She grew up on a dirt road outside of Pacific, a rural community just west of St. Louis, and played just about every sport imaginable.
So when Linda Wells was about to enter high school, a neighbor walked over to the house and asked her dad if she might be interested in playing in the Women’s Major Division of the America Softball Association.
Little did she realize that softball – and sports for that matter – would become her life.
“My early time in St. Louis with the Women’s Major softball teams opened my eyes to all of the other sport opportunities,” Wells said. “I also played AAU basketball, USVBA volleyball, USFHA field hockey and USTA tennis throughout my sport career.”
Wells went on to make her mark, particularly in collegiate softball coaching after a notable amateur and professional softball playing career. And it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Wells with the Class of 2023.
A graduate of Pacific High School, Wells played summer Khoury League and Women’s Major Fastpitch softball, garnering All-Star and MVP honors while with the St. Louis Browns, Kirkwood Chargers and Kutis – and later the pro Hummers. She was a five-sport athlete at Southeast Missouri State University and later became one of the nation’s best collegiate softball coaches – first at the University of Minnesota and then at Arizona State University. Her 914 career wins at one time ranked in the top 10 in NCAA history.
At Minnesota, she coached softball from 1974 to 1989, and also led the women’s basketball and volleyball teams. As a softball coach, she led the Gophers to a 351-264-1 record. The 1978 team finished third in the AIAW College World Series, and her teams won five conference titles.
At Arizona State, her teams were 563-415 over 16 seasons (1990-2005), making Wells the winningest coach in program history. She led the Sun Devils to two Women’s College World Series, in 1999 and 2002, and 12 NCAA Regionals, including seven consecutive from 1997 to 2003. Seven players earned 12 All-American honors.
She later coached in the Olympics.
“Pacific High School provided limited competition in volleyball and softball,” Wells said. “Softball was added because we begged the phys ed teacher to coach the team, declaring to Ruth Gassner Jones that, if she would coach, we would win.”
There were forces working against women’s sports at the time. Among them, Wells recalled, was a wrongful belief developed in the 1950s that rigorous sports activity would be detrimental to women’s bodies.
However, over the next decade, Wells eventually coached the St. Louis Hummers professional team.
She went on to Southeast Missouri State on an academic scholarship but played five sports, all coached by instructors.
Soon, she was off to the University of Minnesota for a graduate degree and took on coaching three sports, for all of $800.
That made her the first woman to coach sports at the university, and then the first to have an office in the athletic building. Eventually, she made $9,400 to coach three sports, although the salary paled in comparison to other coaches on campus.
“There were women all over the country interested in coming to the U to play softball,” Wells said. “Many were coming from adjacent states and were attracted to the opportunity to compete at a high level. Some were encouraged by relatives or friends at the U, who were aware of the giant strides the program was making.”
Over the years, Wells left behind coaching basketball and then volleyball to concentrate on softball. The federal Title IX legislation that required public schools to offer women athletic opportunities passed in 1972.
In 1989, after coaching two Minnesota teams to the national tournament, she turned to Arizona State. Hundreds of club and high school teams in the area were playing softball, and nearby states supplied talent, too. Her best Sun Devils teams rode pitching to success.
In the 80s, the Olympics came into focus. She was on the coaching staffs for the gold medal-winning USA teams in the South Pacific Classic and Pan American Games in 1985 and 1987. Eventually in the 2000s, she coached in the Olympics with the Greek and Netherlands teams.
Fortunately, she counts numerous family, friends, teammates and coaches as mentors who helped her along her journey. Among them is her partner, Liz Kelly.
“Many thanks for the sports that have given me so much more than I could ever give back, but I have tried,” Wells said.