Joe French enters his 13th season as head coach of the Retrievers with 357 victories against 317 defeats, good for a .530 winning percentage. French became UMBC’s all-time winningest softball coach with a 9-0 victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore on March 11, 2006.
French has been a mentor at every level, including junior college, Division III, Division II and Division I, and has been highly successful at every stop, setting records everywhere he went. He has coached more than 1,350 games in 24 seasons at the helm and racked up 783 wins combined in softball, women’s basketball and tennis. His career records stand at 571-426-1 (.573) in 20 years of softball, 205-162 (.524) in 14 years of basketball and 7-3 (.700) in one season of tennis. As a college coach in all sports, he has posted an overall record of 783-591-1 for a .570 career winning percentage.
French reached both his 500th victory in softball (March 9 at Delaware) and his 300th win at UMBC (May 1 at Hartford) during the 2010 season. French achieved another milestone, his 700th career win as a collegiate coach in all sports, when the Retrievers defeated Stony Brook on April 25, 2009. He has averaged almost 30 wins per season in his 12 years at UMBC, including three campaigns of 40 or more victories, and he ranks in the NCAA’s top 50 for Division I coaching wins.
In addition to his work at UMBC, French has worked at a wide range of camps including the Virginia Legends Showcase in Virginia Beach, Va., the Tuff and Tougher Clinic and Showcase, the Homerun Softball Clinic and Showcase and most recently the Florida Rising Star clinic. French has accumulated over 30 years of institutional camps and clinics since joining the coaching field in the 1980’s.
While he has worked in college athletics, physical education and recreational sports since 1977, French’s coaching career began in 1982 as the head women’s basketball coach at Alfred State College in New York. At the helm for five years, he became the Pioneers’ all-time winningest coach.
French then moved on to Division II Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, where he coached both softball and women’s basketball from 1987-91. In his four years, he won more softball games (95) than any other coach in school history at the time, as his team improved its win total each season, from 11 in 1988 to 33 in 1991. The Mountaineers also set school records for number of wins in a season each year. French led Mansfield to the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Mid-Atlantic championship game three times, winning the title in his final season.
After five years as an assistant women’s basketball coach at the Naval Academy, French moved back to his home state of New York, where he served as the head softball and women’s basketball coach at Division III SUNY-Geneseo, racking up more wins in four seasons (119) than any other softball coach in school history. In his first season, 1998, the Knights won a school-record 31 games, and they topped that two seasons later with 33 victories. French’s softball teams qualified for ECAC’s all four years, and they were ECAC North Champions in 2000. French was also the head tennis coach at Geneseo for one season.
French came to UMBC, his first Division I head coaching job, before the 2002 season, and he immediately led the Retrievers to their second-ever NCAA berth and a school-record 47 wins. The Retrievers defeated Bethune-Cookman in the NCAA play-in series for their first victory in an NCAA Tournament game in school history, and they also won a game in the NCAA Regionals with a 7-1 triumph over Liberty. In 2003, French’s Retrievers were Northeast Conference regular-season co-champions.
In French’s first two seasons at UMBC, his teams were 37-7 in Northeast Conference games. With a 40-22 record in 2003, the Retrievers posted back-to-back 40-win seasons for the first time in school history.
However, the next two seasons were more of a struggle for the Retrievers, as UMBC made the switch from the Northeast Conference to the more competitive America East. In doing so, French suffered his first two losing seasons since his first year at Mansfield in 1988.
“What you find in the America East are more athletic players who are more advanced, and are definitely bigger and stronger,” said the coach, who added there are no easy outs in the league. “You have to get nine batters out every game, which is a challenge for the pitchers as well as the defense.”
But 2006 was a different story for the Retrievers. UMBC won 46 games – the second-most in school history – and advanced to its first-ever America East Championships with an 11-10 conference mark.
In addition, in their first season without all-time hits, home runs and RBIs leader Kristie Pickeral, the Retrievers shattered all three team records, as well as team marks in runs, extra-base hits, walks and total bases. The power surge was infectious, as a school-record 14 different players hit at least one homer, and UMBC was one of just four Division-I teams with at least 80 round-trippers. The Retrievers were also one of the most prolific run-scoring teams in the nation, ranking second in the country with 6.53 runs per game.
While the 2007 Retrievers did not set records at the same rate as in the previous season, they achieved something even more important: their first-ever appearance in the America East Championship game. With a 13-8 record, UMBC was the second seed in the conference tournament, but eventually lost in the finals to three-time defending champion Albany. The Retrievers’ 13 league wins, however, were their most since joining the America East.
Statistically, while not quite as prolific as the 2006 team, the 2007 squad still ranked in the top 25 in the NCAA in runs scored, home runs and doubles and the top 50 in slugging percentage and batting average.
Despite finishing the season four games under .500 overall in 2008, the Retrievers established themselves as a perennial contender with a third straight trip to the conference tournament, then made it four in a row in 2009, when they batted .285 and scored a league-best 265 runs.
The Retrievers finished one game above .500 in 2010, posting a 25-24 mark, but missed out on its chance of making its fifth consecutive America East Tournament. The Dawgs returned to the four-team tournament the following year, behind the leadership of four all-conference selections.
During French’s tenure at UMBC, his teams have combined for a .275 batting average with 4,897 hits, including 512 home runs and 1511 extra base hits – 31 percent of all hits.
UMBC’s offensive outbursts over the last several seasons have just reaffirmed French’s reputation as one of the best hitting coaches on the east coast. A strong believer in bat speed, line drive power and hitting to all fields, his 2002 and 2003 UMBC teams were also among the best in the nation offensively.
“Look for something you can hit,” French said. “Be selective yet aggressive at the plate and finish your swing. On offense, the more times you can turn the lineup over, the more successful you should be.”
A strong recruiter, French is his own recruiting coordinator and has a keen eye for talent, as he looks for strong athletes on the field who are also strong students in the classroom. Over the past 29 years, French's softball and basketball teams have been ranked both regionally and nationally. In addition, his players have received All-America, All-Region, All-ECAC and All-Conference honors.
In his first 12 seasons at UMBC alone, French has coached 11 All-Region players and 52 All-Conference athletes, including the 2002 NEC Rookie of the Year, the 2002 and 2003 NEC Players of the Year, the 2006 America East Player of the Year and the 2012 America East Co-Rookie of the Year, as well as five Academic All-District team members. In addition, two of his players – Lisa Boone and Deanna Vecchio – have been inducted into the UMBC Athletic Hall of Fame.
Another first occurred for French and the Retrievers in 2006 when junior college transfer Melanie Denischuk – the America East Player of the Year and a unanimous first-team all-conference pick – was selected as a top-25 finalist for the prestigious USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.
French was inducted into the Waterloo Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999.
French received his bachelor's degree in recreation from SUNY-Brockport in 1977 and his master's in recreation from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1984. The Waterloo, N.Y., native also received an associate's degree from Monroe Community College in 1975. He currently resides in Annapolis, Md., with his wife of 20 years, Cathy, and their sons, Dominic (19), and Angelo (17).