Blazing a Trail, On and Off the Field
Indiana Wesleyan University’s Sue Bowman reflects on 41 years of coaching multiple sports
Sue Bowman smiles while scrolling through a list of her 508 Facebook friends, telling stories about each one as she reads their name.
“I don’t know what we’d do without Facebook,” she says.
Bowman doesn’t have many pictures in her office, but there’s no shortage of memories. How could there not be after coaching college sports at the same school –– Indiana Wesleyan University –– for 41 years?
Many of those friends are former players. They are now scattered across the country, far away from the IWU campus where they all once resided. But they still call the woman they used to play for “Coach Bowman.”
It’s those kinds of relationships that Bowman will miss the most.
“I think (I’ll miss) the relationship with the girls, being out on the field with them,” Bowman says. “And then missing the relationships with the coaches that I’ve coached against for years. A lot of them were my really good friends. I was tight with a lot of the parents too.”
Bowman retired from her position as head coach of the IWU Wildcats softball team in May 2011, ending a 24-year stint in the dugout, winning 585 career games. What’s more impressive is that she was also the first-ever head coach of the team, beginning the program in 1987, the year before IWU changed its named from Marion College.
But even that barely scratches the surface of her career in Wildcat athletics. Bowman has taken turns coaching seven different intercollegiate sports over the course of 41 years.
On several occasions, Bowman coached two, even three, programs in the same year. As she looks back on her career, she can remember more than 50 combined seasons in that septuplet of sports –– a résumé that includes softball, field hockey, volleyball, tennis, basketball, track and field, and soccer.
In fact, until this year, the only women’s sport at IWU Bowman hadn’t coached was cross country.
“Now they’re adding golf,” she says with a laugh. “I would never be a good golf coach.”
Bowman keeps scrolling through the list on Facebook, picking out another name.
“One of my friends called me and said, ‘Hey do you know anything about swimming? We need a swimming coach.’ I was like, ‘No. No thank you.’”
Bowman is retired from coaching completely, only staying at the school to teach health and wellness classes. Though she may not think she would be good at an eighth or ninth sport, IWU Athletic Director Mark DeMichael says that’s never stopped her before.
“She’s done it all, and she has had success in all of them,” he says. “Because of her ability to relate to people, teach and motivate, even though she wasn’t a master at a sport, she could coach those young ladies into having success. That says a lot for those other abilities she has.”
Coach and friend
There are still many Facebook names to mention, but so far, none have stuck out more than Deb Glass, a 1980 graduate whom Bowman helped on and off the field.
Glass, Bowman recalls, was a member of Bowman’s 1978 field hockey championship team –– a title that was won against highly favored Ball State University.
“That was unbelievable,” Bowman says. “I’m not sure I even had a player who played in high school.”
“It was a really big thrill to win something that big,” Glass says of that year. “But the best part was, we were a small school playing a big university. To get that for Coach Bowman for the years that she had been in it, it just makes you feel important because you did something for the coach as well as for the college.”
But before the biggest victory of Glass’ athletic career, she experienced the biggest loss of her personal life, one that Bowman also helped coach her through. Shortly after Glass started attending what was then Marion College, her mother passed away.
“I called a couple friends, and they got a hold of Coach Bowman, and she came up to my mom’s wake,” Glass remembers. “That was very special to me.”
For Bowman, relationships like that haven’t changed over the years, except for the distance caused by graduation and life. Most other things, however, have gone through drastic changes.
Making something out of nothing
Bowman tells stories of when the school gave teams a sack lunch and 50 cents for a can of pop during away games. And with the limited number of scholarships back then, sometimes Coach Bowman would have to take to the school’s dining hall to find players.
“I used to walk through Baldwin and look for girls who looked athletic, and I talked to them about playing field hockey. Most of them had never played.”
Coach Bowman had a habit of making something out of nothing. When Rona Roffey’s name pops up, memories of Bowman’s first softball team came back. Roffey was on that team, and within four years of the program’s inception, the Wildcats put together an outstanding 30-9 season.
For Roffey, this memory brings back feelings of unity: a scrappy group that bonded as a team.
“There was a lot of togetherness in the sense of it wasn’t established,” Roffey says. “We were just coming together as kind of a hodgepodge team. Coach Bowman really pulled that together and made that happen.”
Bowman leans back in her chair and looks at the computer. She doesn’t need pictures or Facebook to remember the amazing things she has accomplished. That’s what memories are for.
I ask her if she has one piece of advice for her successors. She pauses before answering: “Continue to work hard and impress upon the ladies that they need to work hard.”
We sit in silence for a few more seconds. Coach Bowman is still looking over the list of names, names that represent lives she has impacted over the years.
“I’m really excited to write this story,” I tell her.
“Good. I’ll be excited to see it,” she says. “Don’t put how old I am in there.”
Jeremy Sharp is sports editor at The Sojourn, Indiana Wesleyan University’s campus newspaper. He also is news and sports director at WIWU 94.3 The Fortress, IWU’s student radio station.