I’d like to dedicate this article to two of my favorite coaches, both beloved girl dads. First, to Jerry Sorkin, who is loved and missed dearly by his two real daughters as well as by his many honorary ones. I am lucky to count myself among the latter.
And second, to David Snyder. I love you, Dad.
On a bright but crisp March afternoon during my freshman year, I stood on the baseball field at Ray Fisher Stadium interviewing Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich after a game. It was a run-of-the-mill post-win interview; as Bakich spoke, I mentally planned where the quotes would go in my story.
As I was about to ask my last question of the day, I caught a flash of pink in the corner of my eye. It was Bakich’s then-four-year-old daughter, Tempie. Her sparkly pink tutu-like skirt glinting in the early spring sun, she sprinted across the field as fast as her legs could carry her, gleefully shrieking “Daddy! Daddy!” at the top of her lungs.
Bakich’s face lit up. As Tempie got closer, he crouched down, and when she reached him, falling joyfully into her father’s open arms, he picked her up, lifting her into the air and spinning her around to her delighted laughter. He settled her on his hip, turned to me with a grin, and finished the interview with her head happily snuggled into the crook of his shoulder.
The concept of a “girl dad” only really came to the public consciousness in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, but it’s been a reality in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s just me and my sister, and my dad (who also has two younger sisters) has long joked that between his sisters, his mom, my mom, my sister and me, there are a lot of women in his life. But never have I believed, even for a second, that he’d have it any other way.
In the age of internet gender reveal videos where the father is clearly disappointed to be having a girl, I’ve been thinking a lot about how grateful I am that my father is not one of them.
Bryant, who had four daughters, famously told anyone who suggested otherwise that he loved being a girl dad. When he and his daughter Gianna died in a plane crash in January 2020, ESPN anchor Elle Duncan gave a touching on-air tribute to Bryant.
“Without hesitation,” Duncan recalled, “he said, ‘I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.’
“When I reflect on this tragedy… the only small source of comfort for me is knowing that he died doing what he loved the most: being a dad. Being a girl dad.”
Kobe’s death, and Duncan’s speech, brought the term “girl dad” front of mind. It was all over the internet, and though I’d never needed a label to describe how amazing my dad is, now I had one:
My dad coached me and my sister in soccer and running; he coached me in tennis as well. We’ve done charity runs and turkey trots; we run together when I’m home from school and try to play tennis together at least twice a year. When I think of my dad, I think of him meticulously setting up cones in our backyard, preparing drills for soccer practice. I think of him patiently coaching me on my serve and encouraging me through the final uphill of our neighborhood runs with the promise of a smoothie.
But I also think of him neatly tying bows in the sashes of my party dresses. I think of his grin when he talks about dressing me and my sister in matching outfits when we were little. I think of how he would try to help fix our hair before school, even through the torturous growing out of the bangs and the dreaded bumpy ponytails.
He did all of those things with equal enthusiasm. There was no “boys are so much easier for a dad,” no “I would do this with my son.” If there was something he would’ve done with a son, he did it with my sister and me, and he was more than game for whatever girly pursuits we had in mind.
I would not be who I am without that. I sit here, a senior editor for the best goddamn college sports section in the country, my byline published in the sports section of the Associated Press, with a decent backhand and some semblance of a functional tennis serve, because of my girl dad.
I’m not the only one. When I mentioned that I was working on this story, one of the writers on the sports section told me I had to talk to Abby Heiskell, a senior on the women’s gymnastics team, about her dad, who rarely misses a meet.
“At meets, he’s always wearing that same striped shirt,” Heiskell told me. “He probably did the same thing in club. He’s been with me every step of the way, starting when I was five, and all the way up until my senior year of college.”
I spoke with her father, John, too. He and his daughter both speak fondly of the time they spent on the road driving to competitions, talking and listening to classic rock as they drove. His pride in his daughter, and his joy in watching her compete, are audible through the phone.
But John seems to have been the exception, not the rule.
“My observation is, frankly, it was mostly the moms (who were there),” John said. “Some of her teammates growing up in the gym, there were some fathers that I never met, who did not attend one meet of their daughters’ that I saw, and I think you could count on one hand the number of meets that I missed of Abigail’s as she was growing up.”
If John Heiskell was the exception, so was Kobe Bryant, who famously called Geno Auriemma, the women’s basketball coach at Connecticut, for advice on coaching his daughter’s basketball team in man defense.
And so, too, is Erik Bakich.
“She’s got me wrapped around her finger,” Bakich told me, grinning. “What I always tell her is that she can do anything. The message is the same whether it’s sports or leadership or anything. Whether it’s sports or business or medicine or politics, it just doesn’t matter.
“Now she’s old enough to understand — she’s seven — so she gets it now. She’ll have a bunch of role models to look up to.”
Those role models are important, to be sure, but so are the girl dads. In a world that (stupidly, infuriatingly, consistently) tells men they should be disappointed to have daughters, they are the exceptions — even though they shouldn’t have to be.
None of this is to discount my mother (whose loving and skillful parenting I’ve written about more than once), nor Abby Heiskell’s mother, nor Jiffy Bakich. But society expects mothers to be close with their daughters, while its view of the father-daughter relationship is fraught, to say the least.
But for those of us who are lucky enough to count our dads among the exceptions, the impact of that relationship — the doors it can open — can’t be overstated.
For Abby Heiskell and for me — and one day, hopefully, for Tempie Bakich — it’s made all the difference.