Norma Nelson, who took over as head softball coach at Ooltewah in 1994 and finished second in the state in three of her first four years, claimed three state championships and became the winningest coach – in any sport – at the school with more than 600 victories, said on Tuesday that a day earlier she was given a 24-hour ultimatum by principal Mark Bean to either resign or be fired.
Nelson, 48, said she was called into Bean’s office on Monday and the discussion quickly turned to the school’s top administrator saying he wanted to “go in a different direction” with the program and she had to make a decision overnight.
“I did a lot of crying and a lot of thinking Monday night,” Nelson said. “I talked to him again Tuesday morning and asked for a little more time. He told me, no, I had to make up my mind right now. I told him I would not quit on these girls.”
Bean then dismissed Nelson, who succeeded Jim Lovell as the Lady Owls coach and directed them to runner-up finishes in 1994-95 and 1997. A 1989 graduate of East Ridge High School where she played softball, Nelson served as Lovell’s assistant for five years before assuming the head coaching position. She just finished her 20th season leading the softball program.
Nelson captured state titles in 1990, 1992 and 2008, a season in which Ooltewah defeated Beech for the Class AAA championship and finished 46-3-1. In those three title years, the Lady Owls went 135-21.
Ooltewah won a state title under Lovell in 1982 and a girls state basketball championship in 1975 to round out the only five state trophies in school history, according to the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association website.
“I think it was time for a change in the Ooltewah softball program,” Bean said. “I appreciate what Norma has done for us. I appreciate her coaching our student-athletes. This isn’t about a scandal, nothing like that.
“We’re going to give another person an opportunity to take our program to another level. So, we’re going in another direction with our coach.”
Nelson said she was shocked by Bean’s ultimatum.
“I was in class and was told that Mr. Bean wanted to see me in his office,” Nelson said. “He caught me completely off-guard, saying he wanted to go in another direction with the program. I was blindsided. I had no clue this was coming. Teaching and coaching softball is my life. I love the game. I love my girls. I’m single, but they’re my kids. I have an ‘Ooltewah Room’ in my house. This is what I do.”
Nelson said her initial reaction to Bean was to ask “why?”
“I told him that I had never had a losing record, the kids were successful on and off the field, they were respected at school,” she said.
Nelson said Bean responded by saying, “It’s not about wins and losses.”
“Then, he said he had seen a ‘lack of enthusiasm” surrounding the program the last two years,” the coach said. “Again, I said I just didn’t understand. Why not say something to me last year or in early February this year. Why wait to the end of the season to get rid of me when he’d never said anything negative about my teaching or coaching.”
Nelson said the Lady Owls’ record in 2012 was 29-14 and 22-15 this season.
She also said the school’s softball account has $5,000 in it and if the players are “so unenthusiastic about the program” they wouldn’t doing so many fundraisers to raise that kind of money.
“I’m single and need to keep teaching,” Nelson said. “If I do get another chance to coach, I would like to do that. But when I met with the girls after school (on Tuesday), I told them I would continue to support them, and that’s what I’ll do even if I’m not at Ooltewah.
“He again just said he decided to go in another direction and after I told him I wouldn’t quit, he fired me and told me to turn in my keys.”
Nelson said she spent a lot of Monday evening and night talking with her father, other relatives and coaches and even a few umpires.
“I went to a lot of people I respect,” she said, “because they know how much I’ve put into this program over the years. They all said to make him fire you. I did, and he did.”
Bean said Nelson is still a member of the Ooltewah faculty. She teaches physical education and personal finance.
As of Tuesday, Nelson plans to keep her teaching duties, unless and until another coaching position is offered to her.
When asked for her career record, Nelson said she could not easily provide one.
“I would have to do some research to come up with that,” she said. “It’s safe to say I’ve won more than 600 games.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)