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NORMAN — Patty Gasso spent the early months of the 2019 season quoting someone she called “the great philosopher.”
As Oklahoma traversed invitational trips to Arizona, Florida and California and settled into its home slate that spring, Gasso called upon the great philosopher frequently. Their quotes snuck into pregame talks and post-practice lectures. The tidbits Gasso chose were always brief, but meaningful and never quite long enough for her curious players to figure out the author’s identity.
The ruse went on for months until infielder Shay Knighten cracked the case. Gasso had just finished quoting the great philosopher in a speech about control when her senior first baseman blurted the philosopher’s name. Suddenly, a massive grin spread across Gasso’s face.
“It was Janet Jackson,” Knighten, now a second-year assistant at San Diego, recalled this week.
Indeed, Gasso’s “great philosopher” was pop icon Janet Jackson. The Sooners’ legendary softball coach is a big fan. Gasso had been leading through Jackson’s deep catalog of lyrics all spring.
In the weeks that followed, the words and sounds of the voice behind “Escapade” and “That’s The Way Love Goes” became the soundtrack to OU’s 10th-consecutive Women’s College World Series appearance.
“For the rest of the year, Janet Jackson was the end all, be all,” said former Sooners outfielder Nicole Mendes. “If you wanted to say something, it had to be a Janet Jackson quote.”
Gasso has always found creative methods to motivate her players on the way to constructing college softball’s preeminent modern dynasty. OU’s 30th-year coach will search for more in 2024 as the three-time defending national champion Sooners chase down a historic four-peat in Oklahoma City this spring.
“This one is just different,” Gasso said Monday. “The expectation — winning four in a row is unheard of. Unheard of. You can’t even wrap your mind around it.”
Each season in Gasso’s storied tenure has presented new challenges. Roster churn, ever-evolving team chemistry, outside pressure and the threat of complacency have made sure of it.
Last June, after OU closed with an NCAA record 53-straight wins and matched UCLA’s historic three-peat (1998-90), Gasso described the season as the “roughest one I’ve ever had to go through.” This spring, the Sooners will play under the pressure of a chance to secure singular softball status and launch into the conversation of the greatest college dynasties of all time with a fourth-straight national championship this June.
They embark on that journey loaded with Jayda Coleman, Tiare Jennings and Kinzie Hanson lead the most feared batting order in the sport. In Nicole May and Kelly Maxwell, OU has a pair of pillars to one of the deepest and most talented pitching rotations in the sport. Six starters return to the nation’s top defense in 2023.
Another weapon for the Sooners as they pursue history: Gasso, the top coach in college softball and one of college sport’s greatest motivators.
“She has this sixth sense of knowing her athletes and knowing what her team needs,” Knighten said. “She always shows or says the right thing at the right time.”
‘She listened to us’
In an industry filled with coaches who yell, former players describe Gasso’s leadership as firm and direct, but seldom loud.
Andrea Martensen, formerly Andrea Davis, was an infielder on Gasso’s first national title team in 2000. To convey Gasso’s style, Martensen turned to the West African proverb favored by former United States president Theodore Roosevelt: Speak softly and carry a big stick.
It’s taken Gasso and her teams far. And while the best stories of Gasso’s motivation tactics — see: Janet Jackson — have been targeted toward the collective, the 61-year-old coach has built a softball superpower by pushing her players individually, as well.
“She had a way of reaching each player on an individual level and getting our very best,” Martenson said. “I did things at Oklahoma that I never thought I could do, physically. That is a real testament to her.”
Gasso has long challenged her players in practice, setting up games and smashing balls with a Fungo bat. Martenson remembers team-wide “book sessions” where the Sooners pored over worksheets pulled from the book “Heads-Up Baseball”, designed to sharpen the Sooners’ mental edge.
But Martenson remembers best the individual meetings she had with Gasso and her coaching staff before each season. The sit-downs were a place for setting realistic goals in the campaign ahead. Players would be asked to write down how many home runs they might hit or how many runs they could drive in that spring. Gasso typically told them they could do better.
Those preseason meetings had a way of pushing Gasso’s players. They also went a long way toward setting expectations. Gasso acknowledged this week that one of her challenges this spring is balancing a roster of 13 returners and nine newcomers via the transfer portal and the nation’s top high school recruiting class.
“I’ve got to get a team that’s playing as a team and not as individuals, (so) when the lineup is written out they’re not having tantrums and pouting over that; that they’re just adults,” Gasso said. “That they’re women. Playing like women. acting like women. If we can do that, we’re going to win a lot of games. We’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Nearly two decades after Martenson’s senior season in 2021, Knighten felt the same power of Gasso’s simple approach to motivating individuals from 2016-19.
Knighten will sometimes surprise people when she refers to Gasso as “our mom”. Gasso’s willingness to open her family and her home to OU’s players over her tenure has cut through her intensity and fostered comfortable relationships. Current Sooners centerfield Jayda Coleman revealed this week that Gasso was one of the first people she texted when she got engaged to OU safety Billy Bowman on New Year’s Eve.
“We’re people to her, first and foremost” Knighten said. “It’s why we were able to play the way we were able to play and they still continue to do that. She doesn’t want to change you. She just wants you to be better and grow. As an athlete, that’s freeing.”
After last year’s national title, Gasso told a story about taking each of her players to a meal and hearing every one of them out before the season. “I needed to listen,” Gasso said.
Knighten’s mind goes back to eating with Gasso at McAlister’s Deli during her years in Norman. Their lunchtime conversations centered on life, school and family — everything but softball — a level of trust Knighten had seldom felt before with a coach.
Gasso has taken OU head and shoulders above the rest of softball with superior talent, coaching and culture, but also with players who feel empowered in the biggest moments each spring.
“I think that’s something that helped when we were on the field,” Knighten said. “She listened to us. She trusted what our instincts were and what we had to say. She always knew we had more.”
Getting the message across
Gasso famously took her team to see Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” at Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Mall in the spring of 2000 during the Sooners’ run to the program’s first national title.
In 2021, Gasso broke the film out again during a preseason movie night.
“I don’t think it was the type of movie a lot of us girls would have gone to see on our own,” Martenson said. “But when we did go see it was just really cool. It fit the mindset we were playing with at the time.”
Gasso finds motivational materials in all sorts of places.
Gasso considers performance coach and author Brett Ledbetter a friend and a mentor. She references his book “What Drives Winning” constantly. Players in recent seasons have seen clips of Kobe Bryant and interviews with Olympic skiers. Knighten remembers an afternoon spent watching ESPN’s Films’ 30 for 30 documentary on Michigan’s Fab Five.
“Coach Gasso showed us teams and people that have had really high highs, but also really low lows,” Knighten said. “That was us. She was really good at showing us certain things and certain people at the right time.”
Sometimes the programming comes from within the program’s walls. Coleman and teammate Alyssa Brito both pointed to the motivation found through OU’s legacy under Gasso and the path paved by those who came before them.
What pushes two of the Sooners’ most important veteran stars? Clips of Lauren Chamberlain in the 2013 WCWS.
“Getting to watch them in the College World Series to see how feisty and scrappy they are is very motivational to me,” Coleman said. “I’m like, ‘We got to fill those shoes every year.’”
Few, if any of Gasso’s motivational tactics reached the level of her ploy with Janet Jackson and “the great philosopher” in 2019. Gasso only tipped her hand when she used too much of the prelude to Jackson’s 1986 hit “Control” during the speech Knighten pounced on.
The words go like this: “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do…Are we ready? I am. Because it’s all about control. And I’ve got lots of it.”
Gasso’s message through the song was clear and it caught on with the OU team that finished as national runner-ups that spring.
By June, Jackson’s music was a constant theme among those Sooners. The 2001 chart-topper “All for You” became the team’s unofficial anthem for bus rides to and from Oklahoma City’s Hall of Stadium. Each time, players would see their coach at the front of the bus dancing and pumping her fist.
Gasso bounced along to Jackson’s voice in her set knowing full well that her message had gotten across and that her mission was accomplished.