Time is undefeated. College baseball’s coaching immortals are finding that out the hard way.
It’s a hard time to be an older coach these days. Texas’ Augie Garrido, the winningest coach in college baseball history at any level, acknoledged as much when he stepped aside on Memorial Day, becoming a special assistant to the athletic director for the final year of his contract.
“Trails end, baby, they all end,” Garrido told reporters after his final game, a loss to Texas Christian at the Big 12 Conference tournament. This one ended after a 32-loss season, matching the most in school history.
Don’t weep for Garrido. He’s 77, has five national championships and a legacy that goes beyond his highest points and his biggest mistakes. Garrido was more than the guy who coached Tim Wallach and Mark Kotsay at Fullerton and Huston Street at Texas, just as he was more than the guy who threw Austin Wood for 181 pitches in the 25-inning NCAA regional game in 2009, or the Man Who Bunted Too Much.
Garrido had what most baseball men seek. In a game that can seem so random, he believed in playing the game a certain way, and when his teams did that with conviction, they competed for national championships. Take 2014, when Garrido’s Longhorns were matched against fellow septuagenarian coach Mike Gillespie and UC Irvine. The two men had matched up before in Omaha, for the 1995 national title, and Garrido’s conviction stood out to Gillespie.
“I distinctly remember that Mark Kotsay was on that team, and I also remember that as outstanding a player as he was and outstanding of a hitter as he was, he hit second in the lineup and sacrificed, and he sacrificed in the first inning,” Gillespie said in the 2014 pre-CWS press conference. “And what I came to realize about that was that it was an immediate, valuable contribution. Any player that executes a skill that moves a runner comes to realize and feels, I think, a sense of accomplishment with that immediate execution of a skill. It really for me was a valuable lesson in unselfishness, and it’s something that I’ve always kept in mind, because if Mark Kotsay, who was at the time the best—the best—player in college baseball could accept those roles . . . well, it was a good lesson for all of us.”
Garrido’s teams did it with stunning consistency. His first College World Series appearance as a coach came in 1975, with Fullerton’s first Division I team, and what turned out to be his last trip came in 2014, 40 seasons later. Try to find a match for that in any other sport.
Not Legendary, But Real
But coaches are human beings, not legends. They exist in the real world, so they have foibles and pratfalls like the rest of us. In a video and social-media age, mistakes are magnified, so an Augie profanity-laced tirade can go viral. But it’s also a world where Garrido could write motivational books (good ones, too) or have his own show on Texas’ cable channel, the Longhorn Network, called “Home Plate,” where he visited various Austin eateries.
The college baseball world keeps changing too, and for Garrido and Texas, it changed profoundly when Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference and the SEC got its own ESPN-fueled network. That combination, plus coach Rob Childress and his Aggies staff, have vaulted A&M past Texas. Whoever replaces Garrido—prime candidates include Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle and former Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, now a bench coach with the Milwaukee Brewers—steps into a much different neighborhood than the one Texas used to dominate.
The changes keep coming, and it’s harder and harder for older coaches to keep up. The calendar has few breaks, and showcase culture has changed recruiting dramatically. Many of the game’s top head coaches, such as O’Sullivan, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, UCLA’s John Savage and others, still hit the recruiting trail as hard as they did as assistant coaches, and regularly snag many of the top prep players in the country.
Many coaches say finding a pitching coach who can also be an ace recruiter is the path to happiness. Because college coaches usually like control (big shock!) and want to call pitches from the dugout, a pitching coach who can call a good game is crucial. Others have followed O’Sullivan’s example and hired assistants with experience in pro ball, either as scouts or as minor league coaches.
Bob Dylan Was Right
The big league game is skewing toward younger managers, with retirements in the last decade of Hall of Famers such as Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, as well as near-immortals Jim Leyland and Lou Piniella. It’s only natural the college game would follow suit as the money in the game—and the resultant stress related with higher expectations—grows.
Andy Lopez, who won national titles 20 years apart at Pepperdine (1992) and Arizona (2012), got out last year after a rough stretch at Arizona that taxed his health. Last year also saw Clemson fire Jack Leggett, two years after Wichita State forced out Gene Stephenson.
Stanford coach Mark Marquess, 69, has been the Cardinal coach since 1977, though his program has reached the CWS only once since 2003 after making 13 trips from 1982-2003. Florida State’s Mike Martin, 72, and Rice’s Wayne Graham, 80, have defied Father Time a bit—you should see Martin stretch before games to stay loose—as both teams earned regional trips.
But Martin’s 37-20 team needs six victories to avoid being his least successful team, and Graham’s Owls didn’t win a conference title in 2016, notable because the last time that happened was 1995. UC Irvine’s Gillespie, 73, fell short of regional play this year, two years after his Anteaters met old foe Garrido in Omaha.
Miami’s Jim Morris, 66, has his Hurricanes as a national seed, but even he has stated the 2018 season will be his last. Peers such as Oregon State’s Pat Casey (57), Oregon’s George Horton (62) and North Carolina’s Mike Fox (a 1978 college grad whose age is unlisted) are in the next group of older coaches who have won national titles or been consistent Omaha participants, but all three missed regional play in 2016.
Garrido knew times were a’changing. At the 2015 fundraising banquet for Cal State Fullerton, he addressed the crowd as keynote speaker and wowed the Titans supporters with stories of the program’s formative years. He pointed out past players in the audience and recalled not just their roles on those 1970s and ’80s teams, but their post-college professions. It was Augie at his best.
The part of the speech most reported subsequently, however, was his riff on baseball’s current culture of entitlement; of what college players expect when they show up on campus, what they believe they already have earned before setting foot on campus.
“We drove our own cars and fixed our own sandwiches for between games,” he said. “Hey, I’m not complaining. All those hardships—they worked for us. The biggest thing wrong with the game today is entitlement. Entitlement!
“We weren’t entitled to anything; we had an opportunity, we saw it as an opportunity, and we felt the responsibility to do our part, whatever our part might be.”
Baseball is supposed to be a humbling game. Eventually, it humbled even Garrido, who was known to call the game a “cruel mistress.” So it will be for all these coaches. They should all be so lucky to enjoy a run as long as Garrido’s.