Sullivan leads Illini softball with DiBiase at her side


Illinois’ Head Coach Terri Sullivan argues with an umpire during the game against Northwestern at Eichelberger Field on Saturday, April 30, 2011.

By Cole Henke

Terri Sullivan is the only head coach the Illinois softball team has ever had.

However, Sullivan is not the only constant in the Illinois softball equation. Associate head coach Donna DiBiase has been a part of Sullivan’s staff since day one, and together they have worked to shape the program to fit the vision they had in mind in 1999, the team’s inaugural season.

But the two crossed paths on a softball diamond well before coming to coach at Eichelberger Field.

Sullivan played softball for Loyola University-Chicago from 1988-1992. DiBiase played softball for the University of Illinois-Chicago from 1991-1995. During Sullivan’s senior year, the two teams met in the regular season .

Sullivan and DiBiase were just faceless opponents to each other at the time. It was a normal non-conference game that counted for nothing more than a mark in the win-loss column.

According to Sullivan, DiBiase’s talented Flames were the heavy favorite entering the game, but Loyola walked away with the win.

While the Ramblers celebrated their upset win, the Flames were getting an earful from their coach. DiBiase said that the team ran more after that game than any other game they played that season.

Sullivan approached UIC head coach Mike McGovern after the game to inquire about being a graduate assistant coach. After she graduated from Loyola, Sullivan became McGovern’s newest assistant coach.

Sullivan looked at the assistant coaching job as an amazing opportunity. She learned how to lead a team from the more experienced coaches, but she was also fresh out of college, so she could relate to the players in ways that the other coaches couldn’t.

As an assistant coach, Sullivan worked with players on the more precise parts of their games and went on a lot of recruiting trips.

DiBiase, then a captain for the Flames, got injured in the early stages of Sullivan’s first season as assistant coach. She required surgery, sat out the 1993-1994 season, and took on a different role with the team. Instead of producing on the field, she spent a lot of time watching the games from the sideline and working with the coaches to help develop her game.

That is when the bond between DiBiase and Sullivan started to form.

“After working with (the coaches) for that season, she found a passion to be part of this profession,” Sullivan said. “That is when we became great friends and partners as well.”

The Flames made a trip to the College World Series that season. After graduating with her masters in 1995, DiBiase took a job as an assistant coach at UIC. After her first year, DiBiase left to coach at Marian Catholic High School for one year, and then became the head coach at Loyola — Sullivan’s alma mater — from 1997-1999 .

Sullivan stayed at UIC until 1999. She was named associate head coach in 1997. During her time on the UIC staff, the Flames had a record of 381-125-1.

Starting a program from scratch was a new challenge for Sullivan, but with the recruiting contacts and relationships she made while coaching at UIC, she felt up to it.

While assembling her coaching staff, Sullivan immediately realized she wanted DiBiase to be a part of it — DiBiase left her head coaching job at Loyola for an assistant coaching position at Illinois.

While DiBiase felt she was leaving an established program, she thought she and Sullivan had an opportunity to do something special at Illinois.

“Coach Sullivan has great vision. She is a great leader,” DiBiase said. “I trusted where she wanted to take the program, and I worked to bring in the players and work with them to make her vision work.”

Softball has changed dramatically since the start of their careers at Illinois. The game has gone from batters focusing more on sacrificing, to more slap hitting, and now, full swings with almost no sacrificing.

Sullivan and DiBiase wanted to play ahead of the curve.

“We felt to really establish ourselves in the Big Ten, which was really strong at the time, we needed to change things up at the time,” Sullivan said. “We did a few things unorthodox, and we liked to attack our opponents aggressively and make them do things quicker than they wanted. We got away from the standard X’s and O’s of softball of that time.”

Sullivan also took a different approach to putting her team together. Most new programs signed a lot of junior college players to fill their rosters but Sullivan put together a team of all freshmen for her first season, utilizing the recruiting contacts she developed at UIC. She prefers younger players who are less set in their ways and can change their game easier.

DiBiase has been by Sullivan’s side every step of the way, helping her with anything she needs. DiBiase describes her job as “being the person that knows exactly what Terri is going to want done before she even thinks of it.”

DiBiase was promoted to associate head coach in 2004, and works mostly with the infield now . The pair’s biggest goals have yet to be accomplished — one of the immediate ones is to win a Big Ten Championship.

Sullivan appreciates DiBiase’s work for the program, and thinks it goes beyond just her knowledge of the game. She knows DiBiase is her rock, and without her, probably wouldn’t have had the success the program has had

With Sullivan at the helm and DiBiase by her side, the Illini have a record of 462-342-2 and made four NCAA Tournament appearances.

“Loyalty is extremely important and I don’t know if you see it a lot these days,” Sullivan said. “It not only helps me, but it also helps the players.”

DiBiase is more than happy with the state that the program is in now, and has yet to think about taking a head coaching job at another university.

“I am happy here at Illinois,” DiBiase said. “This is where I want to be.”

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