Patty Gasso and the art of adapting
How Oklahoma's Patty Gasso transformed her coaching philosophy to build college softball's most dominant program
It’s just past noon in Oklahoma City, and underneath Hall of Fame Stadium’s main concourse, Patty Gasso sits in a room, designed specifically for the purpose of her team’s Tuesday press conference, with three of her players — star senior Jocelyn Alo, the star-in-the-making Tiare Jennings and OU’s newfound ace Hope Trautwein — to her right.
It’s the day before the Sooners (57-3) return to the Women’s College World Series finals, where they need two wins to capture the program’s sixth national championship and the school’s longtime rival, Texas, is all that stands in the way.
Unlike most of her program’s supporters, Gasso won’t go into the series seeing crimson or throwing a “Horns down” hand gesture at every opportunity. No, Gasso doesn’t hold a lifelong grudge against the Longhorns, despite folks around the university telling her she ought to develop one when she first arrived to campus nearly three decades ago by way of Long Beach City College.
While Gasso is now synonymous with Oklahoma and its ongoing softball dynasty, her roots are in California, the state she hoped to work in as an aspiring young coach.
Landing a job at a West Coast power — at a time when the region dominated the sport — was going to be difficult, especially with just a junior college job on her résumé. Understanding the slim chance she had at taking the helm of a California-based program, Gasso went east to Norman, Oklahoma, to build a blue blood of her own.
It’s been 27 years since Gasso’s first season as OU’s head coach. Her early rosters were constructed with junior college transfers before gradually taking bigger and bigger swings on the recruiting trail, eventually landing the names that make up all but one of the program’s 75 All-America selections.
OU’s history on the diamond decidedly paled in comparison to what it is today under Gasso’s guidance. And she is far from the coach she was when she first started.
By all accounts, evolving was necessary to survive.
Before OU softball called Marita Hynes Field home, it had Reaves Park.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Reaves Park stretches from Timberdell Road to Constitution Street, just east of Jenkins Avenue, in Norman but was no mecca for softball. Yes, it’s where OU played its home games and even hosted postseason events before its current stadium opened in 1998.
But it’s quite literally a park.
Home to family picnics, youth sports leagues and the city’s annual Medieval Fair, Reaves Park provided humble beginnings to the Gasso era. OU’s dugout wasn’t big enough to hold its entire team, forcing a few players to sit on nearby wooden benches, meant for spectators. Team activities often included picking up trash, such as beer cans from the adult baseball and softball leagues that shared the venue,often before and after practice and games. Games, mind you, that the team could hardly charge fans money to attend, because, well, there weren’t exactly gates to keep anyone out.
To think OU will soon have a new multi-million-dollar softball facility, which will cover nearly triple the square footage of its previous home, seat 3,000 fans, feature an indoor facility twice the size of the last one and include eight concession stands, compared to Marita Hynes Field's measly two.
“We have grown with the times to say the least,” Gasso said.
The same can be said for the Sooners coach.
And she has.
"When I got here, I wasn't a player's coach,” Gasso said. “I pushed, pushed, pushed. I was a discipline coach. I didn't let players get away with a lot of things. I just ran a very tight ship.”
Kelli Braitsch, a freshman on Gasso’s first national championship team, knows that version of Gasso well. The OU coach, born and raised in Southern California, let Braitsch know who she was from their first conversation in September 1998 when the former Sooner shortstop was still an uncommitted senior at Broken Arrow High School.
Following a tournament at Reaves Park, Braitsch and her mother, Judy, met with Gasso, who was still recruiting her at the time. Judy Braitsch inquired what position Gasso envisioned her daughter playing at the next level and received an answer her daughter can’t forget.
“Coach Gasso looked directly at me,” Kelli Braitsch said, “even though my mom asked the question, and she said, ‘Kelli will play whatever position she earns.’”
Braitsch ponders how prospective student-athletes today would react to Gasso’s brute honesty. Thankfully for Gasso, it didn’t matter to Braitsch. The sentiment resonated with the hardworking attitude Braitsch’s family instilled in her from a young age. Perhaps both her upbringing and Gasso’s candor helped Braitsch navigate several position changes her freshman season before settling in as OU’s starting shortstop.
“I earned the spot that I deserved,” Braitsch said. “And that is one thing that I love and respect still to this day about Coach Gasso.
“She doesn't care who you are, she doesn't care what stats you had the year before or what you did in high school or whatever. Who cares that you're an All-American one season, because the next season, you could be the worst player on the team.”
Gasso saw a need to change. She didn’t want to compromise her authenticity, but she understood coaching the way she did in the late 1990s wasn’t the way her program would sustain.
“I knew that there was a generation change happening, and I knew that my style was not going to fit them,” Gasso said. “That's when I knew I had to meet [my players] about halfway. It was probably around Keilani Ricketts' freshman year [in 2010]. It was that group that was coming in that I felt different. I felt them different. Not that they didn't work as hard. They just needed to be treated a little bit differently.”
Consider Gasso’s gambit successful. Ricketts, the two-time USA Softball Player of the Year, led OU to its first Women’s College World Series finals appearance since Braitsch’s group won the team’s first national title in 2000. Oklahoma couldn’t overcome Alabama to win the 2012 title, but next year’s Sooners, which featured All-Americans such as Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley and Brianna Turang, finished the job and laid the groundwork for OU’s stronghold on the sport, winning national titles in 2016, ’17 and ’21.
During this time, Gasso naturally became the coach recruits wanted to talk to — a stark contrast from when Gasso was first cutting her teeth in big-time college softball, doing all she could to convince players to come to Norman at a time when softball championships ran through UCLA and Arizona,with the occasional deep postseason run from a Fresno State or Cal-Berkeley.
Oklahoma junior catcher Kinzie Hansen, a consensus top-20 prospect nationally coming out of Norco, California, attended a recruiting-focused camp as an eighth grader and became starstruck after her teammate told her Gasso was tracking her play.
Hansen, still just in middle school, ultimately committed to Oklahoma a few months later. And much like Braitsch, everything about Gasso’s persona resonated with her.
“I knew [as a teenager] that she's the real deal,” Hansen said. “Like that's who I want to be my coach when I'm older. That's somebody that's gonna help me grow into a woman that maybe a lot of other people don't really understand, which is something that I felt comfortable with, because I've been raised by a lot of strong women in my life.
“And coach [Gasso] is one of the strongest women I've ever met.”
OU’s 2001 team was approaching conference play and Gasso wasn’t satisfied with her team’s direction. The Sooners were fresh off of the program’s first national title and ended nonconference play with a 25-5 record. But following a trip to Cal State Fullerton’s home tournament, Gasso told her players she expected them in her office Monday morning and to bring their national championship rings.
“All of your rings will be in my office in the safe,” Braitsch recalls Gasso informing the team.
Braitsch, who played at OU from 2000-03, didn’t understand Gasso’s methods then, but some life lessons are a slow burn.
Kristin Vesely played for Gasso from 2003-06 and is now Houston’s head softball coach. During her playing days, she knew Gasso placed value in relationships, especially her family. It wasn’t until she stopped playing that she fully grasped Gasso was much more than a softball skipper trying to win games.
“My big picture of her was she was serious about winning, being a competitor and being professional,” Vesely said. “And now that I'm on the other side, I can go to her with questions about how does she balance work and life and she's really open to sharing that.
“Those are the things that I really look forward to when I see her. Having those conversations is more like a mentor figure or a motherly figure rather, more than back in the day, it was more of an authority figure in my life.”
Perhaps as important to anything she’s done as a coach, Gasso has learned how to uphold her lofty standards, while also building meaningful bonds with her players and staff.
Becoming more open has been a priority for Gasso, whether it’s about as something as personal as family or as inconsequential as what music she’s listening to.
“It was important for me to create a relationship with them,” Gasso said. “And that is what was really different is that I spent time really talking to each one of them, whether it's over breakfast or in my office or what have you. I've really created more of a relationship than I ever have.”
If not for her new outlook on the job, perhaps she doesn’t have college softball’s all-time home runs leader still on her roster.
Jocelyn Alo likens her and Gasso’s relationship to that of a mother and daughter, despite it not being that way at the start of her career.
“I will call her for anything, I’ll text her random things that are funny,” Alo said. “And that's definitely grown over time.
“When I first got here ... I'm not gonna lie, I was kind of scared of her. And then sophomore year, we butted heads a lot. And then started to get closer just as she got to know me, and I got to know her.”
Gasso gets a kick out of her former players’ reactions to the way she runs OU’s softball program, 27 years, 15 Women’s College World Series appearances, 14 conference regular season championships and five national championships later.
“Now those players are like, ‘I can't even believe you let your team get away with this and get away with that,’” Gasso said.
Braitsch recalled another memory from her playing days, this time when she says Gasso instructed the players to get their new pairs of cleats and line them up in the locker room.
A lack of effort in practice.
“We're going to earn everything,” Braitsch recalls Gasso saying, “including our equipment.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. The players still had cleats for practice — just not the new team-issued pairs.
Braitsch can admit she and some of her teammates might have gotten too high on themselves after winning it all the year before and wasn’t able to comprehend all of the ways Gasso was preparing her for adult life.
OU’s current players aren’t locked out from seeing or hearing about the early days of Gasso’s tenure. Former players are more than welcome around the program, and Gasso does a decent job of seeking them out herself — Braitsch will always be appreciative of something as simple as her coach attending her police academy graduation.
Braitsch has returned to campus and been presented the chance to impart her wisdom on Gasso’s players. Five years ago, Braitsch specifically remembers walking into the team’s locker room to offer some advice but realized something as she took in the room.
“Before we start this conversation,” she said to the players, “what are you guys in trouble for?”
The players looked at each other with looks of confusion as to how could she possibly know that they weren’t in the best graces of Gasso.
She pointed to the cleats lined up, just as they were nearly two decades prior. She giggled and turned to Gasso, asking her, “Oh, we’re still doing that?”
Perhaps not all things change.
Patty Gasso's only other coaching job was at Long Beach City College, where she compiled a 161-59-1 record from 1990-94.
Gasso has actually implemented “blue-collar days” this season when she felt the team needed more accountability. Gasso would delegate jobs, such as raking leaves, picking up trash around the softball complex and cleaning the home dugout.
OU was actually just the second non-West Coast school to win the Women’s College World Series. The first was Texas A&M.