The legend of Doc Woods

GV / Emily Frye  
Head Coach Doug Woods talking to his team before practice

GV / Emily Frye Head Coach Doug Woods talking to his team before practice

Pete Barrows

An attendant rolls a toothpick between his teeth as he patiently waits in the room lodged between the Lanthorn office and the S.O.C. that resembles a fishbowl, drifting on sound and casting into static.

In the room with one window, one door coated in indie band bumper stickers and one office chair hunkered in front of a radio soundboard, the attendant waits and wades through WCKS Whale student radio liners aired between innings of softball color commentary and play-by-play.

As he drifts, head bobbing, he is pulled from his seat and a passing glance as an emphatic call floats in all the way from the Grand Valley State University softball field, across parking lot pavement, unknowingly past intermingled students in line at the lobby coffee shop and in through a pair of rubber headphones on a lazy Friday afternoon in April:

“There’s a fly into service, it might fall for a hit…NO! Doug Woods gets his 800th career victory at Grand Valley State with a 4-2 victory over the Ohio Dominican Panthers!”

Back at the field tucked in behind the Kelly Family Sports Center, GVSU softball coach Doug “Doc” Woods has secured his place in Laker lore.

Only 16 coaches in NCAA Division II history have ever crossed the 800-win threshold, yet the man — dressed in a GVSU polo tucked into his trousers, a pair of oval glasses at the end of his nose and hair flecked with gray tucked underneath a black “GV” hat — arising from the dugout for a curtain call appears much less a grizzled manager and much more a gentle, fatherly fisherman humbly displaying a long-awaited catch.

After 38 years at GVSU and 24 as the institution’s softball coach, Woods will retire upon the completion of the 2014 season this spring — leaving more time to fish — as one of the most accomplished coaches in Division II history and an indelible cornerstone of the Laker athletic program.

Although when Doc was hired on as a head athletic trainer in 1976, few at GVSU, perhaps not even Doc, could have known what had been set in motion the moment he’d been reeled aboard.

“I went to school with a kid at Toledo who was hired on with the athletic department of this school up in Michigan, and I jokingly told him ‘when you hire a full-time athletic trainer, let me know,’” he said. “He did, and that’s how I ended up here, but when I started as an athletic trainer, I had no idea whatsoever that I would drift into the coaching ranks.”

For 22 years, Woods operated as the head athletic trainer at GVSU and affectionately took on the nickname “Doc,” but in 1991, after a string of three different part-time interim softball coaches in three years, the narrative shifted for both Woods and GVSU.

Woods had been a pitcher in high school — “not a good one,” but a pitcher — so when the opportunity arose to pitch for an expanded role in the expanding program, he never hesitated.

“There wasn’t much stability in the softball program and to be quite honest, I was tired of covering spring football by that time,” Woods said. “So I told the AD, Mike Kovalchik at the time, I said, ‘Hey Mike, I can coach that sport.’ He sort of laughed, but the next day he came and said, ‘Hey, can you do it for one year?’ and I said yeah.

“That became 24 years.”

For eight seasons from 1991 to 1999, Woods operated in a dual-role as head athletic trainer and head softball coach, but throughout the first decade of his tenure as a skipper, there were still few at GVSU who could have realized the magnitude of the impact Woods would have on the program.

Especially after his very first game at the helm. Up early, Woods pulled a ‘Major League Baseball’ tact and traded his starting pitcher with his closer to get out of a jam. His closer promptly gave up a double and triple, and GVSU lost the game.

“Oh good golly, there was a learning curve,” Woods said. “I realized then that with pitching and a lot of other aspects that this wasn’t quite the same game as baseball, and it’s taken time to learn it all.

“That said, I think we had players in the program that were enjoying playing and enjoying being with the sport, we did not have a big attrition rate with players leaving. Then we did start winning a little bit, and that always helps.”

Woods entered his 24th and final season 870 wins later with a 69.2 winning percentage and two World Series appearances — a second-place finish in 2002 and a third-place finish in 2013. Only Joan Bond, GVSU’s volleyball coach of 26 years, has had a longer tenure with the Lakers.

From the time he started at Grand Valley State College, a school of around 6,000 students, under the direction of Arend Lubbers, GVSU’s ascension has been well documented. Today, more than 24,000 students are enrolled in the university, and the Laker softball squad is ranked No. 3 in the nation.

“I’ve enjoyed my career at GVSU, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the growth of the school and all of the changes going in a positive direction,” Woods said. “You hope for it, and at that time President Lubbers, a great visionary, I’m sure he had a gleam in his eye that the school would get to there as I had — that the softball program would continue to grow — but you never could have expected it to be what it is today.”

What’s been less documented is Woods’ role in GVSU’s rise.

When current athletic director Tim Selgo was hired, it was Doc who placed the call.

“I’m here at Grand Valley in large part because of Doug,” Selgo said. “I signed on with Toledo in April of 1976 on a basketball scholarship. That summer, I attended orientation and I met the trainer of the basketball program at the time and it was Doug Woods. Then when I got there as a student in the fall, we had this other guy as our trainer.

“I remember asking ‘what happened to the guy with the glasses?’ and they said he went to be a head trainer at a school up in Michigan. Low and behold, 20 years later, Doug was on the search committee to find an AD when I got hired, and he’s the one that placed a call to me to ask me if I’d be interested. Without that call, who knows, I might not have been here, and this has been such a great run for me and my family.

“I owe that to Doug.”

When Jenn Mackson, the most accomplished pitcher in GVSU and GLIAC softball history, was scouting for schools, it was Woods who cast a line.

“I wasn’t really recruited all that much, and Doc had seen me at a tournament, I guess, and he wanted me to come out for a visit,” Mackson said. “I honestly didn’t know anything about Grand Valley, not even the name, but my parents said I should at least go out to look and see. Doc was the reason that I came.

“When I got there, he was very welcoming and such a genuine person. The campus added to that, but he had a lot of belief in me as a pitcher and had me convinced.”

When Katie Martin, the most accomplished hitter in GVSU and GLIAC softball history, needed a little reassurance on her school selection, Doc made an appearance.

“I played field hockey in high school, and he came to one of my games before he signed for me,” Martin said. “Here he is in the midst of recruiting season, coming to watch a sport I was never going to play in college, and I thought that was really special. I’m sure he had his reasons, but it made an impact on me right away.

“He cared.”

Perhaps fate defines Woods’ career, and everything fell into place exactly as it was intended like a feather in the breeze in a Tom Hanks flick. Although, Doc’s legacy was not chiseled out by accident or defined by only one of the many hats that he’s worn.

Woods — a recruiter well-known for not only his knack for discovering good athletes, but also good people — has often predicated success on chemistry.

A third-base coach in every game he’s coached, Woods would mutter an occasional exclamatory like “fiddle farts” after an error to keep the game light; Doc had a feel for the moment and knew who needed what coaching when.

In the dugout, Woods was never found without a cherry cough drop in his mouth and would gladly share them with words of wisdom lovingly known as “Docisms” if need be.

Words like “if God wanted you out after midnight, he’d have put a headlight on your forehead.”

Woods fed his team with pie and ice cream after big games and doled out hugs after triumphs and defeats. He has been a father figure to many, and a father figure that cared.

“Doc is an incredible coach, person, and he exemplifies all that is GVSU softball,” Mackson said. “He knows how to motivate, he knew what would light a fire under us, he’s great at reading people and recruiting, he’s truly passionate for the game and is more than just a coach — he’s a father figure for everyone.

“He cares about your softball, but even more about your wok in the classroom, your real life, and it’s genuine. He’s so supportive of everything you do and wants you to be successful, which makes you want to work that much harder.”

What’s next for Doc and Linda, his wife of 43 years, remains to be seen, although for the first time in nearly a quarter century, his summer won’t be filled with weekend recruiting visits. He will return to teach again the next two years as a member of the athletic training program faculty, but he promises not to interfere with softball from afar.

For now, he’s content to focus on the season at hand, as is his team.

“This is Doc’s final season, and we want to make it a good one for him, but at the same time, we have to stay focused and keep playing our best,” sophomore ace Sara Andrasik said. “He’ll be missed, but we know the bar Doc has set, and we’ll work to keep his legacy going this season and beyond.”

Of all the accomplishments Doc has achieved during his tenure, not included in the list is an NCAA World Series title, and a swan song title run to cap a fairy tale career isn’t a requisite conclusion to cement his legacy.

Then again, maybe it was fate that Woods traveled along a pipeline from Toledo, recruited some of the best administrative and student-athlete talent in program history, coached storied teams and redefined a softball program stride for stride with a growing school.

Maybe it was fate that yours truly got called in on that April 13th, Friday afternoon to record a softball broadcast with no expectations — and ended up being privy to Woods’ 800th win.

And as bittersweet as the retirement is, maybe it’s just another defining instance of an individual that was not only in the right place at the right time, but the right person for the job.

That’s the legend of Doc Woods.

“I’m going to miss the college students — they keep you young, even when you get into your sixties — and I’ll miss the day-to-day relationships with the players,” he said. “I missed those relationships when I moved on from athletic training, and I’ll miss them just the same moving on from softball, but it’s time.

“As much as I will miss it, it’s time, I can see that, and I like to think I made my time here count. I hope they would say that Doc, he cared about his players in the program and tried to help them as much as he could, both on and off the field, during his time here, and even though I won’t be around to coach after this year, that doesn’t mean I won’t be watching.”