***ARTICLE COURTESY OF UM ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
Jamie Pinkerton, the former head coach at Tulsa and Arkansas and most recently an assistant coach at Iowa State, has been named the first head coach of the nascent Montana softball program. The Grizzlies will play their inaugural season in 2014-15.
Pinkerton rose to the top of an applicant pool of nearly 100. He interviewed on campus last week and was offered the job on Friday. On Monday he accepted. He’ll be in Missoula before Labor Day to start laying the program’s foundation.
“I was hopeful from the moment I left campus that I might be given the opportunity to start this program,” Pinkerton said. “To be the program’s architect is really thrilling.”
The Griz softball program got its start more than two years ago, when the Montana Board of Regents, in May 2011, approved an increased student athletic fee aimed at helping UM remain in compliance with Title IX gender equity metrics.
The increase was not written specifically for the addition of a women's softball program, but because of the rise in popularity of the sport at the prep level in the state and in the region, it was the logical choice to become Montana’s 15th intercollegiate sport and ninth women’s program.
“The department hasn’t added a sport since women’s soccer in 1994, so this is an historic time for Grizzly Athletics,” said UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam.
“This is a key hire, because the first coach is going to set the course for the future of softball at Montana. With that in mind, I appreciate the hard work and dedication of the search committee that allowed us to interview the candidates we did.
“As expected, there was widespread interest in the position, and that resulted in an outstanding pool of finalists. Jamie’s experience and success as a head coach, his commitment to the overall development of the student-athlete and his excitement for the position really set him apart.”
Pinkerton has been coaching Division I softball since 1994. Nine of those seasons have been as a head coach, first at Tulsa (2001-04), then at Arkansas (2005-09). Pinkerton has spent the last four years (2010-13) as an assistant coach at Iowa State.
After working as an assistant at Tulsa from 1994-97, Pinkerton, who was born in Fort Smith, Ark., and raised in Broken Arrow, Okla., spent time at both Louisiana-Monroe and Virginia before returning to Tulsa for his first stint as a head coach.
The Golden Hurricane had not had a winning season since the program debuted in 1993 when Pinkerton arrived. Tulsa went 13-42 in his first season, in 2001, but that only laid the groundwork for the dramatics that came next.
With Pinkerton’s first recruiting class in the program, Tulsa improved to 48-16 in 2002, a season that included a 19-game winning streak. Pinkerton pointed to that turnaround last week during his series of interviews as one of his favorite coaching memories.
“When we assembled that first freshman class, we knew early on, from a chemistry standpoint, that there was something special happening,” he said. “I knew in the fall that something was clicking, and I knew enough to just stay the heck out of the way and let them go.”
Tulsa’s 30.5-game improvement from 2001 to ’02 has not been topped by an NCAA program since, and it ranks second in NCAA softball history, behind only UCLA’s 33-game improvement, from an 18-27 team in 1998 to a 63-6 national champion in 1999.
Pinkerton’s 2003 team won 34 games and posted a 5-4 victory on the road at No. 5 Oklahoma. In 2004 the Golden Hurricane went 45-18 and had three wins over ranked teams.
One of Tulsa’s wins that season was a 6-0 shutout of Arkansas, which partly explains why the Razorbacks, who went 18-40 that year, pursued and hired Pinkerton after the season.
The wins did not come as quickly as they had at Tulsa, but the program changed course while competing in the SEC. Arkansas won at least 21 games in Pinkerton’s final four seasons, highlighted by a 37-29 finish in 2008.
That season concluded with the Razorbacks’ first trip to the NCAA tournament under Pinkerton, and Arkansas returned the following spring in Pinkerton’s final season at Fayetteville. They were the first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in program history.
Pinkerton resigned shortly after the 2009 season. It was an amicable split that resulted from new Arkansas AD Jeff Long wanting to put his own stamp on a program, much like Pinkerton will be doing at Montana.
“My contract was up, and he wanted his own person,” Pinkerton says. “It’s just the way athletics works. There was no bitterness on either side.”
How to measure the lasting effects of Pinkerton and the groundwork he laid at two schools as head coach? Tulsa has had 12 straight winning seasons since the 2002 turnaround and has made the NCAA tournament five of the last six years. Arkansas has made the NCAA tournament four of the last six years.
“Looking back, I have great fondness for the amount of success those programs have had since I’ve left,” Pinkerton said. “Hopefully my staff and I left those programs in better shape than we found them.”
Pinkerton, who has been in the USA Softball national team coaching pool since 2009, did not remain unemployed long. Iowa State hired him just a few weeks after he left Arkansas to be the Cyclones’ infield and hitting coach. He has been ISU’s recruiting coordinator the last two seasons.
Under Pinkerton, Iowa State’s performance at the plate has been record-breaking. The Cyclones’ .288 team hitting percentage in 2013 was a program record, as were their 40 home runs. The team’s 284 runs scored broke the preview team high by 59; its 253 RBIs were a program best by 57.
Pinkerton spent last Wednesday interviewing at Montana, and he was struck by the like identities of the two schools.
“There were striking similarities between the athletic departments,” Pinkerton said. “It’s the people who make an athletic department, and the impression I got at Montana is the same one I got at Iowa State, that they are both filled with good people.
“It’s those bonds that are created over the years that make it difficult to say goodbye at Iowa State, but they’ve all been positive goodbyes. I look forward to creating those same types of relationships at Montana.”