It starts with a simple “Can I help you?” at 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
Mike Rappl, adorned in a Canisius Nike polo, makes his way down the stairs at Koessler Athletic Center toward the new Canisius Hall of Fame section, which he helped design. He makes sure the interactive touch screens have turned on at 9 a.m., just like they are supposed to. For Rappl, he’s home. The home he’s known since enrolling as a student in 1971. The place he’s spent 44 years (and counting) transforming.
The 35-year coach with 11 NCAA Tournament appearances will be heading into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 4 as a softball coach, but for Canisius College, he’s been much more. Rappl’s been an undergrad, grad student, basketball coach, intramural coordinator, project designer, schedule coordinator, and now assistant to the athletic director. And, yes, a softball coach. He’s yet to truly hold just one job at a time at Canisius.
Rappl entered Canisius at a revolutionary time for American sports. Title IX was signed into law in 1972, but the law really started to take effect in the early ’80s. This was when Canisius began expanding women’s sports, including introducing varsity softball in 1980. And Rappl – a grad assistant at the time – was named the program’s first coach.
“Really back then, it wasn’t viewed as OK for women to play sports,” Rappl said. “They could play badminton and swim and stuff like that, but nothing vigorous.”
Two years later, he worked as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team. He became head coach for the 1986-87 season and held the position for seven years – recruiting players who could shine on the diamond and hardwood.
Rappl recalls a basketball game against a local school (he opted not to name which school). The Golden Griffins liked to run and play at a fast pace. This one local school couldn’t keep up with them and Rappl later found out that coach didn’t allow the women to practice full court because he didn’t want them exerting themselves too much.
That was just one of the few misconceptions when Rappl started in the ’80s. Now, ESPN broadcasts the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament and regular-season games. The entire softball 2015 NCAA Tournament was available online on ESPN3.
“To see the growth and be a part of that and think ‘Maybe I had a little something to do with it,’ you look back and time flies,” Rappl said.
Rappl was the only coach Canisius softball had for 35 years. Canisius began in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), playing local schools such as UB and Daemen. It didn’t take long for the program to stand out among the best.
In 1986, Canisius softball was invited to play in the ECAC Championships hosted at the University of Connecticut. Rappl reminisces about how his team upset nationally ranked UConn by one run in the playoffs to advance to the finals. They met UConn in the finals and this time, Canisius handily defeated the Huskies. But the Golden Griffins had little time to celebrate; they had to sprint to the bus to make their flight.
Rappl didn’t know about booking flights – it was the first time his team was allotted such a luxury. Rappl remembers days of sharing jerseys with the volleyball team. They had no money in the budget in the first year. Nothing. Rappl used his salary to fund the team. But he didn’t mind. He knew he was a part of something special, something revolutionary.
In 1993, Canisius softball made history with a 35-game winning streak – an NCAA record at the time. But the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference didn’t have an automatic bid and apparently a 36-3 record wasn’t good enough for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Rappl remembers “sitting home,” which he thought “was totally unfair.”
But things changed again. Canisius won four straight MAAC tournaments and earned automatic berths to the NCAAs starting in 1994. Canisius lost to No. 1 Arizona, but upset Rutgers before being eliminated by Texas A&M in ’94. Things began to change around Canisius softball.
“It was a whole new world,” Rappl said. “It opened up recruiting and other opportunities. It put us on the map.”
Canisius never was the most glamorous athletic school. Rappl said other programs were approaching him and he declined two job offers at larger schools. He admittedly had interest about one opportunity from North Carolina State in 2004, which received a $3.1 million donation for a softball stadium to start a program.
Rappl had family in Raleigh, N.C. When he went down for the interview, he was blown away. The head groundskeeper even asked him what type of seeds he would want in the outfield if he were hired. It was a luxury Rappl wasn’t accustomed to. He couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of it. Rappl was one of two finalists for the position, but he didn’t get the job. Maybe the Lancaster graduate just wasn’t supposed to leave Buffalo.
In July 2014, Rappl announced his retirement from coaching, citing health reasons. He wanted to continue to do the job he had done – and done so well – for the previous 35 years, but he knew he couldn’t anymore.
Before telling his team, Rappl made sure everything was in order. He made sure the assistant coaches were going to stay. Rappl told Athletic Director Bill Maher that he wanted assistant Kim Griffin to take over. Then at the end of a team trip to Italy in July 2014, Rappl called for a team meeting. In the lounge area at the top of their hotel overlooking Rome, Rappl told his players he wouldn’t be coaching anymore.
It was an emotional scene. Players began hugging each other and Rappl. They were distraught their coach wouldn’t be able to do what he loved anymore. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
Rappl doesn’t want to be remembered as an individual who accomplished so much – although he has done just that. When you ask him how many games he’s won (831), he’ll say zero because his players won them all. If you want to see a grown man cry, ask Rappl about taking a crying girl who didn’t make an Empire Games team he was coaching out for a milkshake and telling her she was doing OK.
That player stopped Rappl to remind him of the incident years later. Rappl admits he didn’t remember the girl at the time. But the story sticks with him.
“That’s the kind of stuff you don’t think of,” said Rappl fighting back tears, “how you can influence people.”
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Nov. 4 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets are $95 each, $850 for a table of 10 and includes a 25th anniversary book. RSVP by Oct. 19 at www.gbshof.com.