Jenny Allard was about to take a leap of faith.
This is the right thing to do.
Computer monitor on and new email open, she took her position in front of the keyboard.
I’m just being honest.
She began to type.
I’m not pushing an agenda – I’m just telling them what’s happening.
For the first time, but certainly not the last, in her lengthy and lucrative tenure as Harvard’s head softball coach, Jenny Allard was moments away from making history.
It was the summer of ’97 – think pre-scandal Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods’ first (and counting!) Masters victory, and Mike Tyson biting that dude’s ear off. Jenny Allard, a 28 year-old former star pitcher for the Michigan Wolverines, had come to Harvard’s campus two years prior, first as the school’s first full-time head softball coach and then as an on-campus freshman proctor. On the softball side of things, Allard was establishing her dominance in the world of Ivy League coaching – though she inherited a team that had not earned a winning record in the Ivies since 1989, she had already led the squad to two second-place Ancient Eight finishes. But as a proctor, Allard faced a predicament.
“I really loved proctoring, but my partner was on the West Coast, and we had decided that it was time for her to move in with me and take it to the next step of our relationship,” Allard said. “At that time, gay marriage wasn’t legal in [Massachusetts], but I didn’t want to give up proctoring. The only way I could really do that was to be honest. So I went to the Freshman Dean’s Office, and they were unbelievably supportive. They had a gay couple working in one of the dorms already, so when I asked if it would be okay [for my partner] to move in, they said yes.”
On the proctoring side of things, Allard was all set – but as a coach, she was left with a problem.
“The question remained: what do I do in terms of my team?” Allard said. “At the time, coaches would still hide their partners and not be open, but I thought, ‘Well, she’s gonna be living on campus with me so we’re gonna be very visible.’ I’ve always wanted an honest relationship with my players, so I decided that I needed to tell them – I just wanted them to know who this person [was] and not lie about it.”
By coming out to her team, Allard was about to take a historic step in the world of college sports. At the time, the number of openly gay coaches could be counted on one hand – however, Allard’s question of what to say turned into a dilemma of how to say it. Because these events were unfolding over the summer, members of the Crimson softball team were not on campus. However, Allard wanted her squad to “hear all the information at once.”
“What I did was just craft a really nice email to let them know,” Allard said. “Then, they could process the information and react in their own way – there was no expectation of how they should or shouldn’t react to it. I just sent them the email in a leap of faith. I remember doing it and thinking ‘This is the right thing to do, I’m just being honest, I’m not pushing an agenda, this is just what’s happening.’”
As Allard would soon find out, her leap of faith would pay off.
“It was really well-received – I was shocked,” Allard said. “One of the players wrote back ‘Congratulations, we’re so happy for you!’ and I was like ‘Is this real? This is amazing!’ It gave me a lot faith in the next generation for how things could change and develop.”
Come next softball season, things went on as normal for the Harvard softball team, with one small caveat. Instead of “hiding out in the outfield” and avoiding the players, as partners of gay coaches tended to do at time, Allard’s partner became part of the team – a revolutionary step in the world of college coaching.
“In that way,” said Allard, “she became part of that Harvard softball community I worked so hard to create.”
The members of Allard’s first teams affirmed this sentiment. Jennifer Manabat, then Jenny Franzese, captain of the ’98 Crimson, spoke to the natural flow that came with the addition of Allard’s partner.
“I don’t remember [her] email specifically, but I do remember that her partner would come to our games and take part in team activities,” Manabat said. “She was always there helping out and supporting us – everything just flowed very naturally.”
For Coach Allard, this seamless transition was a victory: the first in a series of many.
Though Jenny Allard describes her relationship with her team as primarily centered around honesty, collaboration certainly comes in at a close second.
“[Allard] was a very hands-on coach and was always doing stuff with us,” Manabat said. “We’d do team building activities and go on runs together – we had a lot of early morning practices where[…] we’d play Ultimate Frisbee or go to the squash courts for a little bit before we started practice. She was always thinking outside of the box, and we didn’t have to be rigid in what we did. It felt like she was an older version of one of us, just as a leader and coach.”
Manabat credits Allard with taking the time to learn how Harvard’s softball team operated, rather than simply jumping in and imposing her own coaching methods upon the program. By doing this, Manabat said, Allard was able to create a culture of trust and sisterhood – with, of course, the prospect of winning an Ivy League title looming in the background.
“I was the first full-time head coach of the program, as they had only had a part-time coach in the past,” Allard said. “I was very young – I had just turned twenty-six – and I just remember how much potential I thought this program had to grow and develop. When I asked what [the athletic department’s] goal was, it was to not only win an Ivy League title, but to consistently be on top of the conference and always have that shot to win down the stretch.”
That goal, of always being in the mix and shooting for the title cup, is what drove Allard’s coaching practices.
“What guided my philosophy on the program was that we’re not going to win an Ivy League title every year. No matter how hard you work and no matter how much effort you put in, there are always things out of your control. But what you can control is that culture of being in the mix every year for the Ivy League title – and you may or may not win. Many times, it comes down to one hit or one out, so I just always operated under that philosophy of doing the best we can.”
As it turns out, the “best Allard could do” wasn’t too shabby – with seven Ivy League titles to her name, she is both the longest-tenured and winningest coach in Ancient Eight softball. When asked to name her greatest moment as a coach, Allard claimed that it was impossible to choose just one (she went on to list four); however, the first triumph she mentioned brought her back to where it all began.
“Obviously one of the greatest moments was to finally win our first Ivy League title,” Allard said. “Most of these ‘great moments’ culminated in years of work – that ‘98 [victory] was a sum of years of work by players that elevated the program, wanting to compete at that championship level. There was just so much hard work that prior teams put into that ’98 win, so that was a huge moment for us.”
“We had the best year ever. I hope it continues in the future, and I think it will,” Manabat said of that victory in an 1998 Crimson article. "The returning players know what it takes, and they have what it takes."
Manabat was more than correct. That ’98 squad set the tone for the rest of Allard’s ongoing career, with additional Ivy League victories in 2000, 2001, 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2018. However, those years aren’t simply wins – to Allard, each of those dates comes with a story.
“Another great moment was in 2012, when we not only won an Ivy League title but went on a ride at Regionals, beating Texas Tech and Maryland,” Allard said. “The ’12 team was one of those storied teams in Harvard history to get into a regional final and pull off two postseason wins against teams ranked higher than them. I think that was a great moment for me because it also marked the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death, so it was a real emotional weekend, and for the team to do that well is something I’ll never forget.”
Another Allard story comes from the squad’s 2007 victory – but this time, her anecdote comes from off the field, rather than on.
“Another great moment was when our captain of the 2007 team, Julia Kidder, got married at Harvard,” Allard said. “The reception was in downtown Boston and she invited every single one of her teammates that she every played with at Harvard. I remember being at that wedding and I remember that all of those players came. Every single one. One came from Japan, where she was teaching English, but she came all the way from Japan because she wasn’t going to miss that wedding. In that moment, I realized how powerful those relationships between teammates are; that was just a spectacular moment.”
To Allard, it’s those bonds formed between team members, rather than technical adjustments and on-the-diamond successes, that her players will be left with after their time at Harvard. Though she may be right, the sense of camaraderie that Allard has facilitated between members of her squad has certainly led to its fair share of game-time achievements – take Allard’s 300th Ivy League win just a few weekends ago.
“Just the actual game felt great,” said Allard of that milestone. “Columbia was playing very strong, but we came out in such an aggressive fashion. [The game] felt great, and that’s what I was focused on – but then, all of a sudden, it was the 300th win, which was also such a great way to celebrate such a memorable win.”
The gravity of that moment was not lost by the women of Harvard’s softball squad, who took it upon themselves to plan a surprise celebration for their coach.
“They had a surprise reception on the Sunday after the series against Columbia,” Allard said. “Parents came, players came, staff and alums that were local came. They put together a video of a lot of alums saying congratulations, so that was really sweet.”
For Allard, that 300th Ivy win was simply one more victory in this season’s journey to postseason success. Currently, the crusaders in crimson sit atop the Ancient Eight, holding a 9-3 conference record. Allard admits that the team struggled during early out-of-conference play, but are starting to find their groove as they take on their Ivy League opponents. As the coach of such a closely-knit team, one that seems poised to continue to build upon recent successes, it’s easy to see why Allard has remained in her position for twenty-five years.
“It’s simple,” said Allard of her motivation to coach. “I love what I do and I’m passionate about the game. I really like the values of the Harvard athletic department and I just love the women I get to coach. They work so hard, they’re bright, they’re smart, they’re motivated, and they’re just a joy to work with every day. To get up and work with them and work through the challenges they bring me as a coach – it’s just a great privilege.”
Compared to its pre-Allard counterpart, the Harvard softball program of today is unrecognizable. With seven Ancient Eight titles, five NCAA tournament appearances, and seven Ivy League Players of the Year, the Crimson boast an exceptional repertoire of accolades – and they owe it all to Jenny Allard, the commander of Soldiers Field. Harvard softball fans can rest easy knowing that the program’s future lies in the hands of Coach Allard, a leader whose path, if history has its way, will be full of many more post-milestone celebrations. After all, Jenny Allard is a history-maker, her life littered with moments that tell of the remarkable career of a revolutionary woman. — Staff writer James Joyce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer James Joyce can be reached at email@example.com.