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"No question, I stayed in sport because I had been denied the chance to play Little League," she says. "I always regretted that I never got a chance to see how good I could have been at pitching a baseball. I could never have been Whitey Ford. But I could have been Don Larsen."
In Italian, donna lo piano means, very roughly, "the quiet lady." As misnomers go, it's a whopper. Consider her first year in Austin: Lopiano badgered Royal to establish the women's athletic department as part of the men's. She figured she would get more money that way. Royal wasn't buying.
Then she began cleaning house. She asked all her coaches what, if the department were suddenly favored with money, they would spend it on first. The incumbent basketball coach said, "New uniforms." He was the first to go.
To replace him, Lopiano wanted the best coach possible, but preferably a Texan, someone who could help her negotiate the hostile political landscape. One name, Conradt's, kept coming up.
Conradt is a stylistic opposite to Lopiano. Her Baptist parents still flinch, fearing the profane worst, when Lopiano begins an utterance with the syllabic "gee." "I thought I was a passenger in a runaway car for those first few years," Conradt says. "Donna didn't understand how laid-back this town was, or how much of a threat she was perceived to be. She wanted to do everything at once."
Aghast that her new basketball coach might have to occupy an office with bare walls, Lopiano painted a few acrylics herself that Conradt, wincing, hung. The director made sure soft drinks sold at events were drawn from the tap in her own finicky, foam-minimizing style. When Texas hosted the 1976 AIAW volleyball championships, Lopiano tried to turn it into an extravaganza, with a battle-of-the-sexes-style serving "contest" in which the female contestants' serves, rigged to a motor-driven guy wire, went sailing into the gym's farthest reaches as a gunpowder charge went off. "It was a fiasco," says Conradt. "Literally, no one came."
Yet sometime during those early years, Lopiano made several larger and more sensible decisions. She pledged herself to two tasks, raising money and hiring top coaches, believing that the first would attract the second. The finest athletes, Lopiano reasoned, would then go where the coaching was. Thus began a process that, a decade and a half and a 50-fold budget increase later, still hasn't played itself out.
During her first 10 years, Lopiano went through 16 different coaches in eight sports. "They were my mistakes, every one of them," she says. "But you can't live with your mistakes, because you're destroying kids."
Track coach Terry Crawford arrived in 1984, largely because her former employer, Tennessee, didn't have the funds to enable her most vulnerable athletes—those who had exhausted their four years of eligibility—to graduate. "Other schools, other coaches say, 'They're so intense at Texas,' " Crawford says. "They try to present that as a negative. But the intensity comes from caring for people. In any job there should be some standards."
As for the "culture" that university president Rogers had so worried about, it has been won over. "Texans love go-getters," says Crawford. "They're of pioneer stock, and Donna thrives on being a pioneer."