CEDAR FALLS — University of Northern Iowa softball coach Ryan Jacobs had no experience with the game entering his first season in 2004.
Working as an assistant with the now-defunct UNI baseball program, Jacobs was talked into taking the head coaching job at Cedar Falls High School by then-baseball coach Rick Heller. Jacobs’ switch from softball to baseball, although a voyage into the unknown, proved to be a move that exposed his keen and resourceful approach to leading an athletics program.
After agreeing to coach softball, Jacobs made a wise first step and sought the advice of Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy. A native of Fayette, Murphy coached baseball at Independence High School and coached Jacobs in the Iowa High School All-Star Series when Jacobs was a prep standout at Cedar Rapids Regis.
“His advice to me was do everything you do with baseball,” Jacobs said. “You’ll learn the different rules of the game, but as far as the fundamentals go, teach the same things that you teach for baseball. That made it a bit more comforting.”
Murphy is in his 14th season with an Alabama squad that is ranked No. 2 nationally entering this weekend’s NCAA regionals.
Jacobs’ connection with Murphy also paid dividends when he hoping to land the head coaching position with UNI softball.
“I remember I saw (former UNI athletics director) Rick Hartzell in the airport in Cedar Rapids, and he said, ‘Hey I need a coach for softball. What do you think about the Jacobs guy?’” Murphy said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I think he’ll be great.’”
While interviewing for the job, Jacobs presented Hartzell with one-, three- and five-year plans for the program, an idea given to him by Murphy. Hartzell liked what he heard and Jacobs began the rebuilding of a program.
Jacobs inherited the Panther softball team in 2007, a season that ended with a seventh straight losing campaign in the Missouri Valley Conference. It took Jacobs just two seasons to give UNI its first winning season in the MVC, and the Panthers have not had a losing conference record since.Jacobs’ five-year plan culminated this season with his team’s winning the MVC regular season title outright, a first for UNI softball.