players, she is able to push them to be the best they can be at all times. And though her outgoing personality could come off as confrontational to some, her players know that she only is trying to maximize their potential — both as players and people.
“She never lets you settle. She’ll expect so much from everybody and make sure she holds you to that standard,” Bracamonte said.
“To know that you’re held to this high standard and that she expects a lot from you, it’s a good feeling.”
What lies ahead
Joseph has won more than 500 games at MSU and more than 600 in her career. Despite those large numbers, she knows she has yet to reach her potential, something she always tries to get out of her players.
“What I tell our kids when I recruit them is, ‘All I need you to do is want to be the best student you can be and be the best player you can be,’” Joseph said. “Not be the best girlfriend, not be the best partier, not be the best stripper. First thing is you’re going to be the best student and the best athlete and we’re going to get along great.
“The way I look at it is I want to do everything I can so that when they’re done, they said, ‘This was the best experience I’ve ever had. This was the best four years of my life.’”
With now 510 wins down and what she hopes is many more ahead, Joseph said she’s surprised she’s lasted so long. Earning her 500th MSU victory March 9 against Connecticut in Boca Raton, Fla., caused Joseph to reflect on the relationships she’s built throughout the years with players, coaches, administrators and everyone involved in her program.
“It was very special to me in the sense that I think it’s hard to stay that long anywhere. I think people get sick of you,” Joseph said.
“I’m not always easy to be around and I will fight for my players at every turn. Sometimes that makes me a pain in the a—.
“It was important to me because it signified the ability to build relationships so you can stay long. As much as a pain in the a— I think I am with people, I think I have good relationships with them too. I think they know where I’m coming from. I know I’m being a pain in the a—, but I know you know it’s for them.”