October 2008 Chad Bonham

Anyone who has ever sat in the painfully uncomfortable job applicant’s seat knows there are a few simple rules that accompany a successful interview: be on time, dress the part, research the employer, ask questions and avoid taking a combative approach.

When Jill McCormick found herself interviewing at Santa Rosa Junior College (Calif.) for a job that included the head coaching position of the women’s water polo team and both the men’s and women’s swimming teams, she followed all of the typical interview protocols to a tee—except maybe that last one.

“The vice president of the college at the time asked me, ‘What challenges do you face as a woman coaching men’s swimming?’” McCormick recalled. “So, I just said, ‘Well, first of all, I hope you ask every male who applies to coach women here that same question.’”

The interviewer couldn’t help but laugh. Perhaps he knew that McCormick’s response was completely legitimate. “People never think twice about a man coaching softball or a man coaching volleyball or a man coaching gymnastics,” McCormick said.

McCormick and the Bear Cubs

Ultimately it wasn’t McCormick’s candor, but rather her credentials, that landed the position. And as she enters her ninth year at Santa Rosa, no one thinks twice about McCormick coaching men anymore.

Much of that widespread acceptance is the result of tangible successes in the pool. McCormick has been named California Community College Athletic Association Coach of the Year four times in women’s swimming (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008), and her program has produced numerous All-Conference, All-American and All-Academic student-athletes.

The 2008 season was especially rewarding as she led the women’s team to both the Big 8 Conference and California Community College State titles. It was the Bear Cubs’ third state title in five years. McCormick’s men’s squad also performed well with a Big 8 Conference title and a third-place finish in the state.
A native of Santa Rosa, McCormick was an All-American in the backstroke and relay events at Santa Rosa JC. Having trained most of her career in coed environments and coached boys and girls at the club and high school levels, there were never any major adjustments needed with her coaching style.

“It’s sometimes easier to coach young men than to coach young women,” McCormick said. According to her, men can “get a lot more fired up in a quicker amount of time, and they’ll put themselves out there,” whereas women tend to “fear failure more and get more emotionally wrapped up in their performance.”

But to be completely clear, that’s not to say she doesn’t enjoy coaching women. In fact, some of her most fulfilling relationships with athletes have been with members of her women’s water polo team, including sophomore Priscilla Murphy (see sidebar). The impact McCormick has had on so many young women is, in Murphy’s opinion, immeasurable.

“She embodies the full scope of coach, mother-figure and friend. It’s hard to find someone who can balance those things and still be respected as a coach.”
– Priscilla Murphy, SRJC Soph.

“She is inspirational,” Murphy said. “She embodies the full scope of coach, mother-figure and friend. It’s hard to find someone who can balance those things and still be respected as a coach. Some coaches become too much of a friend or too much of a parent figure, but she really knows how to balance it all. I respect her so much and hope to someday become that kind of woman.”

McCormick, however, admits that her balance was once “out of whack” when it came to prioritizing her roles as a coach, mother and wife. That all changed when she finally came to understand that matters of faith were more than just something she needed to add to her growing list of things to do.

While studying at the University of California at Davis (and later at the University of California at Berkeley), her husband, Pete—a former swimming training partner in junior college—began regularly attending church. McCormick had grown up in the church, but she suddenly found little time for the spiritual disciplines she once embraced.

“I was a serious college athlete for a long time, and you just transfer that intensity into getting a job,” McCormick said. “I couldn’t figure out how I was going to fit church into my schedule because I always saw it as something separate that I did on holidays or with my family. I never felt like it was connected to everything I did on a daily basis.”

When McCormick and her family (which now includes two sons) moved back to Santa Rosa, she found ways to put organized worship back into her life. She ended up at a church called The Cove about 10 years ago, and that is where she remains actively involved in a weekly small group Bible study.
Another spiritual milestone in McCormick’s life came when she met former Santa Rosa JC softball coach Carrie Webber, who, along with Pete’s help, orchestrated a surprise trip for McCormick to the FCA coaches’ retreat at Hume Lake, Calif.

Jill and Pete McCormick

That high-impact event laid the foundation for Webber and McCormick to start an FCA Huddle at Santa Rosa. And while Webber has since departed to become the head softball coach at Azusa Pacific, McCormick says athletes like Murphy and the support she gets from Bay Area FCA Area Representative Rigo Lopez have helped her maintain an effective ministry.

Still, she admits that it’s not always easy. Most athletes have conflicting schedules and there is an especially high turnover rate for junior college students. Then, there’s the balance of facilitating the group and enjoying the blessings. But those challenges remind her of the advice she once gave to a young coach: “Don’t get caught up in leading [FCA]. Take 45 minutes the night before and really study the passage, and use that as your devotion time.”

Once that balance has been achieved, McCormick says that the true blessings, which are the relationships, can be established.

“I have found that my Bible study group that we’ve had for 10 years has been one of the most powerful places I’ve grown, and now I’m seeing that with these young student-athletes,” she said. “You have that intimate coach-athlete connection, and then you can cross into a Christian connection.”

As much as she has enjoyed giving of herself and building those lifelong relationships, McCormick remains in awe of the blessings and spiritual growth that she has enjoyed as a result of her involvement in on-campus sports ministry.

“FCA has changed me,” she said. “It’s become more than just me offering a setting for other people to study the Word and worship and be together as Christian athletes. It’s been a great experience for me, as well.”  

Athlete Profile: Priscilla Murphy

McCormick and Murphy

Three years ago, when Priscilla Murphy was faced with the decision to stay in Hawaii or move to northern California for college, the difficult choice had nothing to do with average temperatures, sandy beaches and primo surfing conditions. Murphy was instead dealing with an anarchic home life where her mother was a recovering drug addict and her brothers were living fast and furious lives of their own.

But after delaying her departure to the University of Hawaii at Manoa for a year, she stepped out in faith and accepted an old friend’s invitation to attend Santa Rosa Junior College.

“Moving away from my mom in Hawaii was the hardest decision in my life,” Murphy admitted. “I was familiar with California from earlier in my life, but, at that point, my whole life was Hawaii. I thought that was where I would be for years to come. I was leaving a parent who had basically regressed into acting like a child, and I had been the parent for so long. It was very scary.”
It turned out to be the best decision Murphy has ever made. At Santa Rosa, she met water polo coach Jill McCormick, who introduced her to FCA. Although Murphy had been involved in church youth groups back in Hawaii, this style of ministry helped her grow even deeper in her faith.

“I was so excited that my coach was the leader,” Murphy recalled. “Going to those meetings with Coach Jill was a safe place to be. I always knew I could talk to her, but it was great to see her in yet another setting where she was so passionate about things. She had my attention just like she was giving us a pre-game speech. I would just soak up everything she said.”

McCormick, on the other hand, said that she has been inspired by watching Murphy overcome the odds and develop into a leader in her own right.

“Priscilla has figured out what her foundation is,” McCormick said. “She totally has faith in Christ, and she’s very unconditional about it. She’s not a doubter, and she’s been a model of faith to me. I’ve learned a lot from her.”

This fall, Murphy will complete her athletic career as a field player/attacker for the Bear Cubs’ water polo squad. After that, she will transfer to UC Berkeley, where she plans to pursue a career in education. Murphy might even take up coaching and continue to follow in McCormick’s footsteps.

“Teaching may not pay a lot, but it’s what I feel called to do,” Murphy said.

She also plans to use her family experience to encourage others.

“My mom has thankfully kicked the drugs and is on the road back to being a healthy adult. But I still want to speak to kids about growing up in a chaotic household and how you need to stay true through all of that, to find your faith in Christ and not be angry at the world. Coach Jill has helped me feel a lot more comfortable sharing my story. I feel good about the next few years and the future to come.” 

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Jill McCormick, Debbie Pettit, Janis King.