Eleven months ago, Tiffany Tootle coached a top-ranked Columbus State softball team to the program’s first-ever world series appearance.
On Monday, she was plotting her next move after resigning as the Lady Cougars’ coach, effective immediately.
The ninth-year coach had been on paid administrative leave for more than a month before a series of meetings with CSU president Frank Brown last week, when she determined a change would benefit both parties.
“It’s been a long year and a lot’s happened,” Tootle said. “Just due to the circumstances that occurred, I think it would be difficult for me to continue to coach at CSU. I just think the best decision for me was to resign from my softball position.”
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At issue was whether Tootle is an extremely demanding coach or one who was verbally abusive, as she was described by a player's mother.
She has never hidden her hard-nosed coaching style from view, believing that it helped produce tough, competitive teams. Her record seems to support that belief, as Tootle’s CSU teams won more than 71 percent (318-128) of their games, appeared in five NCAA tournaments and had won the Peach Belt Conference in each of the previous two seasons.
But her tactics did not fit well with this year’s team, which features nine freshmen after losing seven members off last year’s World Series squad. A rift began to develop between the coach and some of her players and parents, which widened as the season progressed.
“I’ve been here two years and she never did anything to me,” senior center fielder Cassie Cooper said. “I always liked her and respected her, but she was really hard on some of the freshmen. They just didn’t respect her and didn’t like some of the things she did.”
Angela Paul, mother of senior outfielder Allison Paul, said the freshmen weren’t alone. She said Tootle sometimes refused to provide food and adequately chilled water after losses and could be verbally abusive when players failed to perform to her liking.
“(Allison once) said there’s a fine line between being a strong, hard coach and being what she called a psycho coach,” Angela Paul said. “I just said, ‘Where do you put coach Tootle?’ and she said, ‘She jumps back and forth.’
“Well, if you jump back and forth, that means you’re psycho. I do think she’s a good disciplinarian, and that was good, but there were times when she took it too far.”
Paul said she had often questioned Tootle’s methods privately throughout Allison’s four-year career, but refrained from raising the issue to Tootle or athletic director Herbert Greene out of respect for Allison’s wishes to continue playing.
“I think in many ways she was a good example to the girls, but I just felt like she needed to take a Dale Carnegie course to learn how to better get results instead of using all the negativity,” Paul said.
Tootle would not speculate on whether she believes some of her coaching tactics were incorrect in hindsight.
“Honestly, I’m not gonna say I did wrong, I didn’t do wrong, this or that,” she said. “I’m not gonna comment negatively in any way toward the team, toward the University or anything. I just feel like with the things that have occurred, I feel like this is the best thing for me to do.”
Tootle had actually been placed on administrative leave twice this school year, most recently after a tournament in South Carolina in early March. She went on leave after the March 11 doubleheader against North Georgia and has not coached a game since.
Assistant coach Brad Huskisson coached the team in the interim, nearly leading the Cougars to an improbable spot in last weekend’s Peach Belt tournament finals after they immediately fell into the loser’s bracket with a loss in the tournament opener.
The Cougars were 13-12 when Tootle was placed on leave, but went 11-6 under Huskisson to conclude the season. Last weekend’s performance was enough to put them on the bubble to receive a bid to the Division II South Atlantic Regional. The team will discover Wednesday whether it receives a postseason berth.
“We’re hoping,” Cooper said. “We have a better chance than we thought we would. It’s actually kind of in our favor, maybe. We’re just waiting around to Wednesday.”
Rising athletic director Jay Sparks said the CSU administration will wait until after the season to determine who will be considered for the head coaching job, but expects Huskisson to receive consideration if he is interested.
“With what we did last Saturday, it put a lot of icing on the cake and made things feel good,” Huskisson said. “Whatever they decide to do, I’m definitely gonna put my name in the hat.”
Tootle will continue to fulfill her role as an instructor in CSU’s physical education department for the remainder of this term. The school has offered a teaching position in the fall should she choose to accept it.
She said she plans to spend the coming weeks exploring future coaching opportunities and planning her next step.
The last month has been tough to endure, Tootle said, and she will regret leaving behind the friendships she developed in Columbus. She expressed hope that the trying experiences of the last year will benefit her as a coach and as a person in the future.
“I think like anything, you use your experiences to be better,” she said. “It’s been very trying and emotional and all of those adjectives roll into it. But I think when things are said and done, you have to take away the things that make you a better person and expand upon that.”