NU will miss tell-it-like-it-is veteran coach

Sam Hong Column

I’m sure very few of you know anything about field hockey.

Heck, I covered it for three months last fall and I still don’t understand half the sport.

But if you walk by the lake one of those freezing autumn afternoons, you might see a bunch of girls in skirts running around with large wooden candy canes, chasing around a hard white ball that can give you an easy skull fracture if you get in its way.

And you’ll also see a madwoman.

But after Northwestern head coach Marisa Didio returns from Penn State following the Big Ten Championships this weekend, she will clean out her office and leave Evanston. It’s a shame, because NU could use more coaches like her.

After 22 years of screaming at officials, her own players, and even chastising one unlucky Daily reporter, Didio will hang up her clipboard and call it quits — at least at NU.

In her first of two stints at NU, Didio built a legacy of success that couldn’t quite be replicated in her final years.

Didio captured Big Ten titles in 1989 and 1994 in a conference that has always had a strong reputation for field hockey. She has coached 12 All-Americans and earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1994, the same season she led the Cats to a national Final Four appearance.

After taking a five-year hiatus to coach at Yale, Didio returned to Evanston in 2000 to take over a shattered program that had gone 0-10 in conference play the year before.

Although Didio’s second stint at NU produced only a 5-19 conference mark over four years, the team showed marked improvement. The 2003 Cats breached the top-20 rankings several times and finished with a winning overall record, a product of her hard work and extreme intensity.

Didio was a coach who gave it to you straight. She let you know in a loud voice if you screwed up, but she also made sure to let you know in a louder voice if you had done something well. Her screams of “No!! No!!” then “Good job! Good job!” were always audible all over the field.

Most impressively, though, she knew not to sugarcoat the truth.

After her return to NU, Didio knew when her team’s talent level was not up to par with the rest of the Big Ten. She knew that the only area the Cats could ever have an edge over a Big Ten opponent was in work ethic and — that buzzword that every coach loves — heart.

She often told me that although her goal was obviously to win games against stronger opponents, a well-fought loss was often good enough.

This fair school of ours already has enough losing teams that get outmuscled by our stronger Big Ten siblings.

But we don’t have enough coaches who know how to be honest. Didio knew how to develop players and she loved to win. But she also knew when to be realistic without discouraging her team.

It’s no surprise that my “fondest” memory of Didio was when she screamed at me for being disrespectful during an interview last year after I turned away to flick a bug off my shoulder.

Two minutes later, she told me I had been doing a good job on my articles and to keep it up.

It couldn’t have been more fitting.