Elaine Michaelis: The Godmother of BYU women’s athletics
Story and cover art by Austin Rustand.
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the March 2022 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine and magazine show (below).
If you were asked to name the Brigham Young University coach that coached 51 All-Americans, won 23 conference championships, never suffered a losing season and retired as the second all-time winningest coach in their respective sport, who would you think of?
You may think of the great LaVell Edwards, who won 19 conference titles during his 29 years at the helm of the BYU football program. Or men’s golf coach Karl Tucker who matched Edwards with 19 WAC Championships between 1962 and 1992 and brought the first team national championship to Provo in 1981.
If you are a basketball fan, Stan Watts — who won eight conference titles in 23 seasons before being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — could fit the bill. If it isn’t Hall of Fame coaches Edwards, Tucker or Watts, who could it be?
It could be current BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood. Since 1995, when Rockwood founded the women’s soccer program, she has won 17 conference titles, taken her team to 23 NCAA tournaments and most recently made a run to the national championship game in 2021.
Although each of these renowned coaches had Hall of Fame-caliber careers, none of them can claim the accolades mentioned above.
The one coach that fits that description: Elaine Michaelis.
It is impossible to discuss the success of women’s athletics at Brigham Young University without Elaine Michaelis.
Before Michaelis was coaching All-Americans and leading teams to championships, she found her love for athletics as a three-sport athlete at BYU.
As a student at BYU (1956-60), Michaelis played basketball, softball and volleyball but women’s athletics at that time looked a lot different than it does now.
“At that point in time, women’s athletics was just extramural,” Michaelis said. “The men were part of intercollegiate athletics governed by the NCAA, but when I came out of high school the women’s programs were extramural. We would still compete against other schools, but nobody ever knew what we were doing or anything about it. It was simply the athletic opportunity for women at that time.”
They did not have scheduled games because of finances, time and travel. Competition for women’s sports during this period of time consisted of sports days in which multiple colleges would meet at a common location to play multiple games over a two-day stretch.
“It depended on the structure of the sports day and the number of teams, but we would normally play three or four games per day,” said Michaelis. “Each of the universities would bring a team and we’d play for two days, so you played a lot of games.”
During one of these “sports days,” Michaelis achieved two of the most impressive feats in sports on the same day.
“I really was better at basketball, but in the last game I sprained my ankle really badly, but I still played with the softball team that season,” she said. “When we went to Colorado for a softball tournament, our regular pitcher couldn’t pitch and I had pitched in high school, so they had me pitch that day. Because I had a bad ankle, I would limp as I pitched which put a great curve on the ball every time I threw a pitch and that day no one could hit me.”
In two games that day, not a single batter got a hit off Michaelis. She threw both a no-hitter and a perfect game in the same day.
At the time, the extramural program, which was comprised of mostly female athletes, was not funded by the university or the men’s athletic department. They instead paid their own way for travel, lodging, food and even drove faculty cars to events.
“We just went and played,” she said. “And we loved it.”
Upon her graduation in 1961, Michaelis was given an opportunity that would later change the course of BYU women’s athletics history. She was hired as a faculty member to oversee both the intramural and extramural programs.
The intramural program was for students at the university to compete against other students in athletic competitions. The extramural program fielded teams at BYU that competed at sports days with other schools from around the country.
Because of Michaelis’ experiences as an athlete, one of her primary focuses as a young administrator was creating a positive environment and experience for the female athletes at BYU.
“As faculty members, we would cover the expenses as we traveled to games with no reimbursement, took the teams, coached them, took them to lunch and everything else. It was really a fun experience for the students.”
For the first seven or eight years, Michaelis held about every title one could hold within an athletic team. She worked as the director of intramural and extramural sports as well as the head coach and director of operations for the women’s basketball, field hockey and volleyball teams.
“Gradually we added more faculty and staff to help out,” Michaelis said. “We got an experienced person to take over field hockey, which I was just doing the best I could. Ann Valentine came in and took over the tennis program and did a great job. I kept basketball and volleyball as we evolved, got more help and the university decided that we needed some support and funding.”
Michaelis coached women’s field hockey from 1962-66 and 1967-69 and led the women’s basketball program from 1961-77.
According to “100 Years of Women’s Sports at Brigham Young University,” there were no records kept for the first decade of her basketball coaching career (1961-71), however, it is estimated that she accumulated over 40 wins during that time in addition to her official 48-28 basketball coaching record. Michaelis never suffered a losing season in 16 years at the helm.
Despite her impressive career as a field hockey and basketball coach, most of what fills the record books falls between 1961 and 2002 when she led the women’s volleyball program. Michaelis coached the squad for 44 years, the longest-tenured coach in the history of BYU athletics.
In that time, she accumulated an overall record of 886-225-5 (.792), a conference record of 356-37 (.906), 23 conference titles, helped 18 players earn 51 All-American awards and six players earned major national player honors.
As the head coach, she won the inaugural championship in each of the five volleyball leagues BYU competed in, qualified for 30 of 33 national tournaments, including 20 of 21 NCAA tournaments and went 73-44 (.624) in those tournaments.
Michaelis led the 1972-73 team to a runner-up finish in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Tournament and took the 1993 team to the NCAA Tournament Final Four for the first time in program history. She also never suffered a losing season, finished her career with 28 consecutive 20-win seasons and retired as both the second all-time winningest coach in Division I women’s volleyball and the all-time leader in victories among female coaches in collegiate volleyball at any level with 886 wins.
To say that Michaelis was a good coach would be a massive understatement. She is unquestionably, along with Edwards, Tucker and Watts among the greatest coaches in the history of BYU athletics.
But there is more to Elaine’s story.
Lu Wallace, a close friend of Michaelis, was the athletic director of BYU women’s athletics from 1972-95 and played a huge role in the formalization of women’s athletics at BYU.
“Lu is the founder of intercollegiate athletics at BYU,” Michaelis said in a 1995 BYU Magazine article. “She has led the program from the Sports Day Era (when the women’s sports season lasted all of one weekend) to the complex era of NCAA national championships.”
Upon Wallace’s retirement, Michaelis was still competing for and winning conference championships as the coach of the women’s volleyball, but someone had to replace the “founder of women’s athletics.”
“I didn’t have a desire to do this sort of thing,” Michaelis said with a smile. “I purposefully stayed away from getting a doctoral degree because I wanted to stay away from administration and stay in coaching and teaching.”
Despite her hesitancy, Michaelis was hired to replace her good friend as women’s athletic director and took the reins of one of the most successful women’s athletic programs in the country.
Although Michaelis would continue to coach until 2002, winning four conference crowns and never finishing worse than third, the last few years of her career at BYU would be remembered for what she did off the volleyball court.
During the 1995 season, there was still much to be done with regards to giving female athletes the representation, visibility and treatment they deserved, but BYU was moving in the right direction.
A BYU Magazine article noted, “BYU took a big step toward compliance by making soccer its 10th women’s intercollegiate sport this fall. BYU now sponsors 12 men’s sports, and the ratio of scholarships given male athletes to those given females has improved to 65-35.”
Another goal Michaelis had was getting the female athletes the recognition and media attention they deserved.
Former women’s sports information director Norma Collett Bertoch said, “In 1995 when I was hired, one of Elaine’s goals was that she wanted to have our women’s programs get more television exposure.”
Bertoch explained their goal was to have around 50 broadcasts of women’s soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and softball per year.
“We had women’s soccer, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics which were the four that Elaine wanted to make sure they had more coverage. So, we started getting a lot of our games on KBYU and then it just took off from there,” Bertoch said. “Nowadays, pretty much every home soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball and gymnastics meets are on TV, something that we never even imagined could happen back in 95-96.”
Michaelis’ addition of the women’s soccer and softball programs, her accomplishments as a coach and her commitment to overall athletic excellence was key in helping women’s athletics at BYU get to where it is today. It is a big part of the legacy she leaves at BYU.
However, the bigger part of her legacy has nothing to do with trophies or accolades. It is a legacy of love, devotion and paving the way for future generations of female athletes, coaches and administrators.
“The thing I loved most about Elaine was how much she cared about each and every girl,” Bertoch said. “She wanted to make sure they had the very best of everything so they could keep winning and building winning programs. That was it, she deeply cared about the experience these women had as female athletes at BYU.”
Rockwood echoed many of those same thoughts.
“I looked to Elaine as a role model for me. She dedicated her whole life to the women’s athletic department here at BYU. She started out as a young coach, who ultimately became one of the most successful coaches in the entire country. So, to have someone like her to help guide me through my young years was such a blessing.”
A long time has passed since 2004 when Michaelis finished her time at BYU, but her legacy continues to live on and shape the BYU Athletic Department to this day.
“It is unfortunate that so much time has passed where my players don’t know Elaine or Ann who recently passed away,” Rockwood said. “But everything they did to build the women’s athletic program here at BYU, to get where we are now, to have the facilities, the success and working toward that equal opportunity has been amazing.”
Michaelis retired with a coaching record of 886-225-5 (.792), won 23 conference championships, coached 51 All-Americans, never suffered a losing season and retired as the second all-time winningest volleyball coach in NCAA history. As an administrator she left an unparalleled mark on female athletics at BYU and across the country.
Next time you talk about the greatest to ever be “loyal, strong and true,” don’t forget mention legendary coach, administrator, mentor and pioneer — Elaine Michaelis.