n the summer of 2013, Tracey Kee found herself in dramatically-uncharted territory, professionally and geographically. Kee had spent her entire life living on the east coast and more than half of her life in the East Carolina softball program, first as a player, then assistant coach, and finally head coach. She had flourished, winning almost 700 games, earning four coach of the year awards, and taking four teams to the NCAA tournament.
Now she was starting over, more than a thousand miles from the only world she had ever known.
"I was extremely apprehensive," said Kee about taking the head softball coach position at North Texas. "At 46, this was the first time I was in a new environment and inheriting a team that I did not recruit.
"Most people experience that in their early years, and to have that turnover now was probably my biggest fear and concern as a coach," she added. "At this point in my career, I was going to go into a group that I knew nothing about, and I did a lot of soul searching with it."
Apparently, those searches found the right answers. Going into this weekend's final regular-season series, against Tulsa at Lovelace Stadium, the Mean Green has already posted one of the winningest seasons in school history - a testament to Kee's ability to reach a group of players she did not recruit and to get the most out of her student-athletes.
Kee arrived in Denton in the middle of a mercilessly-hot Texas summer and immediately began the process of transforming a Mean Green softball program that had produced just three winning reasons in ten years. But what Kee discovered in the first meetings with her players was a team with talent and, more importantly, the ambition to succeed and the willingness to listen to a new voice.
"I think it was different for them and me," Kee said. "Here we are, three days before the start of school, and I show up and am about to take the reins of the program. As a coach, I knew I needed to come out and be completely honest. I needed to tell them my vision, how I am, my expectations. It was either buy into it or maybe this isn't the right change for you. But I think I was very fortunate because this group embraced the change and embraced everything from day one in regards to where I wanted this program to go, how I wanted this program to go and that I wanted them to be a part of it."
Tracey Kee (far left) in her playing days in the late 1980s.
By her own admission, Kee is a tough-love coach. Never shying away from the challenge of constantly pushing and developing her student-athletes to the brink of their full potential, she has a fiery passion for the game and for her players, qualities that emerged early in her career.
One of her former players, Erin St. Ledger, who played under Kee from 2004-08, considers Kee to have mastered the balance of discipline and compassion.
"By the end of my career, she had prepared me to be successful, not only on the field, but in life," St. Ledger said. "She was always really tough on the field, and for the people that already were pushing themselves hard, she was that someone who would push you even harder to try and reach that top level."
And while establishing herself as a disciplinarian was important, Kee also wanted to reveal her more personal side to the team.
She puts an emphasis on her relationships with each player, allowing the student-athletes to be comfortable yet tightly focused as they work toward their goals, a style that has allowed Kee to not only survive, but thrive in the cutthroat coaching industry.
"I think it is important for them to understand how much I care about them as individuals and not just as student-athletes," Kee explained. "Understanding that fine line of when you can laugh with them and be funny, but when we step on that field, how I can push the right buttons and get the best out of them as a student-athlete is key.
"I think when they see that you're human and that you do have a sense of humor and that you can be serious and intense, it's a matter of being in the right moment at that particular situation. There are times where I can be intense with them, and there are times when being lighter and joking with them is a positive. They both work."
The Virginia native sees herself as much more than simply a head coach. Knowing that student-athletes need support outside of just Xs and Os, Kee has come to realize through 20-plus years of experience that coaching is only one slice of the pie when it comes to running a program.
"You have to wear so many hats. You have to be the coach, the disciplinarian, the mom, the sister, the friend, the counselor, the therapist, and to not wear all of those hats is a disservice to those athletes," Kee said. "Most student-athletes at this level want to be challenged and want to be pushed, and I think it is up to the coach to find the buttons on those particular individuals to make that happen."
St. Ledger agrees, finding Kee's connection with the players - including herself - to be well-tailored to each individual student-athlete.
"She was a mother figure and gave out some tough love," St. Ledger said. "But at the end of the day, you looked up to her, and she was someone you just wanted to make proud."
The nurturing side of coach Kee could be seen on a road trip to Marshall, when the Mean Green's Karly Williams was hit in the jaw by a pitch that hospitalized the second baseman in Huntington, West Virginia, for three days. Kee remained with Williams as she recovered, while the rest of the team flew back to Denton to prepare for a mid-week game with UT Arlington.
Coach Kee's philosophies and style were a definite change of pace from what the Mean Green softball crew was used to, but she didn't hold back placing her stamp on the program from day one. Utilizing a fast-paced practice structure and focusing the girls on the cerebral side of the game were two of the more drastic changes the players had to adjust to early on. Her implementation of schemes and defensive strategies were eye opening for a unit that wasn't used to that level of organization in the field of play.
"This is one of the most talented groups I have ever coached, and I was fortunate to come into a program that I felt needed a foundation, some positivity, some push and a sense of togetherness," said Kee.
Creating that sense of togetherness and establishing a successful foundation is no easy task in collegiate coaching. Getting players to buy in and stick to the program through the hard practices and tough conditioning on top of their busy everyday lives may be the most challenging aspect of being a head coach, especially in their first year with a new program.
"At first, I could feel the energy but also the apprehensiveness," Kee said. "It was at the end of the fall when we had another team sit down, and I just flat out told them that I have taken teams with less talent far. Because by then, four months in, I knew exactly how much talent this team had, and what I was working with.
"I had a pretty clear vision of what this team was capable of doing, and I think that was the "a-ha" moment where the girls realized 'oh, she doesn't think we're bad, and she believes in us and does like us.' That's a credit to them and their hard work."
Despite the difficulty of the assignment, Kee has found a way to execute her vision, while simultaneously giving her players a goal to strive for - winning a conference title and making the postseason.
"After sitting with coach Rick and the administrators here and hearing their vision, I felt our visions matched up," Kee said. "I knew that, if given an opportunity, I could truly help a team get where they wanted to be.
"On the flipside, you have to have student-athletes that are receptive to that," she added. "And I think that not just coming in overbearing and showing off my resume, but instead, showing them that I've been in it. I've done this. I've learned from experience, and you can either come with me or not.
"I felt the vision was very clear. This program needed to take a step up. This program needed to prove itself and this program is sitting in an area where it can be very successful. I felt those were all things that I wanted to help this program get to. I think just sitting down and talking to the team in your locker room for the very first time and selling that to them. They didn't have to buy it. They could have bucked the system and made things difficult, but I think the timing was perfect. This is the perfect place for me at this time."
With her system now firmly in place and the goals clearly set, the Mean Green is poised to take that next step at long last, playing for its first conference title, its first conference tournament championship and for that elusive first NCAA tournament appearance.
"Change is not always a bad thing," Kee said. "I think me landing at North Texas was a good fit, and we have blended from day one, worked extremely hard and ridden this roller coaster of good practices and bad. Right now, we like the body of work that we are building."