Iowa Hawkeyes

Renee Gillispie welcomes the challenge of building another winner

Her first focus with Iowa softball is to keep the Iowa kids in Iowa

New University of Iowa head softball coach Renee Gillispie answers a question during an interview in her office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Tuesday. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
New University of Iowa head softball coach Renee Gillispie answers a question during an interview in her office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Tuesday. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Her second-floor office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena consists of a desk, three chairs and some shelves, from which hang a calendar. And that’s it. A nameplate has not yet been placed outside her door.

And yet ...

“It feels like home,” said Renee Gillispie, new softball coach at the University of Iowa. “It feels like this is meant to be, and it’s felt that way since the first day I was here.”

Two weeks have passed since Iowa announced Gillispie’s hiring. She spoke to The Gazette in an exclusive interview Tuesday from that empty office.

It’s only 65 miles from Gillispie’s hometown of Danville (population, 900) to Iowa City. It has taken Gillispie, 57, most of her professional career to get back in the area.

The reason for her return was twofold.

First, she wanted to bring her parents, who live with her, back near their home.

Second: “I got frustrated watching Iowa not win,” she said. “I grew up a Hawkeye fan. To see this program struggling, and knowing there’s such great talent in Iowa, why can’t they win?”

The Hawkeyes have won before. They were regular contenders and NCAA Tournament qualifiers in the Big Ten under Gayle Blevins. But the program slid sharply under Marla Looper, who resigned after an eight-year mark of 172-247, including 21-32 last season.

Many of Looper’s detractors pointed toward her inability to draw the best high-school talent from within in the state. Gillispie is determined to change that.

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“Look across the board,” she said. “Paige Lowary (from Dallas Center-Grimes) was a national champion at Oklahoma. Those two kids at Minnesota (Benton Community’s Amber Fiser and Ankeny Centennial’s Kendyl Lindaman), I’d love to have them on our roster.

“Kids like that, we need to keep them in state. We have to develop a program people get excited about.”

And that’s where her attention will turn through the rest of the summer.

“I’m trying to make the rounds,” she said. “I want to get to a (high-school) game every night. I’m going to get out and get to know coaches at the high-school and junior-college levels. Iowa has the best state tournament around. People here love softball.”

As Renee Luers, Gillispie was a pitcher at Danville High School, from which she graduated in 1979. She played for Rick Dillinger, whom she said changed the path of her life.

“I was engaged, and Rick said I needed to go to college, and he was going to find a way to make it happen.”

She played softball and basketball at Kirkwood Community College, then went on to play softball at West Texas State.

Then followed her coaching career, with a stop at Illinois State (as a volunteer pitching coach), then head-coaching stints at Joliet (Ill.) Junior College, Bradley, Texas Tech and Central Florida.

All of those programs were rebuilding, or simply building.

Gillispie was selected to restart the program at Texas Tech in 1995. Her first team was 4-44. Three years later, the Red Raiders were one win away from the College World Series.

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At UCF, she took over in 2002 when the program went to Division-I status and averaged 36 wins per season. The Knights won five league championships and reached the NCAA Tournament seven times.

The number at UCF that Gillispie recited most passionately has nothing to do with win-loss percentage. Rather, it was the Knights’ cumulative grade point average last season, 3.45.

“I’m just as tough on them on the academic side as I am on the field,” she said. “Graduation is the priority. Winning is the fun part.”

Gillispie doesn’t expect a quick fix at Iowa. She estimates it will take three years to get the program at a winning level in the Big Ten.

“We’ve got to get the right players, and we’ve got to build a championship culture,” she said.

And once that happens:

“I’m not afraid to say it: We’re going to the World Series,” Gillispie said. “It’s going to happen here. It has happened before with Gayle. It’s going to happen again.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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