SEATTLE - Don't let the disappointment from the Huskies losing in last weekend's NCAA super regionals sway you.
Don't think the departure of pitcher Danielle Lawrie, the best player in the program's history, then UW missing out on the Women's College World Series for the first time in three years this month means Washington softball is in a downturn.
Heather Tarr doesn't do downturns.
Huskies softball is as prominent and excellent as it's ever been. Without Lawrie, without starters up and down the lineup who got hurt this season, without a consistent offense, Washington still advanced to its sixth NCAA super regional in seven years.
Thanks to the uniquely gifted Tarr.
Don't take my word for it. Listen to her players. They say the reason they are here at UW is the same reason they are leaving Washington not only as better players but as better, stronger people.
They credit the dogged, 36-year-old former UW walk-on, who cornered the Huskies for a job interview when they didn't call her back in 2004.
"Honestly, Coach Tarr is the reason I came here," junior Kimi Pohlman, the team's leader in batting average and runs this season, told me the day before the team left last week for the super regional at Missouri.
"She does a really good job of recruiting not just good softball players but great athletes and great people," Pohlman said. "We are very accepting of what she has to offer as far as a `program' sort of mentality. We have core values that we live by. Granted, I'm not part of any other team and see any other team's inner circle, but that's one thing that she really brings that is so unique."
Senior third baseman Morgan Stuart, who played her final game for UW Saturday at Missouri, says this season "says a ton about Coach Tarr and our leadership in the program."
"It says that we are a dominant program in the softball world, and we are going to be successful no matter who is in the program, who has left and who has left a mark on us," Stuart said. "Coach Tarr is the brains and the heart behind U-Dub softball, and it says everything about her that she has gotten her teams in a place where they can be successful."
When I asked Tarr what this season said about her program, she said on the eve of the Huskies' trip to Missouri: "I think it speaks to the strength of the program and the expectation level that is set for the athletes that choose to come here."
"It's not an easy choice to want to come to go to school at Washington and to play softball here, because of the high standards in both avenues," she said.
Seven years into being a first-time head coach at her alma mater, Tarr has restored Washington as a national softball power with unique, character-based philosophies that attract top athletes across borders of states and countries.
Tarr, who played in and lost UW's first national championship, in 1996, has taken the Huskies to their only national title in their 18-year history. She's led Washington to three of its 10 all-time trips to the Women's College World Series.
Washington rewarded her with a second contract extension following the 2009 national championship. It runs through the 2014 season, at an average salary of $180,000 plus incentives per year.
Bruce Brown thinks Tarr is priceless.
Brown is a coaching philosophy guru who has been a coach and athletic director at every level of amateur athletics above elementary school for more than 35 years. Over the last decade, he has presented to more than 400,000 student athletes, coaches, parents and businesses on character in leadership.
He was also Tarr's junior-high phys ed teacher in Redmond. When I told him Tarr uses his philosophical program called "Proactive Coaching," he gushed.
"That's a real compliment, because Heather is at the top of her profession," Brown, 65, said by telephone from his home in Camano Island, Wash.
"She is a real shining star, regardless of the sport, gender or level. She is special."
He used that word five times in 10 minutes while talking about Tarr.
Brown said of all the thousands of teams he's dealt with - including Vanderbilt baseball this year and Oregon's Pac-10-champion football team the last two years - only 15 percent have the togetherness and trust that Tarr's teams do.
"She's created values with actions attached," said Brown, who began working directly with the Huskies just before Tarr led them to their national championship in 2009. "I can present that stuff, but when I leave it's, what do leaders do with it? Leaders like Heather take it and run with it.
"Heather has not only changed the culture among her players in a positive way, she's got them invested in the culture itself. Now, the culture has been theirs and not hers. And that's very powerful.
"No, she's got some gifts, man."
THE `INNER CIRCLE'
Tarr is a self-made softballer, a self-made Husky and a self-made coach.
To call her determined is like calling Jake Locker decent.
This supremely gifted leader walked onto UW's softball team for coach Teresa Wilson during the program's infancy in 1994 - then became a three-time All-Pac-10 player and a professional softball player in Florida for a year. She came back to UW to get her degree, and following six years as an assistant with Pacific she willed her way into one of the best jobs in her profession.
Her Huskies are different. They cheer and chatter non-stop for their teammates with catch phrases from the dugout. They are intensely close off the field. And they - even the all-world Lawrie - play for something bigger than themselves.
Tarr's unique coaching philosophy includes the Huskies' "inner circle." It is the essence of the program, an intense trust among the two dozen players, coaches and support staff on the team.
Outside the circle? Tarr's Huskies have learned to not give a rip about the people, events and opinions there.
When I asked Pohlman to define what the inner circle is and how it helps the team succeed, she looked at me like I was a spy from Oregon.
"I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you," the outfielder from Sammamish, Wash., joked, cackling.
Tarr says her "inner circle" comes from Brown's program.
"We talked a lot about staying tight as a team and working within an inner circle, and how all great teams have an inner circle," Tarr said. "What needs to be on the outside stays outside, and what needs to be on the inside stays on the inside."
Huskies basketball coach Lorenzo Romar says he knew he had established a solid program foundation when his teams lost supposedly irreplaceable stars such as Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter yet kept winning Pac-10 titles and going deep into NCAA tournaments over the last half-dozen years. Football coach Steve Sarkisian will get a barometer on how his 3-year-old program is solidifying this fall when his Huskies play without the graduated Locker.
By that measure, Tarr's team is rock solid.
"Tradition doesn't graduate. People graduate, but it's embedded in a place where the foundation is very strong and very known," she said. "The tradition and the history are so rich (here) that you always use that and go back to that our advantage in recruiting, and within the season.
"People understand what they are playing for, that they aren't just playing for themselves."
`I HAD TO GO MEET THIS Heather Tarr'
When Tarr was a kid, she didn't play softball. She played baseball.
And I mean played baseball, all the way until she was 15. A first baseman with power, she believed she was going to be the first female player in the major leagues.
"When she was really young she was a special athlete and strong leader, the kind of kid you'd hope would be a coach," Brown said.
"How I was first introduced to her was all these boys I really respected as strong young men of character kept saying, `Coach, you've got to meet this Heather Tarr. Coach, you've got to see this Heather Tarr play. Coach, you've got to see this Heather Tarr hit.'
"So finally, I had to go meet this Heather Tarr."
By the time she was 12, Tarr was playing first base for Redmond South Little League's major division baseball international tournament team that reached a regional tournament in California. Tarr remembers hitting a grand slam that year, after an opponent walked in a run with the bases loaded so it could pitch to the girl.
After a couple years of fast-pitch softball at 15 for a team associated with the neighboring Kirkland Little League, Tarr accepted Wilson's invitation to walk on to the new softball program at Washington.
Tarr became a four-year letter winner for the Huskies. When she returned to take over a program in turmoil in July 2004, she was just 29 years old.
How badly did she want to come back? She had zero experience as a head coach, and when she sent in her resume as Washington went looking for Wilson's replacement she didn't even get a call. So she called Wilson, who tracked down a cell number for a member of the coaching search committee. Tarr got a lunch meeting with him.
At it, Tarr presented an eight-page plan with her coaching principles and ideas inside a portfolio. On the cover of the plan, she put a picture of herself as a Husky infielder a decade earlier, then one of her as a grade schooler with her brother at a football picture day standing with legendary Husky coach Don James. A third picture was a question mark, a what's-next statement on her and UW's coaching future.
The wowed committee got her message and connections with the Huskies' community. The school that initially didn't even give her a call back gave the rookie the job over three, more experienced college head coaches.
Three days after UW introduced her as its new coach, Tarr drove to British Columbia to get Lawrie to sign with Washington. Lawrie signed, then beat the U.S. women's national team as an 18-year-old. Tarr gained instant credibility as a recruiter and program remodeler. With Lawrie dominating for three years (not including the one she took off to be on Canada's Olympic team), the Huskies made three Women's College World Series.
WHY THEY LOVE HER
Tarr is more of a players' coach than Wilson, her hard-driving, long-practicing mentor and advisor.
Seven years into her job, Tarr's players love the approach. Even faraway eighth-grade players do.
An example of her player-friendly thinking is her habit of letting ace pitchers hit. She did it with Lawrie. And she did it this season with freshman Kaitlin Inglesby. Inglesby was the most valuable player of the NCAA Seattle regional last month for her pitching and her hitting, and her RBIs Saturday in the elimination game at Missouri sparked a rally from six runs down that eventually saw UW bring the potential tying run to the plate late.
Top recruits notice that stuff.
"Oh yeah, recruits ask us all the time (about it)," said Tarr, who saw Wilson let her pitchers hit when Tarr played for her. "I had (a club coach) call me a couple weeks ago telling me, `Hey, I've got this eighth grader, left-handed pitcher that wants to come to Washington because she knows you will let her hit."
Get this: Tarr even has attracted Ducks to become Huskies.
Shortstop Jenn Salling, from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, left Oregon after just one season to join what Tarr has going on. Salling started all 142 games the Huskies played after she arrived. She graduated this winter with a degree in anthropology plus a national title, and she is headed to Florida this month to begin a professional softball career.
"I'm so thankful for what I did, because what I learned here, in all honesty I don't think I would have learned where I was before," Salling said. "Not only is your college experience about softball and growing as a player, but what's most important to me is leaving here and being a strong human being.
"Our coaches teach us so many life lessons that I will be able to carry forever."
And that, as much as wins and championships, is what college athletics should be about.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.