Nov. 20, 2013
On Thursday, Nov. 21, Virginia field hockey head coach Michele Madison will be inducted into the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame, the first Virginia coach to receive this honor. Since 2000 when the organization announced its initial Hall of Fame class, the coaches’ association has honored 54 individuals, including three 2013 inductees.
Madison, who in 2012 became just the 26th head coach in NCAA Division I history to hit the 300-win mark, currently ranks ninth among active coaches in career wins and is two W’s shy of topping the UVa list for career victories. In her eight seasons in Charlottesville, she has led her teams to seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including two trips to the Final Four.
Not bad for a basketball player.
“Back when I was in high school, I was tall so I played forward,” Madison said. “In my prep days, I averaged over 24 points a game.”
Madison first started playing sports when her family moved from Philadelphia to New Jersey when she was in the fourth grade.
“I was drawn to playing sports because I never really fit in anywhere,” Madison said. “I was always taller and my skin was always darker than everyone else’s, even my sisters and brothers. I wanted to hang out with the guys, but I never really fit in. In New Jersey, I started playing volleyball on Tuesday nights and basketball on Thursday nights with Kathy and Betsy. They were just two volunteer coaches in the community and there I found I could just be myself. No one cared how tall you were, how short you were, where you came from or who you were and that’s what I love about sport today. Once you put a uniform on, you’re all the same. What we share is a common goal and I like to teach kids, that if we all do it together, it is all easier and it’s all more fun.”
Though she would play any sport available, basketball was Madison’s true passion. It was actually through basketball that she accidentally discovered field hockey.
“My basketball coach, Kathy Mitton, asked me to play on the field hockey team after my first year in high school,” Madison recalled. “She took me out to the field and I saw all of the people bashing other people around. All I knew about field hockey was the little I had learned in gym class, that it involved getting hit with the stick, and so I said, `No way!’ She was persistent, though and asked me what position I wanted to play. I said, `That one, the goalie,’ and that’s how it started. I went to the summer camp at the high school to learn how to play. The first day at camp, I went and put the pads on upside down when I went out to the field that way. Eventually, I learned how to play goalie.”
Madison’s first field hockey coaching experience also was a byproduct of her basketball career.
“In my junior year, I went to basketball camp like I always did and broke my ankle and my leg, so I couldn’t play field hockey,” Madison said. “So my coach decided that I could coach the goalie and that’s when I started coaching, while I was still in high school.”
Madison thought she left coaching and field hockey behind once she graduated from Williamstown High School. She enrolled at Rutgers and tried to walk on to the basketball team. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights had just signed a stacked recruiting class, and Madison wasn’t having much success making the team. She took a job in the school cafeteria to fill her time and keep her mind off basketball.
One day, during a shift at the dining hall, field hockey literally walked back into her life.
“This girl in the dining hall said to me, `I’m going to go to field hockey walk-on tryouts tomorrow.’ I decided to go. Anything was better than working in the dining hall.”
So she went to the tryout, only to discover the team had not one but four goalkeepers already. She was about to walk away when one of the JV coaches, Coach Smitty, asked her where she was going.
“I said, `It looks like you already have four goalies.’ She said back to me, `But maybe you are better than all of them.’ I’ll never forget that she said that and that’s how that started.”
Madison stuck with field hockey, playing some on the JV squad and making the varsity squad her senior season. However, it wasn’t her successes on the field that she remembers most from those days, it was an incident during her junior year, involving a freshman getting playing time ahead of her, that still resonates with her.
“I just walked off the field and I said I don’t need to play this sport anyway,” Madison recalled. “Then a week went by and my coach, Ann Petracco, talked to me and said she knew I wanted to be a teacher and coach and how are you going to do that if you don’t play a sport. So she talked me in to going back, but I was still mad. And then it clicked. I don’t play for the coach. When I stopped playing for the coach and her attention and her approval and I played for the team, I had so much fun and it didn’t matter if I played and it didn’t matter if I played JV and it didn’t matter if I traveled. I just loved what I was doing with my teammates.”
As much as she had been a reluctant field hockey player, Madison originally was equally reluctant to be a field hockey coach.
She went to the University of Iowa to work on her master’s degree, working as a “volunteer” coach for the field hockey team as a way to pay for grad school. At the end of her first season, both of the full-time assistants left, moving Madison into a part-time assistant coach position. Once she graduated, she made the transition to full-time assistant. During her seven seasons (1982-89) in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes advanced to the Final Four four times and captured their only NCAA championship in 1986. But she still didn’t want to be a coach.
“I really didn’t want to be a coach, I was fighting against it,” Madison said. “Even in 1988, when I was with the U.S. Olympic team, I was the manager, not a coach and I loved it. I was the business manager that dealt with all of the financial aspects of the trip and the logistics. I wasn’t coaching at all. I had no desire. I was trying to become a corporate recruiter with [former Iowa head men’s basketball coach] George Raveling trying to help me get into the world, but I had no bites. I kept getting all of these opportunities in hockey, especially when I decided I wanted to leave Iowa. I decided to apply for the head coaching job at Temple and got it. And it was on from there.”
Eventually, Madison did coach at the Olympics, working with the goalkeepers in Atlanta in 1996.
It was going to Temple in 1989 that ignited her love of coaching.
“I just loved the way that the Temple kids played,” Madison said. “They just were gritty. They were all from the mountains and small towns, but coming to Philly made them tougher and they just played their hearts out. They would have fights. I had to break up fights at practice more than once. They probably had the least skill of any teams I had but the most desire and heart and fight.”
The Temple job ignited her love, but the spark had been there since working camps during college. She realized, while working with a deaf field hockey team from Washington, D.C., how amazing an experience it can be to be a coach.
“At first, I had the goalie that I was working with at camp and then at night I had the whole team, and I had to find some way I could teach the goalie how to play,” Madison said. “I thought that was really cool that I found a way to teach the goalie how to play without words. It was different and really cool at the same time, so I have always remembered that moment and that feeling of being able to coach and teach and how good it feels.”
Throughout her career, there have been many people who have helped Madison learn more about her adopted sport.
“Boudeijn Castelijn was the U.S. Olympic coach in 1988 and tactically how he explained the game to play was the first time I really understood it,” Madison recalled. “Some of the stuff that he taught back then is still being taught now and run systematically. That was the first time that the game intrigued me. He also taught me how to hit. Being a goalie, I wasn’t the best at hitting, but the U.S. squad had the best hitters in the world and we were just goofing around and I was helping with the goalies and I would hit with them myself and I guess I was pretty good at it. [U.S. Olympic team goalkeeper] Patty Shea was an all-world goalie. She wanted the ball exactly in a certain spot, so that’s where I learned to hit. Those were the fun days!”
Many others gave her lessons in the art of coaching. She learned a lot from reading up on and studying basketball coaching legends like Pat Riley and Jim Valvano.
“As a young coach I loved Jimmy V,” Madison said. “I used to watch NC State play and just loved his energy and enthusiasm for the game. You just take a little bit from everybody. Judith Davidson, who gave me my start at Iowa, was very good at talking to the team. She was very demanding, but she taught them about mental toughness and representing your team with class and dignity. She gave me a lot of opportunities and taught me a lot. [Former Virginia assistant coach] Chris Spice, who worked with Olympic athletes in England and the United States, has taught me how to give constant feedback and how it helps teach the athletes. Some of the toughest athletes are the ones that really teach you because you’re like I have to find a way to reach them and you keep finding different ways to do that.”
Over the years, Madison has shifted from being a mentee to a mentor. Pam Bustin, the current head coach at Duke, was an assistant on Michele’s staff at Temple and Michigan State. Rolf van de Kerkhof, now the head coach at Delaware, was on Madison’s staff at Michigan State, taking over as the Spartans’ head coach when Madison made the move to Charlottesville.
“It’s awesome,” Madison said of the success of her colleagues. “This year, Rolf is in the NCAA tournament. Pam’s in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is doing well. Temple had a good year this year. I feel a lot of pride that they are successful.”
For Madison, however, the true joy of coaching comes from the student-athletes. There is a real joy in watching their development as players and their growth as human beings.
“I love when a kid does something that they never thought was possible, whether it is passing a fitness test or mastering backhand shots,” Madison said. “I can still remember when [UVa alumna and four-time All-American] Paige Selenski came running to the sideline after she scored her first backhand shot. She was like, `I did it. I did it! I got a backhand shot!’ She came here and she didn’t know how to hit a backhand shot and now she scores with them in international games. It is most enjoyable to teach kids who are open and willing to try and learn.”
The ballroom at the Virginia Beach Resort and Conference Center will be filled with plenty of Madison’s former players and coworkers as well as friends and others whose lives have been touched by her, with her life-partner and balance-partner, Elly Appel, sitting front and center. There will also be a large contingent of Madison’s family. In fact, all of Michele’s family will be in attendance, with her mother, Ursula, her father and stepmother, Al and Geri, her three sisters, older-Petra, Patricia, and Christina, as well as two brothers-in-law, two nieces and a nephew filling the room.
“I think that’s it like 14 family members,” Madison said. “That they all want to come is exciting for me. They were all so busy with their own lives that I knew that they supported me in bits and pieces of the sport, but that they all said they were coming to this is amazing and touching. They were all really supportive of me growing up. They tolerated my sports even when I was never home to do the dishes. My sister, Petra, always cooked dinner and she always had to save it for me, but she did it. They all supported me in different ways.”
Her father, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and the IRS when Madison was young, was a tough, hard-love parent who traveled often for work, but he was still a dominant influence in the life of his daughter.
“My dad always said, `Madisons can do anything.’ Someone just asked me, `Where did you get our confidence from?’ That’s where. I was taught that when you are a Madison, you can accomplish whatever you want. That was just what I heard everyday.”
It is what she heard every day, believed every day and lived every day on her path to the Hall of Fame.