Where are they now? Willie Steele
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Where are they now? Willie Steele

Between sessions of the 25th anniversary year of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball & American Culture last week at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Lipscombsports.com was able to spend some time with former Lipscomb track and cross country athlete Willie Steele. It was the sixth time Steele, a long-time fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had been a participant in the symposium and the fifth time that he had presented a paper. He also found time to praise the work of LU track and cross country coach Bill Taylor and also recalled his time at Lipscomb.

What sport did you play at Lipscomb? What years? Who were your coaches?

"I was at Lipscomb from 1991-95. I graduated in December of 1995. I had a double major in English and Speech Communication.

"I ran track for two years and they dropped the program. I ran cross country for five years with one of those years being a redshirt year.

"When I first got to Lipscomb my coach was Kent Johnson. After my third year coach Johnson stepped down and Lynn Griffith took over the program."

What is your fondest athletic memory at Lipscomb?

"First of all, I am the least athletic athlete ever interviewed for this feature. I guarantee you that.

"My senior year, in the district (cross country) championship, we had the perfect race planned. Training had gone well. Everything was great.

"I remember people coming up and asking us what they could do. We told them to come out and support us. I told them to pray that Willie Steele makes nationals. I thought it would be good to have that in my hip pocket. One of the guys who beat me out for nationals that year was from Christian Brothers University and his name was William Steele.

"I learned two lessons. One was God does answer prayers. And two, you better be really specific with your prayer request.

"That was in November of 1995. I would have to go back and check but I think I finished two spots out of qualifying for the nationals. I try to block it out of my memory.  I couldn't have done anything differently in the race. Coach Griffith and I talked about it afterwards. You can't be upset when you do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may."

Who had the biggest influence on you during your athletic career at Lipscomb? How?

“Coach Johnson helped me understand the athletic side of things. Coach Griffith helped me understand why we did certain things that we did.

“I coached for 10 years. I was an assistant at Lipscomb for three years and coached at Cascade College for seven years.

“I realized it is not a one size fits all training philosophy. You have to work with people individually. Students and student-athletes come from different backgrounds and struggle with different things. You have to be able to have a personal relationship with students and athletes. Had it not been for coach Griffith and coach Johnson I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.

“Coach Johnson gave me the chance to walk on my freshman year. He had the patience not to choke me and throw me out of the side of a van in the middle of nowhere.

“Coach Griffith gave me a chance to cut my teeth coaching under him for three years after I graduated. He actually helped me get my first coaching job out in Oregon. Without those two guys I don’t know if I would have had the experiences I have had so far.”

What is your fondest non-athletic memory from your time at Lipscomb?

"I know it is cliché because a lot of people say this, but it was the relationship with the guys on the team. We would hang out at Pizza Perfect and the Donut Den…just being an 18, 19 or 20-year-old kid.

"I remember a lot of times after Saturday morning workouts a bunch of us would head up to the Harpeth River and go fishing all afternoon. I loved that. I couldn't spend enough time out on the river fishing.

“There are a lot of good memories with those guys. Some of my best friends now are people I knew from cross country and from track.”

What is the most valuable thing you gained or learned from your time at Lipscomb?

"There were a lot of people who had patience with me. When you are 18-to-22 sometimes you think you know it all. And 20 years later you realize that you didn’t.

“There were people who took time to work with me, support me and be really strong Christian mentors to me. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it I realize a lot of those people helped shape who I am right now and have really helped me as I try to mentor students and student-athletes.

“I was the sports editor for “The Babbler”. Lipscomb had lost a game to Belmont that they should have won at Memorial Gym. I remember afterwards that I didn’t want to interview coach Don Meyer.

“But we were talking outside the locker room and I asked him what he would take away from a loss like this. He said that a lot of times you learn more from an `F’ than you do an `A’. I was thinking, `what are you talking about?’ He said when you get an `F’ you have to go back and rethink what you have done and fix some things. A lot of times when you get an `A’ you think you can just coast.

“He said we are going to go back to work and fix the things we didn’t do right. That is something that as a coach and a professor now that I try to tell my students. You may not have done as well as you wanted to now, but that doesn’t have to define you from here on. You can fix some things.”

Who was your favorite professor? Why?

“I have three in the English department – Ed Edgin, Lin Garner and Dennis Lloyd. Dr. Edgin was the department chair and hired me to be an adjunct.

“I didn’t take Denny Lloyd for a class until my senior year. He has a way of being able to take really complex issues and make them accessible to a lot of people. Denny and I have worked on some projects.

“Lin Garner still has the record for the longest exams ever. I had an exam that was so long that it caused me to miss cross country practice. I got an `A’ on the test so she asked me what I was worried about. She and I have agreed to disagree on whether or not her tests were too long.

“Paul Prill sticks out in the communication department. I also went to Acklen Avenue where he was the minister at the time. He took a really strong interest in students, not just academically but personally. I have tried to model that.

“One thing I am really grateful for is the type of relationship I have had 20 years later with the faculty and staff. They still remember me and take an interest in what I am doing now.

“It is a lot of fun having a relationship with professors after graduating. You don’t have to worry about grades. You realize they are people and they actually do take an interest in what you are doing beyond the classroom.”

Where do you live now?

“Oklahoma City, Okla.”

Who is your employer? What is your occupation? What does your position entail?

“I work for Oklahoma Christian University. I am a professor of English in the Department of Language and Literature. I have an M. A. in English from Middle Tennessee State and A PH.D. in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I have been there for four years. I just got tenure. I teach mostly American literature.  I have a couple of specialty classes, one on Civil War literature and another on sports literature.

“My first book on W.P. Kinsella called “A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball and Identity in the Fiction of W.P. Kinsella” came out in the fall of 2011. (Editor’s note: W.P. Kinsella wrote the novel “Shoeless Joe” which was the basis of the movie “Field of Dreams”.)

“Kinsella read a copy of it and had some really nice things to say about it. He emailed me back in November and asked if I would be interested in writing his biography. I am reading through his journals and private correspondence.”

Tell us about your family.

“I married Heather Barker who is from Oklahoma City. I met her when I moved to Oregon. We got married in December 2000.

“We have two daughters. Molly Reagan will be seven in August. She told me the other day she wants to be in the Olympics as a gymnast and 10-K runner. She will be the first ever gymnast/10-K runner in the Olympics. We are looking forward to that.

“Marianne Elizabeth just turned five. She is going to be the first left-handed female pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So we are equally excited for that. I am going to teach until they are able to help me retire.”

My email is willie.steele@oc.edu.