'I'll miss the kids': Wayne State softball's Gary Bryce's epic career comes to close

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

These days, if you want a college head coaching job, you're going to have to first meet with the athletic director and university president and just about everyone in between, and be subjected to a background check.

Back in the early 1980s, Gary Bryce had a five-minute interview before he was offered the head coaching job for Wayne State softball.

Little did he know then, that would lead to a 40-year career, making up half his life.

Wayne State softball coach Gary Bryce is retiring.

"No," Bryce said earlier this week, "probably not."

This week, starting with Tuesday's Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opener against Saginaw Valley State in Sandusky, Ohio, marks the sunset of Bryce's epic career. He is retiring at season's end, whenever that may be, after a 40-year run matched by no other Division II softball coach.

With 1,338 wins, Bryce, who turned 80 in March, is the winningest softball coach in Division II — and sixth across all levels (Michigan's Carol Hutchins is second) — and a 10-time GLIAC coach of the year who has led his teams to 21 conference championships between the regular season and postseason. He's made the NCAA Tournament 23 times, and his teams have been nationally ranked in 28 seasons.

Three times in 40 years — a coaching-tenure length tied for second, with former Central Michigan coach Margo Jonker and others, across all divisions — his teams have reached the College World Series, or the Elite Eight, in 2003, 2010 and 2014.

More than all the accolades, though, he'll miss the players — the stars (and he's had a lot of them) and the not-so-stars, alike.

"The kids. I'll miss the kids," Bryce said Monday afternoon, following his last practice as a college coach. "It's always nice to see them years later, when they're 28, 29, having accomplished some of their goals in life. That's always good to see."

Just don't ask him to pick a favorite — or a best player.

"I've coached 41 All-Americans," he said with a laugh, while noting he did have a national player of the year — hitter/pitcher star Lyndsay Butler in 2016.

"So that's pretty tough."

Bryce attended the University of Michigan, where he studied physical education and social studies — and also played football and baseball, both varsity and intramural. It was during intramurals when he first got introduced to softball. He also holds a Master's degree from Michigan. After college, he started teaching and coaching at Clawson public schools, then Royal Oak. 

At Royal Oak Dondero, he coached softball for five seasons, winning the 1979 Class A state championships and three district titles. At the high school level, he also coached girls basketball, baseball and wrestling.

While at Dondero, Diane Laffey, best known as the legendary coach at Warren Regina who is the state's winningest high school coach, was head coach at Wayne State. But she didn't want to do it anymore, so she recommended Bryce, and the rest is history.

Given his resume, he had a chance to move up to Division I. But other than one close call, he never really considered it. He knew he had something special at Wayne State.

"You always think that if you do well, I can move up to Division I or Power Five," said Bryce, a 2008 inductee into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame. "I had the Bowling Green job my third year at Wayne State. I was on the road to go sign the contract and I said, I have a pretty good team. Why would I go somewhere else?'

"So I called Bowling Green and said, 'Thank you very much.'"

But, no thanks.

Gary Bryce.

Besides softball, Bryce, of Sterling Heights, has long taught physical education at Wayne State. For seven seasons, from 1984-92, he was Wayne State's head women's basketball coach. From 1992-99, he was Wayne State's director for athletic development.

He has no grand plan for retirement. In the immediate future, he plans a trip with his daughter to New Mexico, the only state he has yet to visit. There's another trip to California on the docket. He wants to play more golf, though he laments nobody will play with him because he's not very good — though assistant softball coach Pat Kent, who's been with Bryce his entire 40-year run, is always a willing playing partner.

But he's not retired yet. There are games to be played, starting when Wayne State (21-19) plays Saginaw Valley State (28-15). The GLIAC tournament is double-elimination.

Bryce hasn't begun to reflect much — on a career that only included five losing seasons, and 39 seasons with at least 21 wins (it would've been 40-for-40 had the 2020 season not been cut short by COVID-19) — but knows that's coming.

"I'm sure when it's the last game of the year, you'll kind of look out on the field and that'll be something to think about," said Bryce, who started coaching softball when they were using wood bats. "I've been in sports my whole life."

The search for Wayne State's next softball coach continues.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984