By Tommy Deas
John Tschida took his first softball head coaching job on one condition: If the baseball coaching position came open, he wanted to be considered.
After one season at St. Mary’s—his alma mater, an NCAA Division III school in Winona, Minnesota—the baseball position did become available. And he turned it down.
“I like both of them,” the 50-year-old coach reflects. “I like softball better, the sport itself. I felt I could have an impact.”
That turned out to be an underestimation. Tschida is the only coach to win NCAA softball championships at two different schools: St. Mary’s and St. Thomas, another Division III institution located about two hours away in St. Paul. He took St. Mary’s to the title in 2000 and coached the Tommies to back-to-back national titles in 2004 and ‘05. He was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 2016. Tschida entered the current season just seven victories short of 900. He spent six seasons at St. Mary’s and has been at St. Thomas since 2001.
A native of St. Paul, Tschida grew up reading books on hitting. He became a baseball shortstop. When he was a freshman at St. Mary’s, his duties included loading equipment on the team bus. He got a lesson in leadership from Tim Piechowski, still, the school’s all-time career batting leader.
“I got on the bus, I’m the last one on from making sure all the equipment is in there, and the seats are full,” Tschida recalls. "You’re hoping to find a seat, you keep walking and no seats."
“Then the best player on the team says, ‘Hey, why don’t you sit here?’ Here’s the best player inconveniencing himself by moving over. I said that’s the kind of leader I want to be.”
Even though he was a baseball player, Tschida came from a softball family: His father played fastpitch on a team that was ranked as high as third in the world, and his brothers also played for a high-level men’s team. When he was in college, they asked him to play—a pursuit he continued into his 40s.
Still, it seemed his future would be baseball. His college coach asked him when he graduated if he was interested in coaching. He set him up with a job in the St. Mary’s admissions office and made him an assistant.
Falling For Fastpitch
Five years later, the school—noting his own fastpitch playing background—made Tschida head softball coach. After his first season, he found that he liked it enough that he turned down the baseball job. In his sixth season, he took the Cardinals to their national title, then left for St. Thomas.
Why did he leave?
“I’m from St. Paul and most of my recruiting was in St. Paul and I was still playing and my team came to St. Paul a lot, so really my life was happening in St. Paul,” he says. “I thought, man I’m driving every day two hours there, two hours back, it would be a lot simpler life.
“As hard it was to leave a national championship team that returned everybody but one, the plus side was what better time to leave your alma mater? It was sad to have to leave those kids.”
Tschida jumped across to the fellow Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference school and, within a few years, was hoisting national title trophies with St. Thomas.
So What’s The Secret To Building Championship Programs?
“A good pitcher makes a coach real smart,” Tschida says with a chuckle. “We all know that."
“It’s not only having good players, they don’t even have to be that good—they need to be pretty good and they need to be very committed or passionate. I always say, ‘Good, better, best; never let it rest ‘til the good get better, the better get best.”
He wants players and coaches to walk the line between humility and confidence: “The humility that the game is hard, the opponents are all good, and then also playing the game the right way, a little more hustle than the average bird.”
Tschida emphasizes the mental game. He has a master’s degree in sports psychology. The coach has a no-cut policy. He sticks with his players and tries to mold them.
“We don’t separate anything we do from the psychology,” he says. “So it’s a constant talking about either mental toughness or mental relaxation, whatever it may be.”
Developing a winning culture is as important, Tschida believes, as having great talent. He goes back to that lesson he learned from the college teammate who offered his seat on the bus and preaches that kind of leadership.
“Learning how to have championship teams, each team is so different with a different group of individuals mixing in,” he says. “With culture, you have to constantly keep your eye on it. You start to develop routines, they become traditions where the culture almost takes care of itself, which is awesome."
“One of the biggest compliments is when you can make the players around you better. You need those kids on your team.”
Tschida scouts recruits in search of ability and a little something more. At non-scholarship programs, he has to find good players who are maybe a little more geared toward academics, who are willing to skip the travel and grind of major-college scholarship programs to play at the Division III level where they won’t miss as much class and can concentrate more on their studies.
Intangibles Trump Talent
“You see a kid who may be talented but doesn’t treat a teammate well, they go off your list,” he says. “Sometimes you recruit a kid that’s not that talented but has got that grit, that passion.”
To Tschida, it always comes back to that key ingredient: passion.
Back when the St. Thomas offered him the baseball coaching job came open after his first year coaching softball, he went to his old baseball coach, who advised him to take it.
“I think you’re too good of a coach” to stay in softball, his mentor told him.
The baseball coach’s daughter and wife walked in at the time. His wife chided him.
“Does that mean Angela’s never going to have a good coach?” she asked.
Tschida laughs recalling the scene. It was an epiphany for the young coach.
“You know, just because you can coach doesn’t mean you should go one sport or the other,” he says. “Follow your passion. And fastpitch softball was my passion.”
He’s still following it.