Sports Women's Sports

Diane Potter’s impact on women’s athletics at its earliest stages and beyond

By Chris Gionta

The head coaching role for the Springfield College softball team comes with its own prestigious title that is unlike any other at the school. Everyone in the position since 2015 has been and will be referred to as the Diane L. Potter ‘57 head softball coach.

The title carries weight with it, especially with Potter’s name at the front of the moniker. It represents several decades of growing women’s sports not only on campus, but also throughout the country. The beginning of the title has the best representation of what the school truly values.

“I think she is Springfield College,” said Kate Bowen, the current Diane L. Potter ‘57 head softball coach.

Only a legend of the school could have their name involved in a head coaching title, and the term “legend” is an understatement in regard to Potter.

Her contributions to women’s collegiate sports, especially on Alden Street, made a heavy impact early on in her days at the school, and is still felt today.

“[Potter and other pioneers in women’s collegiate sports] were able to inspire and instill in the women the importance of participation, doing your best, competing, goal-setting, and all those things that are a part of athletics,” said former Springfield College Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Gretchen Brockmeyer. a former assistant coach of Potter.  “They were able to show that there was no reason women shouldn’t be supported in the same way as men were supported in sport.”

Potter was the first softball coach, the first women’s gymnastics coach and the first woman to serve as Assistant Athletic Director at Springfield. Her role with the women’s gymnastics team started in the academic year of 1963-64. Before that, she “became one of the primary forces in establishing the Springfield College Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Program,” according to the Springfield College archives.

Women’s athletics at Springfield, like many women’s programs in the earliest stages, experienced growing pains.

“We bought kilts because field hockey was the first sport in the fall,” Potter said. “So, we bought kilts, and the kids had their own shirts for field hockey. Basketball wore the gray cotton tunics that the women wore for the physical education activities, and we dressed that up by getting a woven maroon and white belt. Tennis players wore their own whites — white shirts, white shorts — they had to provide them on their own. And softball played in kilts.”

Her contributions to women’s sports did not end at Springfield – in fact, they merely started there. 

She was a leader in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Potter was one of the people who was instrumental in making it a formidable organization that advanced women’s athletics, along with it being a precursor to National Collegiate Association Athletics (NCAA) women’s programs.

“It was actually a group of women from New England — one of whom was Dr. Potter — who developed this organization to provide for women athletes the opportunity to play in tournaments, and to actually play women’s sports in a way similar to what the men were,” Brockmeyer said of the AIAW.

Potter’s coaching career included some monumental successes. She led the women’s gymnastics team for four years and guided the team to a 12-2 record. She was also the head coach for Kathy Corrigan Ekas, who was an Olympian before she arrived on Alden Street.

Gymnastics was not Potter’s primary expertise.

“Frank Wolcott, who was a coach at the time, came to me and wanted to include women in the [gymnastics] exhibition team. … And I said, ‘Frank, I’m a softball coach. I’m not a gymnast. I don’t really know a whole lot about gymnastics,’” Potter said as she laughed. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll help you. We just want to get the program started.’”

She spent most of her coaching career in the dugout and base coach’s box. During her 21 years as head softball coach, she accumulated a record of 227-123 and had four undefeated seasons. She also won two Northeast 8 championships, an EAIAW Championship, an ECAC Division II Championship and received recognition as Northeast 8 Coach of the Year twice.

The 1969 Springfield College softball team. (Photo courtesy of Springfield College Archives)

In over two decades of coaching the program, she molded an abundance of college softball players to be their best. Kathleen Mangano, who earned All-American honors in Potter’s final year of coaching the team and ended up being the head coach for Springfield softball for 20 years, took significant influence from Potter.

“She helped me adjust to a different level of play from high school to college,” Mangano said. “We had some amazing teams, and she really helped me get acclimated to this level.”

Potter’s retirement from coaching in 1985 did not keep her from remaining involved with the softball program.

“[After she retired], Potter was always there as a resource when I needed her,” said Mangano, who took the head coaching job in 1989. “If I wanted to talk to her about X’s and O’s, or even what she thought was best for the program.”

To this day, at the age of 87, Potter joins the Springfield softball team for its spring break trip, which is not far from where she currently resides in Florida.

“She’s there the whole week, and she’s in every huddle after the game,” Bowen said. “She comes to every game, and she is just so intelligent about the game and strategies. It’s awesome for me just to talk with her about what happened during the games. And she’s just such a great mentor for me, too, which has just been unbelievable.”

During her days as a coach, Potter also made progress with Springfield women’s athletics as what was known at the time as the “Women’s Coordinator of Athletics,” and what is now known as the Assistant Athletic Director. She took on the position in 1976.

“She also worked very hard — probably not so everyone could see her — but, more behind the scenes to encourage and push for equity in athletics for the women,” Brockmeyer said. 

Potter was a large proponent of creating a level playing field for women in the most literal sense. For a long time, both basketball programs at the school practiced and played at the old fieldhouse, but the women were unable to practice there when the men were.

“The men had the prime time. The women had to practice either at night or very early in the morning,” Potter added.

Because of the imbalance of prioritization at the time, it was necessary for her to advocate for the women’s basketball team’s ability to practice where they played.

“I said, ‘Look, we need to have access to the floor that we play on for practice,’” Potter said. “I think it was when Ed Bilik was the Athletic Director when that changed, and we did actually get to practice on the floor that we played on.”

It is not difficult to see the influence of Potter at Springfield College today. The softball field has been officially named Potter Field for 36 years, and her name has been involved in the Pride’s softball head coaching title for several years. Potter’s name is in the title due to an endowed fund in her honor called the Potter Softball Coaching Fund, which is an endowment to support the head softball coaching salary. Thus far, $891,000 has been committed to this fund.

When it was announced in 2015, it was the first endowed fund for a coaching position at Springfield College, and there could not have been a more appropriate person to be honored this way.

“She’s just really a pioneer for women’s athletics, but also, I think she really jump-started [physical education] here, and just the Humanics philosophy —  the spirit, mind and body — I think she truly lives that every day, and lives out the mission, and we really talk about that in our program, too, because she is someone who has done so much here to build what Springfield College is,” Bowen said.

Her latest public appearance on campus was on Oct. 2, 2021, when she cut the ribbon for the Pride’s newly renovated turf field. At first, she was hesitant to express her  approval of the renovations, but a key explanation from Bowen gave her a change of heart.

“I was originally not in favor of turf infield,” Potter said. “And one day I was talking to Kate [Bowen], and this was before the final decisions were made. And she said ‘Coach, I got to tell you, we walk out to our field — and the men are on the baseball field — and they’re practicing, and we can’t practice on ours because it’s muddy.’ 

“And, that was it for me. Talk about ‘making things equal.’ In order for them to have the same opportunity that baseball had, it had to be a turf infield.”

The representation of equality that she saw when she stepped onto Potter Field on that momentous day brought out a significant and appropriate emotional response.

“When she stepped on the field, she just started crying,” Bowen said. “And she just started talking about, ‘This is for women’s sports.’”

“It was a Class A facility for Springfield College and for the students,” Potter added.

Her softball team played in kilts, the women’s basketball team played in their P.E. uniforms and couldn’t practice on their own court. But during that fall afternoon, Potter arrived onto a field that garnered equal attention. This recognition could not come without her advocacy at the very beginning of it all.

Photo: Springfield College Athletics

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