By ANDY HEINTZ
Courier sports writer
---- — OTTUMWA — If you spend a lot of time watching Ottumwa softball, you begin to take the program for granted.
You begin to get used to — and to even grow to expect — the girls to dominate pretty much every game they are involved in. And, if, like me, you have watched the program for less than two years, you still have been privy to the stories about the winning seasons, the state championships, the massive community support, the endless state tournament appearances, the fundamentally sound fielding, the strong hitting, the legendary coach, etc., etc., etc. In other words, you expect the girls to do what winning teams are supposed to do — win.
But, if you remove yourself from the tumult and really examine the program from the outside looking in, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Bulldogs winning tradition. And, what is even more impressive than the prodigies Ottumwa’s players performed — and continue to perform — on the field over the years, is the family atmosphere the program has engendered between players and the greater Ottumwa community.
The manifestation of that family atmosphere was evident during this past weekend’s celebration of 40 years of Ottumwa softball. While talking to former players of all ages it was clear what a positive role the softball program had played in their lives. The fact that former players — from the 1970s to 2012 — would travel from as far as Georgia or Florida to attend the reunion speaks volumes about what this program has meant to so many young girls through the years. And, you can’t talk about the program’s enduring legacy without acknowledging its architect: Frank Huston.
In the world of coaching, Huston is that rare outlier. I mean, you just don’t hear about many coaches who have ruled the land, sea and firmament of a program for four decades. With coaches regularly choosing to switch jobs every couple of years, Huston’s anti-zeitgeist-y behavior is something to behold. Here is a man who, after shaping a program according to his tastes, stuck around to ensure that his creation would continue to prosper through the decades.
Not many people choose to swim against the tide of conventional wisdom, yet Huston has chosen this path time and time again. So, although this weekend has been full of glowing praise for Huston and the edifice of success he’s built here in Ottumwa over the decades, I figure one more encomium to the Bulldog’s veteran skipper couldn’t hurt.
What’s easy to forget about Huston is how hard the man works.Take a moment to watch him tending to Huston Field in between games and it becomes crystal clear that this is a man who takes pride in everything he does. Then watch his team play softball and it’s clear that sense of pride in one’s work has rubbed off on his players.
Although Huston will holler at his players from time to time, it’s obvious that he really cares about each of them. Unlike some coaches — Bob Knight for example — Huston knows how to criticize his players without demeaning them. He’s found the middle ground between Knight-esque bullying and the trappings of hyper-sensitive political correctness. While sitting in the press box, I have heard Huston praise his players just as much as I have heard him criticize them for swinging at a bad pitch or committing an error. And, through my own personal dealings with him, I know Huston goes out of his way to make sure his players are recognized for their accomplishments.
Ottumwa’s skipper isn’t perfect — he’s riddled with the same hangups and peccadilloes as the rest of us — but he’s an awful good man who has built something really special here in Ottumwa. Congratulations coach for 40 years of success on and off the field.