The Oklahoman writes up a successful coach, but edges away from his beliefs

As a sports profile, The Oklahoman's story on softball coach Phil McSpadden is seasoned and smoothly written. But in GetReligion terms of religious "ghosts," the story is as spectral as they come.

McSpadden, a coach at Oklahoma City University, has turned the tame sport of girls' softball into a hard-hitting, competitive sport -- and with more than 1,475 games, has become the "all-time winningest coach in the history of college softball," The Oklahoman says.

The newspaper chronicles his rise: a degree from Oral Roberts University, a string of baseball jobs at high schools, his philosophy of coaching, his hard-nosed transformation of the girls' team at OCU -- a shift that shocked other teams in the 1990s, but is now widely emulated.

The Oklahoman has all that covered. But along the way, it drops a few hints about a deeper level to McSpadden -- hints that it never develops.

Here are some clues:

* McSpadden turns down OCU's first offer, but the school asks again a week later. "Maybe God’s trying to tell me something," he says.

* After winning four consecutive titles, McSpadden considers leaving coaching: "By man’s standard, I’m successful," he thought, "but am I doing anything significant?"

* He stays in coaching after hearing from the father of one of his former players. "I just want to tell you," he told the coach, "my daughter wouldn’t be a Christian if not for you."

* Whenever panhandlers approach, says The Oklahoman, "Chances are good, he will give them money."

* McSpadden admits he may "cuss." However, "The Lord’s name won’t be taken in vain or anything like that."

Finally, both colleges with which McSpadden has been involved are religiously aligned, as a faithful reader pointed out. Oral Roberts, his alma mater, is charismatic (neo-Pentecostal); OCU, his current employer, is United Methodist aligned.

All of those clues could have/should have opened a line of questions.

When McSpadden asked himself if he was doing anything significant, what else did he imagine himself doing?

When he talked about "man's standard," that should have triggered the question, "As opposed to whose?" The likely answer, especially in a state like Oklahoma, is God's standard. That in turn would lead to: "How would that make your career different?"

And now that McSpadden has been at OCU for a long time, does he think he knows what God was telling him?

How did he influence help that girl toward becoming a Christian? What did he do or say?

The whole spiritual facet suggests other avenues of inquiry. Where does McSpadden worship? What does he read, devotion-wise? Does his faith influence his game or coaching style in some concrete way, besides not taking God's name in vain?

And how about the coach's significant others? This story doesn't quote anyone but McSpadden himself. Does he have a wife and kids? Or maybe a girlfriend? If so, they could surely provide some insights. So would his pastor and other church members. So would his friends off the field and away from the pews.

The Oklahoman does realize that people matter to McSpadden: "He enjoys the challenge of building teams and improving players. That’s good stuff. But building relationships? Having an influence? Making a mark? That’s the best stuff."

OK, I get it. The profile is a sports story. Even the SEO keywords, visible over the headline, read "Sports," "Sports: College" and "Sports: Oklahoma City." But by his own quotes, McSpadden has other things in his life. Things like his faith and ideas on how it should shape his conduct.

If The Oklahoman wants to paint an accurate picture of McSpadden, shouldn't it take an interest in what interests him? Does the spiritual side deserve more than a ghost of a chance?

Thumbnail photo by Jeremy Stevens, courtesy of Oklahoma City University.

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