Husky Coaching Spotlight: Mary-Ellen Hall

The News Magazine of HCU

The number of current collegiate coaches and administrators who can say they have been present for more than three decades of an athletic department’s history is relatively small. Houston Christian University (HCU) has three such coaches on its staff, but it’s head softball coach since 1992 and Senior Woman Administrator (SWA), Mary-Ellen Hall, boasts the longest tenure.

Hall found her way to, then, Houston Baptist University coming out of high school at a time when the University didn’t sponsor collegiate softball. She attended school, participated in intramurals and played in summer softball leagues. It was intramurals that eventually landed her a spot on the Huskies’ volleyball team when the program was started in her junior year.

Hall was approached by Coach Jennifer Ferguson about trying out for the volleyball team and responded, “I don’t jump. No.” Hall ended up earning a spot on the inaugural volleyball squad for the 1986 season. She spent two years with the volleyball program before graduating in 1988. It was around the time of her graduation that it was announced the school was starting a softball program.

“I was about to graduate, and didn’t really know what I was going to do,” said Hall. “I thought I was going to be a sports psychologist. I didn’t have any big plans. The school announced softball and I thought I could get my master’s and do that at the same time. So, I walked into David Swonke’s office and told him my background in softball and he said, ‘Great. You’re the assistant.’ And the rest is history.”

At the time, HBU was a member of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division-I Trans-America Athletic Conference and the fledgling softball program was to start play in less than 12 months for the spring 1989 season. Swonke, who was the men’s soccer coach, didn’t make it to opening day and Dr. Les Saunders took over as head softball coach and Hall’s boss.

“When we first started, we played in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts,” Hall said. “We played our first four years without a field on campus. That first year everybody wanted on our schedule. We travelled in a van and everything was minimal.” For perspective, the Huskies now have four different pairs of uniform pants and five jerseys, with multiple combinations possible.

That first season, as an NCAA Division-I member, the Huskies went 4-24. With a year under their belt and another round of recruiting, the school also decided to transition to the NAIA ranks for the 1990 season.

“The second year, we made a pretty quick turnaround in recruiting and got some more good players in,” said Hall. “Then, as we transitioned out of Division I, I think it helped. We just didn’t have the things we needed to be a Division-I program.”

Hall credits the recruitment of Rachelle Willhite as one of the best decisions she ever made, not just because it brought Rachelle to the Huskies’ program but because it got her father, Roger Willhite involved. Willhite became an assistant coach and was responsible for building Husky Field on campus as a place for his daughter and the Huskies to play.

“That really changed a lot of things for us,” said Hall. “That was the start.” The on-campus facility helped jumpstart a softball program that became a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) power and enjoyed a 15-year stretch of winning seasons, including a 51-5 campaign in 2005 that ended with the Huskies ranked No. 2 in the nation. Now, Hall stands at 880-career wins and is the second longest tenured coach in NCAA Division I, behind only Holly Hesse at Missouri State.

In addition to her role as head coach, Hall has also served as the University’s SWA for more than a decade. The SWA designation was created by the NCAA in 1981 to ensure women were involved in the male-dominated administration of college athletics. As SWA, Hall has multiple duties as a senior-level administrator on top of her coaching duties.

“Being a coach, it’s a non-traditional SWA role,” Hall said. “I look at it like it’s supporting women athletes. It’s being supportive of our female athletes and our coaches and being an advocate.”

She’s in regular contact with other SWAs around the Southland Conference and attends annual meetings with her league counterparts. “It’s honestly fascinating. We’re an open group and really share a lot, and I think that’s how you grow and learn. It’s really interesting going to meetings with other SWAs from the conference and being around these women who have achieved so much and seeing how they do things on their campus.”

Having spent more than three decades on the HCU campus as a student, a student-athlete, a coach, a leader and an administrator, Hall has seen first-hand the growth of her sport and the opportunities college athletics can provide.

“The game of softball has grown so much and there are so many opportunities for these kids,” she added. “The experiences and opportunities these kids have through sports really can help set them up for jobs and careers ahead of them. There are more opportunities for recognition of the hard work they put in. You hear the word ‘empowering’ a lot, but it’s really true. It helps them believe what they can do and accomplish across women’s sports.”