Don Don Williams was on the cross-country drive from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Augusta, Georgia when her phone rang.
The car was packed to the gills with everything her daughter, Reilly, would need for her dorm at Augusta University.
Reilly, a middle infielder at AUGU, had always embraced her mother’s passion for softball. She even played the same position that earned Don Don a scholarship at Linfield College in the ‘80s.
For a child of a single parent with six siblings, attending college was a special opportunity for Don Don. She feels that she owes a lot to softball, and has passed on that love to her daughter.
“I just fell in love with the game the moment I started playing in third grade,” Don Don said. “It was an instant love affair.”
Don Don answered the call and was greeted by Southern Utah Athletic Director Debbie Corum. Corum told Don Don that she had searched the country for the right captain to correct the course that SUU softball was on, and decided that Don Don was the perfect candidate for the job.
The call was unexpected. Don Don had spent the last 22 years coaching at North Idaho College, a junior college located 33 miles east of Spokane. She hadn’t applied for any openings before Corum called and planned to return to NIC a few days later when classes began mid-August.
Corum and Don Don exchanged phone calls over the next week until Corum convinced her to take a visit to Cedar City.
“When I got to town I realized that everyone here is so focused on student success,” Don Don recalled. “That really drew me in, and coaching at the Division-I level was a challenge that I was excited for.”
The offer was enticing, but the decision was not easy. She had devoted much of her adult life to North Idaho softball, but she was thrilled by the opportunity.
She consulted with her husband, Tony. They had considered leaving Tony’s hometown of Coeur d’Alene, but they needed a near perfect situation before considering moving on.
Their son, Rhys, had just finished eighth grade. The Williams family figured that if there was going to be an ideal time to move, it would be before Rhys began high school. Don Don informed her players at NIC of her decision after she returned from her visit.
Don Don had built one of the most successful softball programs at the junior college level over the course of her 22 years as the head coach at NIC. She started with a bucket of balls and two bats in 1997 and had turned it into a 50-3 powerhouse by 2017.
How can one win 661 games with a program that they literally willed into existence and find the courage to move on to an unknown opportunity?
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to wrap this up at NIC and get it ready for someone else to take over,’” Don Don said. “Then I decided [to take the SUU position] two weeks into August, literally days before school started… It was a leap of faith.”
Corum’s offer came midway through August, so the family had two weeks to pack everything, put their house up for sale, say their goodbyes and leave before classes began. There was no time to wade in. Don Don had no choice but to leap, and her family was willing to dive in with her.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Don Don devoted herself to a challenge. As a child, she could not be pulled away from the diamond. The joy of competition pulled her in, but had no idea what the game could do for her.
“I didn’t even know that you could play college softball until I was a junior in high school and my coach asked me if I was going to play in college.”
That realization changed her life.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and softball allowed me to get an education. That opened so many doors for me. I owe a lot to the game because it’s given me a lot.”
She earned a scholarship at Linfield College, a then-NAIA school in McMinnville, Ore., where she met and fell in love with Tony. Don Don graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology in 1991.
Coaching hadn’t really crossed her mind, but that changed when an assistant position opened up at Linfield after graduation.
“When they offered me the position, I couldn’t resist. The game was always so close to my heart that I couldn’t let it down.”
Softball had opened a door she was not expecting. Don Don stayed at Linfield for three years before moving back to Coeur d’Alene to be closer to Tony’s family. She had never even heard of the town before she met him, and she felt a bit reluctant to move.
For a full year Don Don had to step away from softball to help make ends meet. North Idaho College was considering adding a softball team, and when they discovered she had previous coaching experience, she was offered the task of building a softball program from scratch.
Don Don hadn’t been a head coach of a team before, let alone brought one up from nothing. It took a couple of years to get things moving, but by 1997 Don Don’s squad was ready for competitive play.
The game cracked another door ajar, and Don Don pushed it wide open.
She started the team with one bucket of balls, two bats and an open field as her only resources. They played opponents whose fields didn’t even have fences. The process was slow and grueling, but Don Don steadily pushed along.
She founded the team on what she calls “The Two Controllables:” effort and attitude. Her players bought in and season by season they improved.
In 2007, only 10 seasons after the program was created, North Idaho finished as runner-up in the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.
During her time at NIC, 10 players were named NJCAA Academic All-Americans. Don Don prioritized the education of her players because of the avenues she gained access to with her own degree.
Don Don continued to set the example for her team in 2009 when she earned a master’s degree in Adult/Organizational Learning and Leadership from the University of Idaho. She may not have ever studied beyond high school if not for the scholarship she earned at Linfield College.
Softball had already taken her to new places, and it was about to bring her all the way to Cedar City, Utah.
SUU is not a traditional softball power, but the team struggled especially in the years before Don Don arrived. The T-Birds were a combined 15-72 in 2018 and 2019, and missed the Big Sky tournament for the first time since joining the conference in 2012.
Losing brought instability among the coaching staff, and for upperclassmen on the team, Don Don will be their third new coach in the last three years.
The Williams’ are already building a home in town. They didn’t just snag a house for a good deal on the market; they’re building to be here for the long term.
Seeing that their head coach has already taken the leap of faith makes it easy for her players to jump in with her.
“I’m not here to climb the corporate ladder. I was at North Idaho College for 22 years. My goal is to come here and leave the program better than I found it.”
In Don Don’s office there is a typed list of team goals laying on her desk. Red ink from 20 signatures decorates the space around the printed goals. Each player signed their name, promising their commitment to the team.
Don Don saw Corum’s offer as yet another door opened by the game.
“I’m so fortunate. When most players graduate college they have to leave the game and get a job. I never had to leave the game that I love.”
As Don Don looks at the list, the sound of a drill buzzes through the doorway of her office. A maintenance man is repairing the ceiling in the hallway. She chuckles as she rises from her chair and closes the door.
“There’s a lot of work to do.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz