Four of six transfers followed Mike White to Texas ahead of Melyssa Lombardi's first season at UO
Melyssa Lombardi’s first day at Oregon was picture perfect.
On July 16, 2018, one week after Lombardi was hired to replace Mike White, the respected Oklahoma assistant was introduced by athletic director Rob Mullens as the Ducks’ new head softball coach during a news conference.
After acknowledging the program’s success under her predecessor — White led Oregon to five Pac-12 championships and five Women’s College World Series appearances while compiling a 435-111-1 (.794) record in nine seasons — Lombardi said her national championship experience with the Sooners could help her take the accomplished roster she inherited to another level.
Then Lombardi and her son, Gianni, posed for a selfie taken by senior outfielder Cherish Burks.
The image captured a group of smiling faces — including reigning Pac-12 pitcher of the year Megan Kleist, centerfielder Shannon Rhodes and hometown hero Lauren Burke — all flashing the “O” symbol with their hands while surrounding Lombardi.
Since that idyllic scene on a summer day at Jane Sanders Stadium, six players — including Kleist, Rhodes and Burke — have transferred during a dark offseason, leaving only three players from the starting lineup Oregon fielded as the No. 1 seed at the WCWS last June in Oklahoma City.
“We had some struggles in the fall, everybody knows that. It’s tough dealing with all of this,” Lombardi said before the 2019 Ducks’ first practice Tuesday. “But I thought (the remaining players) did a great job of sticking together and I can’t say enough about how the veterans did a really good job of leading the young ones and the new ones.”
For Oregon’s loyal and often rabid fan base, White’s departure for Texas and the subsequent trickle of transfer announcements made for an agonizing winter of discontent. Questions, rumors and speculation ran rampant as fans struggled to understand how one of Oregon’s most successful programs could experience such a painful and public breakup.
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In an interview with The Register-Guard, White said his departure was the culmination of several factors, including a deteriorating relationship with Mullens and longstanding frustrations about what he saw as a lack of administrative support.
“I felt like Texas really cared about all their sports,” White said. “I always felt like that was something that was missing at Oregon. I always felt like they were trying to keep softball down.”
White encouraged Oregon’s players to give the new coach a chance, and most of them did. With their talented team still intact, the Ducks were nearly flawless during their fall schedule, going 8-0 and outscoring the opposition 114-2.
Off the field, however, a perfect storm was brewing. Frustration with Lombardi’s culture change, coupled with relaxed NCAA transfer rules that took effect Oct. 15, opened the door for a player exodus.
“I think with the new NCAA portal, it just gives more opportunity quicker now than it did before,” Lombardi said. “I didn’t want to see anybody leave, but I support those athletes. If they felt like they needed to be somewhere else, then I’m going to support them in their decisions.”
On Oct. 18, co-ace Miranda Elish and Burke, the former Marist High star who grew up dreaming of playing for the Ducks, made public their decisions to leave the team. Four days later, Texas announced both would be reuniting with White.
On Nov. 6, catcher Mary Iakopo, the heir apparent to Gwen Svekis behind the plate, announced her transfer from Oregon after belting eight home runs and 37 RBIs as a freshman.
On Nov. 13, Rhodes, an emerging star who hit .347 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs as a sophomore, joined freshman Alyssa Pinto as the latest players to leave during the coaching transition.
Pinto is in the process of completing her transfer to Mississippi. Iakopo and Rhodes traded in their Duck swag to wear burnt orange alongside Elish and Burke with the Longhorns.
“They had their opportunity to come to Texas early on because they had releases to talk to me. They all said they wanted to stay together,” White said. “They felt strong together as a team. They felt like a family and they believed in each other. They stuck together.
“What happened after that, you’d have to ask the players directly.”
The Register-Guard contacted several of the former Oregon players. Some declined to be interviewed or did not return messages, while others requested anonymity.
Rumors of a dress code and religious overtones under Lombardi’s leadership were present, but players made it clear that none of them left the program because of new rules.
Rather, being told they were “not good enough” and had to change their approach to win a national championship — the only feat that eluded the program under White’s otherwise dominant run — turned off a faction of the locker room, according to some of the players who were contacted.
“We got compared to Oklahoma a lot,” one player said. “We were proud of our accomplishments.”
‘Unable to come to peace ...’
Though painful for Oregon’s fans and administration, this tumultuous offseason reflects a trend occurring across the country.
Transferring is the new normal in big-time collegiate sports.
Oklahoma’s back-to-back Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks, Kyler Murray (Texas A&M) and Baker Mayfield (Texas Tech), transferred. Oregon’s football program previously had mixed results with graduate transfers Vernon Adams (Eastern Washington) and Dakota Prukop (Montana State) in the bridge years between Marcus Mariota and Justin Herbert.
Graduate transfer DJ Sanders, White’s starting shortstop last season, hit memorable grand slams to lift the Ducks to wins over rivals Oregon State and Washington en route to the conference championship.
Lombardi has tried to restock the roster with the addition of three transfers — pitchers Jordan Dail (Virginia Tech) and Maddie MacGrandle (Texas A&M) and catcher Terra McGowan (Arizona State).
In this climate, it was understandable why four players chose to reunite with White, the coach who’d recruited them.
“What people miss sometimes is this isn’t a two- or three-year relationship,” Mullens said. “In those sports (like softball), recruiting starts at a very young age, so they’ve had relationships with their coaches for more than their time here.
“Listen, we don’t want anybody to leave our program, in any sport, but at the end of the day, we support their decision, and that’s what we’ve done in this case.”
But Kleist’s decision was harder to swallow for many inside and outside the program.
On Dec. 6, the senior-to-be told her teammates she was leaving. On Dec. 14, Kleist announced she was going to play for Louisiana at Lafayette where former Oregon pitching coach Mike Roberts, who was a candidate to replace White, had become the associate head coach.
“I’ve been unable to come to peace with what has happened over the course of the last few weeks,” Kleist, who played on a club team coached by Roberts growing up, posted on social media. “However, I’ve been reminded that the recent circumstances I’ve been put under have been nothing short of a blessing in disguise.”
On Jan. 8, Kleist amended her plans. She is still in Eugene finishing her undergraduate degree at Oregon and plans to complete her collegiate career with the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2020.
“I wish nothing but the best for Megan, whether she’s here on campus or not,” Lombardi said when asked about having an all-American pitcher attending the university but not playing for the Ducks. “I want all the best for her.”
Without giving specifics on why, a source outside the program said Kleist was "miserable” playing for the new staff.
Kleist's bond with at least one of Oregon’s active players remains unbroken.
“Megan is one of my great friends and she remains one of my great friends,” senior Haley Cruse said. “I love seeing her on campus when I do. I speak for myself, and everyone else still supports Megan and her decision to move on and do what’s best for her.”
‘I felt like I was totally disrespected’
As White molded Oregon into a national contender, the school’s investment in softball didn’t always keep pace.
The Ducks played in dilapidated Howe Field until 2016, when Oregon built the $17.2 million Jane Sanders Stadium that was bolstered by $16 million in donations. With that project underway, White signed a six-year contract extension in 2015 worth $1.425 million after interviewing for the head coaching position at Arkansas.
Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso’s salary is easily the highest among her peers at $925,000 per year. Florida’s Tim Walton, who has also won multiple national championships, is a distant second at $600,000.
White’s base salary last season was $237,500. He also earned $90,000 in performance bonuses as the Ducks won their fifth Pac-12 championship in the past six seasons and advanced to the WCWS for the fifth time in seven seasons.
White’s market value would become a point of contention when talks with Texas began to heat up in June. Mullens claims White refused to negotiate for a figure less than the $505,000 he was offered by the Longhorns, an offer Mullens said Oregon wasn’t in a position to match.
“When Mike was pursuing Texas, and then Texas ultimately made him an offer, he came and shared the offer with us,” Mullens said. “We said, ‘We’d love to keep you, we can’t pay $500,000. But is there something in between the $250,000 and the $500,00 that we can do?’
“And he was pretty open and honest with us and said, ‘I’ve got a $500,000 offer.’ And we said, ‘We understand, that’s an outlier offer, is there anything in between that we can do?’ And there wasn’t. The indication was that he had $500,000 in hand and that was the benchmark.”
White has a different recollection. He said he reached out to Mullens after being contacted by Texas but before receiving an offer from the Longhorns. Instead of meeting with Mullens, White said he was told to discuss the matter with Lisa Peterson, Oregon’s deputy athletic director and senior women’s administrator.
White said he told Peterson he wanted to revisit his contract and believed his market value to be around $400,000.
“When I told Lisa Peterson, she laughed at me,” White said. “She actually laughed at me and said, ‘If Texas is going to pay you that, then go ahead.’ To me, that was just a slap in the face.
“She said she would take my offer to Rob. Later that day she called me back and said they believed I was being paid fairly.”
Following that conversation, White said he believes Mullens told Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte that White was using Texas as leverage to renegotiate his deal with Oregon, which White saw as an attempt to undermine his chances of being hired by the Longhorns.
“I coached the second most successful program at Oregon behind track and field in the years I was there,” White said. “I felt like I was totally disrespected, first by Lisa Peterson and then Rob Mullens by trying to kill my deal with Texas, which was an attack on myself and possibly my family’s financial future.
“I thought it was a low blow, man.”
White said he feared the deal was dead, but after several days of silence, Texas flew him to Austin for a formal interview and a tour of the campus and athletic facilities. Soon after, Texas made its offer and White accepted.
After he’d already agreed to terms with Texas, White said, Peterson called to see if he'd consider an offer of around $350,000. He said the only interaction he had with Mullens was when he received a congratulatory text message.
“After the Arkansas thing, Rob basically said, ‘I’m not going to deal with you,’” White said. “He didn’t tell me that, but it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?”
At Texas, White plans to build another powerhouse program that will contend for the national title that escaped him at Oregon.
“Right now I’m completely happy at Texas,” he said. “It was a very tough decision to leave Oregon, where I spent 15 years of my life. I still have very close friends there.
"I’m committed to Texas now. It’s a place where I believe we can win a national championship and hopefully be a top-10 program again and rebuild what we’d done in Eugene.”
Four familiar faces will help speed up that process.
On Monday, Texas posted photos of White, Burke, Elish, Iakopo and Rhodes on Twitter promoting the upcoming season.
“Obviously not every coach is for every player and not every player is for every coach,” White said of the players who left Oregon to join him in Austin. “(Lombardi) didn’t recruit those kids. I get that. I think they’re great kids.
“I think they didn’t feel like they were being respected. They deserve some respect. Hey, they haven’t won a World Series, but this was a pretty good team.
“It’s human nature. We don’t like change. I think that was a lot of it. They understood things were going to change, but maybe just a little too much.”
‘We’re going to have to come together’
During a women’s basketball game on Jan. 4 at Matthew Knight Arena, Lombardi sat in the front row next to university president Michael Schill. When introduced by the public address announcer during a break in the action, she received a warm round of applause.
Then when Lombardi tried to blast some free gear into the stands, the T-shirt gun malfunctioned, perhaps symbolic of the rocky start to her first year as a head coach.
Despite the difficult transition, Mullens said he’s confident Oregon fans will accept Lombardi.
“I think Eugene is a very open and inclusive community,” Mullens said. “That’s why we love living here. And I think her resume is impeccable.
“Different leaders have different styles. She does have a different style, but I think Eugene will come to accept her with open arms.”
Mullens put that support in writing by signing Lombardi to a five-year, $1.725-million contract that runs through June 2023. She will receive $325,000 in base salary in her first season as a head coach, $85,000 more than White was slated to earn in 2019.
During 21 seasons at Oklahoma, where she earned a salary of $185,000 last year, Lombardi helped the Sooners win four national championships and 15 Big 12 regular-season or postseason tournament titles.
“I mean, this is a no-brainer right here,” Lombardi said of leaving Norman, Okla., for the Ducks, who beat Oklahoma last season behind a dominant one-hit performance by Kleist at Jane Sanders Stadium. “Being at the University of Oregon, I can remember when I stepped on campus last year in April, I loved it. I love the fan support that we have here.
“I look forward to every single day coming to the Jane. This facility, this stadium, I don’t know who has it better. It’s tops in the nation.”
The program’s makeover has sparked mixed emotions from players who remember when Oregon’s facilities were nothing to brag about.
Jenna Lilley committed to play for White at Howe Field and ended her memorable career performing in front of sellout crowds at Jane Sanders Stadium. She also knows Lombardi after connecting with the Ducks’ new coach through USA Softball.
“I support (White) no matter what, and if he’s doing what’s best for him, then I’m happy for him wherever he goes,” said Lilley, now a graduate assistant at Nebraska. “Even though I’m not coming back, it’s a little bit of a bummer because he had been there ever since I imagined Oregon softball. …
“But once (Lombardi) got the job, I started talking to her more. I did enjoy getting to know her over the summer and seeing what she was about. I’m still excited for Oregon, I’m always excited for Oregon softball no matter what.”
Svekis, a key part of three Pac-12 titles and three WCWS appearances in her four years with the Ducks, echoed those sentiments. Last year’s first-team all-Pac-12 catcher said she’d “heard a lot of whispers about the way things were handled on many levels.”
But ultimately Svekis supported White’s decision and Lombardi’s new vision for the Ducks.
“I’m extremely supportive of Missy Lombardi putting in her own program,” said Svekis, now a volunteer assistant at Indiana. “I really believe after the dust settles, Oregon softball will make its way back to the top.”
Despite losing six transfers and four senior starters from last year’s team, the shorthanded Ducks have some familiar faces to guide the transition.
Junior first baseman Mia Camuso leads an infield that likely will rely on freshmen to replace Lilley, Sanders, Svekis and second baseman Lauren Lindvall.
“Oh, it’s been really tough, but they’re happy now, we’re happy and everybody’s moving on for their season this year,” Camuso said of the dizzying revolving door. “I think everybody had a different reason for leaving, but I stayed because I really believe in Oregon and I love Oregon with all of my heart and I love the fans.”
Lombardi said junior pitcher Maggie Balint and the four remaining seniors have also helped fill the leadership void.
“We might look a little different this year,” Lombardi said, “but I have the same expectations.”
The Lombardi era officially begins Feb. 8 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. Oregon’s first home game is March 8 against Oklahoma State before the Ducks begin their Pac-12 title defense March 15 at Arizona.
The 2019 season will be an opportunity for the new-look Ducks to do a picture retake.
“I’ve heard the word ‘underdog’ getting thrown around,” said senior outfielder Alexis Mack. “I don’t really understand an ‘underdog’ mentality, because the team’s mentality should be the same regardless of what the speculation is saying.
“Absolutely, we’re going to fight to get to the World Series, to win a national championship, but most importantly to win the first game.”