Meet the Big Ten’s only Black head softball coach

Photo courtesy University of Illinois Coach Tyra Perry: “I absolutely love the Big Ten.”

She hopes to inspire others by example

Black softball players grew in number slightly over a decade, according to the latest NCAA demographics reports. There were 970 Black female college softball players in 2008, growing to 1,010 in 2018. Although their White counterparts showed a decrease during the same period—down to 13,788 in 2018 from 15,444 in 2008—the sport remains overwhelmingly White.

Tyra Perry is the Big Ten’s only Black head softball coach. Asked if hair-related concerns might be among the varied reasons for the low number of Black softball players, she said recalled worrying about her hair while in college because “I sweat every single day” and it affected the relaxer she used at the time.

But she added that softball scholarships are limited in softball compared to such sports as basketball and volleyball, and the low numbers could be attributed to that as well. “I absolutely want to see more diversity in our sport.”

Softball historically has not been among the top sport choices for young Black females. “My sister and I growing up were the only two Black players, or [players] of color period, on our softball team,” Perry continued. “We played other sports that were more diverse, but when it came to softball, it generally was just the two of us.”

The NCAA’s latest demographics also showed no change in the number of Black head coaches (24) over a decade. Perry has been a head coach since 2001, and at her present position at Illinois since 2016.

“We have Power 5 meetings and I am the only Black female in the room, she said, adding that she has noticed an increase in former Black players becoming coaches, especially at the beginning levels. “Hopefully there will be more to come.

“It is a joy and opportunity to develop young women,” she admitted, “and to be an example and role model. In order for young Black girls to say, ‘I want to be a coach,’ you have to see it.  It’s great that I am out there and being seen, and hopefully sparking that interest.”

Before the Big Ten and the NCAA called a halt to all spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Perry’s 2020 Illinois squad had won three of its last five contests, finishing 11-11.

“I think we were starting to make our move. A lot of our losses were one-run losses, and we were in games,” the head coach noted. “I definitely had a group that wanted to win.”

Perry said she was initially influenced to look at coaching while in college. “I thought I would go into nursing,” but she changed her mind after transferring from Nicholls State (1994-95) to LSU (1997-98) and saw how a program was run by her head coach.

“She was kind enough to show me the ropes. I became fascinated,” Perry recalled. 

Her father, a multi-sport coach, influenced her as well. “My father is a small-town coach and retired now. He coached me in softball, and my brother in basketball, and my sister in softball and volleyball, and my other sister in volleyball,” she noted.

Perry began coaching in her 20s, first at Birmingham Southern (2001-07), then Western Kentucky (2008-13), Ball State (2014-15), and now at Illinois. She is a three-time coach-of-the-year winner and has a nearly 65 percent winning record.

“I absolutely love the Big Ten, and love Illinois,” Perry reiterated. “I didn’t know much about it when I stepped onto the campus when I was considering it. It felt very much like a place where I could grow and develop a strong softball program.” Her teams thus far have made the NCAAs three times, including last season.  

Given the uncertainty of the times, Perry said she nonetheless has been meeting with players “to stay connected. Every school, every spring sport is dealing with this issue. Everybody has something to deal with as athletes, coaches and people in how to respond to it. It is surreal.”

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