Oregon softball fans aren’t the largest contingent on campus, but I’ve always said they have as much passion per capita as any fan base anywhere.
These are the fans who show up in force for postseason games at Jane Sanders Stadium. They’re also the ones who jammed my inbox with emails about the departure of coach Mike White and six (and potentially more) players from last year’s roster.
“What the hell is happening in the softball program?” one wrote.
“I LOVE Oregon sports and follow the women’s programs as much as I can,” wrote another. “Could you investigate and find out why so many women are leaving the program?”
I hope Sunday’s A1 story, the product of several weeks of reporting, answers a few of those questions. Whoever you chose to blame for the breakup, it’s clear there were some deep fissures beneath the surface of Oregon’s Pac-12 softball dynasty.
The main one involved White’s relationship with athletic director Rob Mullens and the Oregon administration. When a coach as successful as White says he felt the school was holding his program down, maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask the big question.
Does Oregon have an issue with women’s sports?
The answer is complicated. Because on one hand, Oregon’s success in women’s sports stacks up with almost anyone’s.
The Duck women traditionally dominate in track and cross country. Their basketball team has been to consecutive Elite Eights and looks poised to go even further this year. The volleyball team made the Elite Eight this season, and the softball program had five Pac-12 titles and five trips to the Women’s College World Series in seven years.
But you also can observe signs of tension behind the scenes. White was one of four women’s coaches to leave Oregon in the past year, joining golf coach Ria Scott, tennis coach Alison Silverio and lacrosse coach Katrina Dowd.
Until now, no one came out publicly with complaints about how a women’s sport was treated relative to others on campus. But in talking to White, he clearly perceived a double standard in the way Oregon rewarded success among its various sports.
“I was getting frustrated with the whole thing,” White said. “It just seemed like we were being kept down. I’ve had more conversations with (Texas AD) Chris Del Conte in six months than I have with Rob Mullens in six years.”
This leads to the question at the heart of a lot of campus inequity: Do you reward programs based on how many games they win, or how much revenue they generate?
If it’s the latter, softball was never going to be at the top of the list. Football — and, to a lesser extent men’s basketball — drives revenue for Oregon and most other athletic departments. Money generated by those sports essentially subsidizes others on campus that spend more than they make.
Softball was never going to be a money-maker for Oregon. The program lost something like $1.5 million in 2018, according to data supplied by Oregon to the NCAA. I’d contend softball was something of a loss leader, though — a product that created a favorable impression with fans and generated value beyond its bottom line.
When White says Oregon was holding softball down, I don’t think he’s saying Oregon wanted the program to fail. I think he’s saying Oregon was worried about the program getting too big, always needing more, not fitting into the neat little box of a non-revenue sport.
You can understand why Oregon might have been irritated by White’s flirtations with other jobs. But right or wrong, White seemed to believe that the only way to make Oregon invest in softball was to the force the issue.
That’s what he did by talking to Texas. Oregon called his bluff and guessed wrong. Whichever side gets the blame, it’s unfortunate that Oregon allowed things to reach that point with one of its most successful coaches.
Oregon’s defense is that it couldn’t win a bidding war with Texas for a softball coach. That’s true only in the narrowest sense, because the money White sought was minuscule compared to the raises handed out to Oregon’s football coaches after the Ducks went 7-6 in 2017.
I know, apples and oranges. Those sports have different budgets, different coaching markets and different needs. But at some point, you have to look at Oregon’s languishing baseball program and a few other sports on campus and wonder if everyone is held to the same standard.
Oregon didn’t seem inclined to give White another raise unless he won a World Series. And, you know, there might have been some merit to that stance. But the Ducks ended up playing hardball with a guy who throws heat, and what we’re seeing now is the result.
It’s a shame, because Oregon’s softball setup was pretty close to utopia. The Ducks had a great coach, a beautiful stadium, a passionate fan base and a team they could be proud of — everything you could ask from a sport that doesn’t generate millions in revenue for the university.
Even with all they’ve lost, the Ducks still have their fans. I know that because I hear from them all the time. As frustrated as they are with the whole situation, I’m guessing those fans will be back in their seats this season, cheering their team as loudly as ever.
If the Ducks lose that, I'll really start to worry.