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Doing just fine: Michaelis appreciates outpouring of support

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PROVO — Elaine Michaelis appreciates all of the concern, but the first thing she wants everyone to know is, she's doing fine.

It wasn't until she was fired last September by Brigham Young University — the school she had worked for and represented for 44 years as a coach and athletic administrator — that Michaelis realized the impact her career made on so many people.

She's a pioneer of BYU women's sports and a veritable legend in collegiate volleyball circles, having led the Cougars to an 887-225-5 record in four decades at the helm. Michaelis retired from coaching in 2002 to devote all of her energy to what was her other full-time job — BYU women's athletic director.

But four months ago, she and the men's athletic director, Val Hale, were hastily and awkwardly dismissed because, the school explained, it wanted to combine its two athletic programs. Funny thing is, Michaelis would have bowed out gracefully, and retired before the announcement, had she been given the opportunity. Instead, she was abruptly terminated without warning.

Was that any way to say goodbye to Michaelis? Was that any way to treat a legend? Nobody seems to think so.

As proof of this, Michaelis has received hundreds of letters and dozens of phone calls from supporters since that time. Many of those people say they are angry with the university for the way they handled the situation, including donors who say they won't give money to the school any more because of it.

Mostly, they want to let Michaelis know how they feel about her.

"People have been wonderful. I had no idea that many people even knew me or cared. It's been a real blessing to me," Michaelis says. "People have really gone out of their way to make me feel respected, loved and appreciated."

Among those she has heard from include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Deseret Book president and chief executive officer Sheri Dew. Many of her former players have been in touch with her as well.

Months later, those former players are still fuming over what happened to their coach. "I was totally disappointed in the way they handled it. I was surprised. Disgusted, really," said former Cougar All-America Michele Fellows Lewis. "I don't know why they decided to do it that way. They didn't even say thank you. I don't think there's anyone who has been committed to BYU more than Elaine Michaelis. She loves BYU and what it stands for. For them to kick her out the door, it brought tears to my eyes."

Michaelis has also heard from many anonymous fans. One woman whom Michaelis had never met called to say, "You don't know me, but I've watched your games on television. I can't get out much. I'm kind of an invalid. I love what I see you and your girls do. I am so mad at that university and I want you to know that I appreciate you."

That's been typical of the type of correspondence she's received.

Just last week while Michaelis was doing some Christmas shopping, a stranger approached her and said, "I've been worried about you."

"I'm fine," she replied. "Don't worry about me."

While Michaelis has a right to be angry over her treatment by BYU, she's not. "I don't need to be upset," she says, "because there are too many people who are."

Elaine Michaelis grew up in Garland, a small town in northern Utah. Her father, Art, loved sports, and she was also surrounded by two brothers and a neighborhood of full of boys. The feed store owned by her father had a basketball hoop in it and she frequently played basketball there. She and Art would read the sports page at the store, especially stories about their favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.

Michaelis attended Bear River High and while the school didn't offer many girls sports, she played on plenty of church-organized teams. After graduation Michaelis moved on to BYU. As a student from 1956-60, Michaelis played on the volleyball, basketball and softball squads, which, at that time, were considered "extramural" activities and did not offer athletic scholarships. Her heart was set on becoming a teacher. "I loved teaching," she recalls. "It's what I thought I wanted to do — teaching elementary education."

Upon graduation, Michaelis was set to do just that. In fact, she signed a contract to teach at South High School in Salt Lake City. But a BYU administrator had other plans for her. He asked to see her contract. "I took it in and he said, 'I'll take care of this. You're going to teach at BYU.' So I never really left," Michaelis said. "I started on the faculty right after I graduated."

Her first year she taught classes but she didn't do any coaching because it would have been awkward, since all of her friends were on the teams. The following year, she began coaching a variety of extramural sports.

Over the years, women's athletics rose in stature and Michaelis was heavily involved in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a national body that oversaw women's sports until the early 1970s, when the NCAA took over that role.

Meanwhile, as her athletes began receiving scholarships and specializing in certain sports, Michaelis, who had coached both the BYU women's basketball and volleyball teams for years, decided to focus on volleyball. During her career, she also directed the women's intramural and extramural programs for 10 years and taught physical education classes.

From 1969 until her retirement from coaching in 2002, Michaelis' volleyball teams never had a losing record. In fact, the Cougars enjoyed 28 consecutive winning seasons and qualified for 30 of the 33 national tournaments and earned 23 conference titles. She won 90 percent of her conference games. Her 887 victories rank second overall in all-time Division I women's volleyball.

The win total would be much higher if records had been kept since 1961, the year she began her coaching career. But back then, nobody at BYU bothered tracking the win-loss records. It wasn't until 1969 that the school began to write down such things.

In 1993, Michaelis guided the Cougars to their first, and only, appearance in the NCAA Final Four. Michaelis praises those who helped her reach such astounding milestones. "I've really been blessed with some great assistant coaches," she says. "They deserve a lot of credit."

Lewis, the leader of that '93 team, compares Michaelis to BYU's other coaching legend, LaVell Edwards. "She was very organized and hired good assistant coaches," Lewis said. "She was probably similar to LaVell in that way. I love Coach Michaelis for her strength and for being consistent. She was very wise in the way she handled us. She looked at us as more than athletes — but as people. She wanted us to be successful in all aspects of our lives."

Lewis recalls being moved to outside hitter at BYU after playing middle blocker in high school. She played outside hitter for two years, but never felt completely comfortable at that position. "I struggled with that," she says. "It was hard, but I went in to talk to Coach Michaelis. I shed tears and she was so calm and reassuring. She treated me like I was a great player. She told me everything would work out."

Yeah, it worked out. For her junior and senior seasons as a Cougar, she moved back to middle blocker and became a two-year All-America.

Karen Lamb was the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship at BYU, in the 1970s. She enjoyed a stellar playing career with the Cougars and now is the head coach of the women's volleyball squad. She knows it's not easy following in Michaelis' footsteps. "I feel a lot of pressure to continue to reach those high standards she set," Lamb says. "Very few people will ever match what she was able to do."

Michaelis, she adds, is an icon in collegiate volleyball. "Her legacy is incredible across the country. She was at one institution for her whole career. You don't see that much anymore. The longer you coach, the more you admire what she did. She left a remarkable legacy at BYU. She affected hundreds, even thousands, of young women. She's a wonderful mentor and friend."

As a testament to her longevity and success, the mothers of four current players on the volleyball team also played for Michaelis.

Ask Michaelis which accomplishment she cherishes most and the answer is refreshing, as well as revealing. "The integrity with which we tried to play," she says. "I always said to the team, 'We don't want a point we don't earn. Honor calls are appropriate.' I never said they had to, but I opened the door. The majority of players played that way. I remember some critical situations in very important matches where Amy Steele or other players make an honor call. To see that it was more important to them to play the game that way. To me, that was a highlight."

The day she retired from coaching, in May, 2002, one of her star players, Carrie Bowers, said, "Through my tough times, she uplifted me. A lot of coaches don't care about you. She cares about us. You could talk to her. She wanted you to be the best you can be."

Though she's a competitor, Michaelis was never motivated by winning. "My motivation was to do the best job I could do," she says. "Can I figure out a way to beat this team and help this athlete be the best she can be? I loved the competition and the strategy. I loved the players. That's what kept me going."

These days, Michaelis is getting used to retirement. She can relax now and do the things she never had time for before. "One of my objectives is to spend more time with my family," she says. "They've been there for me all of these years, now I can go to their things. We had a wedding (recently) and I didn't have a game and I wasn't on the road. I'm excited about doing that. I'm enjoying life."

Retirement came a little sooner than she expected, however.

Last spring, BYU's athletic department decided to conduct a self-study. Michaelis had a feeling that advancement vice president Fred Skousen wanted to consolidate the men's and women's athletic departments. He didn't ask her opinion, so she sent him a memo to explain why the two shouldn't be combined. She expressed her views to him on another occasion.

When the study was completed, Michaelis and Hale discussed the results with Skousen and they wondered about the administration's next step. Michaelis said she told Skousen that if the plan was to combine the athletic departments, then she would be more than happy to retire. But she didn't hear much more after that.

"I kept thinking something would happen, but time went by and we got into the fall," Michaelis says. "And I thought they must not be doing it this fall."

She was wrong.

On the morning of Sept. 8, just days after the BYU football team's season-opening 20-17 victory over Notre Dame, Hale and Michaelis attended their bi-monthly meetings with Skousen. Hale went into Skousen's office at 8:30 a.m. and Michealis' appointment was at 9.

"I thought it would be a regular meeting with Fred," Michaelis said. "I got there at 9 and Val was walking out. I could tell he was very emotional. He just said to me, 'Elaine, you're a great lady. You've had a wonderful career. Don't let anybody tell you anything different than that.' I thought, 'OK.'"

Skousen informed her that the departments would be combined, that there would be a change in leadership and that neither her contract, nor Hale's, would be renewed. Then he told her that he had to go to meet with the coaches and let them know about the decision, and a news conference was scheduled for 11 a.m.

Just like that, her 44-year career at BYU was over. She wasn't invited to the news conference. So she went to her Orem home and spent several hours working in the yard.

A news release sent out by the school didn't acknowledge Michaelis' accomplishments. Skousen announced at the news conference that academics, character development, leadership development and sportsmanship could be enhanced at BYU, insinuating that Michaelis and Hale hadn't been doing their jobs.

Michaelis says she was more concerned about others than for herself. "I felt badly for the coaches because the implication was that they were not doing their job. That's not true. They've done a great job.

"The second thing that hit me was, this is really going hit the university in a negative way. I feel badly because I love BYU. I didn't want them to have this reflection on the university. That's the part that hurt me, because it hurt the university. I knew I would be OK. I feel like I had done a good job. I feel comfortable about the contribution I've made to the university. I was inundated with people saying, 'This is terrible what they've done to you.' A lot of them were aggressive, going to (President Cecil O. Samuelson), to Fred, to the Board of Trustees. The President's office was really hit hard. I feel badly about that. I don't really have negative feelings toward the university, or Fred or the president or anyone. I think they should have done it differently. It would have been a lot easier for me and for the university to let me retire."

As part of the fallout from the incident, one donor told Michaelis that it would take 10 years for BYU's athletic department to recover from the public relations mess.

A week after the firings, Michaelis ran into Skousen on campus and he offered an apology for the way the situation was handled. Later in the fall, Skousen made a presentation to Michaelis in a gathering with the coaches and administrators. There, he outlined her accomplishments as a coach, but not as an athletic director.

Nothing about her role in renovating the womens' coaches offices and locker rooms at the Smith Fieldhouse and the Marriott Center. Nothing about the 12th Team, a group of 150 women who volunteer on behalf of BYU's sports teams to raise funds and provide services for women's teams.

"I thought, 'What have I been doing the last eight years?'" she says.

Michaelis keeps busy answering every letter she's received from friends, fans, former players or complete strangers, who thank her for her example and all she has done for BYU sports.

As for the future of BYU athletics, Michaelis says the school has lost a number of leaders over the years who have great historical perspective — like Edwards and former athletic directors Glen Tuckett and Clayne Jensen.

"You learn a lot from history," she says.

Maybe BYU will learn from the way it said goodbye to its women's athletics pioneer and coaching legend, Elaine Michaelis.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com