“I can’t believe you asked that.”

The news of Charlie Coles’ death broke last Friday around noon. Like almost everything, I saw it first in my Twitter feed. It was stunning news. While the legendary coach hadn’t been in great health for a few years, I hadn’t seen any recent reports that he was ailing.

Like any other coach or athlete I’ve interviewed or covered, I didn’t really know Charlie Coles. But he was such a fun person to talk to, either in a one-on-one interview or a press conference, that he managed to make an impact anyway. And it wasn’t just on me, a starry eyed young reporter that didn’t know any better. In the last week I’ve seen tributes from many of the writers lucky enough to cover Coles during his 21 years as a head coach.

I was definitely one of those lucky ones and when I heard of his death, my thoughts immediately went to all the great press conferences of his that I’d been at, the few one-on-one interviews I’d done with him and, of course, his great answer to why the game got away from Miami against John Wall and the Big Blue in 2009.

I also thought of a story I’d written about Coles when I was in college.  He had recently broken the MAC record for wins and Miami was scheduled to visit Ball State that season. There was speculation this might be Coles’ last game at Ball State because he could retire before Miami would return in two years.

That probably shouldn’t have been reason enough for a 1,000-word story on the opposing coach previewing a nondescript basketball game in late January. But the great thing about student newspapers is sometimes stuff like that happens. I wanted to write a lengthy feature about Coles and no one was going to tell me no.

Looking back at the story, I remember very little about writing it. I know I spoke at length to Coles on the phone from my dorm room. Otherwise, the work that went into that story has faded from my mind over the last 3 1/2 years.

Maybe what stands out most to me from that Miami game happened (of course) in the postgame press conference. The moderator, a Ball State employee, attempted to wrap it up after a couple minutes. Well, Charlie Coles did not do two-minute press conferences. He was the rare coach that enjoyed the give-and-take with the media, even when that meant just a few reporters, most of whom were barely old enough to drink. So, very politely, he told the moderator that he wasn’t done yet and took questions for a few more minutes before thanking us and heading back to the locker room.

I probably only covered 10-12 Miami games, but that, to me, was quintessential Coles. He was going to do it his way and have fun with it. It’s why he was a favorite of writers, yes, but also fans and players. It’s why his passing touched so many people both in and away from the Miami program.

My feature is no longer online because it was published during a time when something screwy happened to the Daily News website, causing about a month’s worth of content to disappear. Looking at the story now, there are things about it I would do differently now and I realize I should have talked to a couple other people. There are other, better stories about Coles out there. But I wanted to republish my own here as my small token of appreciation for always taking the time to talk to me and other reporters, no matter how small the story.

***

MAC’s top coach comes to Muncie

Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

The Ball State Daily News

 

By Teddy Cahill

Fans of Ball State University have a way of finding Miami university coach Charlie Coles.

Not that Coles minds. He’s actually looking forward to his trip to Worthen Arena on Tuesday to play the Cardinals.

“I’ll always run into Ball State fans,” Coles said. “I enjoy fooling around with the fans. I enjoy baiting them a little bit.”

He remembers one interaction this summer when he was in Indianapolis with his wife and granddaughter.

Either the mayor or the superintendent of the schools told me he had a friend in Muncie,” Coles said. “He said ‘My buddy really gets a kick out of you when you’re over there.’ I said, ‘I get a kick out of them too.;:

The interactions are all in good fun for Coles.

“Nothing very serious at all, I hope they feel the same way,” he said. “It’s all in good spirit, the bantering back and forth.”

While Coles has plenty of fun with fans, he also is the Mid-American Conference’s winningest coach. Coles broke the record for MAC victories with a 79-67 win against Miami’s archrival Ohio University. He has 196 wins in his 20 seasons in the conference, including 14 seasons at Miami and six at Central Michigan University.

Though Coles has been a head coach for 20 years and has had bypass surgery twice, he has no intention of retiring soon.

“I’m enjoying it too much,” the 67-year old said. “This year I’m enjoying it more than ever. I haven’t had one bad day of practice and for me, mentally, it’s a good thing.”

The physical effects of coaching has on Coles may not be as positive. In 2008, he missed the MAC Tournament after checking himself into the hospital. He had bypass surgery and doctors reshaped his heart. Unphased, he was back on the sidelines at the start of the next season.

“I don’t know how it is physically on me,” Coles said. “I don’t think it’s harmful, but it’s something you don’t know for sure. I couldn’t let it go right now. I enjoy everything, the bus rides, everything.”

Coles’ demeanor on the sideline gives observers no clue to his age or previous health problems.

Forward Mo Hubbard was recruited by Miami before going to Ball State. He was surprised the first time he saw Coles in action.

“Being at his age, you would kind of expect him to be more relaxed,” Hubbard said. “he was stomping his feet around on the sideline. I was caught off guard by that, but it’s good that he still has energy and love for the game.”

Coles rarely sits during a game and usually has something to say. Whether he’s talking to his players or the referees, Coles is active on the sidelines.

“When you first see him you wouldn’t think he would still be coaching at this age and still be so effective,” Hubbard said. “Obviously, he’s still getting it done at Miami. Appearance can definitely take you off the wrong track.”

Not only does Coles have the respect of his players and recruits, he is beloved by the rest of the MAC’s coaches. When he missed the MAC Tournament in 2008, the rest of the conference’s coaches sincerely missed seeing him in Cleveland.

University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot succeeded Coles at Central Michigan in 1991 and holds him in high regard.

“He’s a great man,” Dambrot said. “He has tremendous passion for the game, the players love him, he has tremendous knowledge and [the record is] just a real tribute to him because he’s overcome a lot of adversity, both physically and career wise. You have to have the utmost respect for a man like him.”

Eastern Michigan University coach Charles Ramsey calls him the master and Ball State coach Billy Taylor has plenty of praise for Coles.

“I know that I certainly have a lot of respect for coach Coles and his program and the way they’ve gone about having that success,” Taylor said. “He’s established and kind of continued the tradition they’ve had there at Miami over the years. Coach Coles is someone who’s been through the battles in the MAC.”

Coles prepares his teams for MAC battles with tough nonconference schedules. While most Division I teams play at least one team from a lower division and a few cupcakes, the RedHawks play as many big-name schools as Coles can find.

This year, Miami traveled to then No. 4 University of Kentucky, No. 19 University of Cincinnati and mixed in games against four other teams ranked or receiving votes in this week’s AP poll. According to realtimerpi.com, the RedHawks’ have played the 24th hardest schedule in the country, by far the best in the MAC.

“Most years it toughens you up,” Coles said. “If you ever beat one, it’s a special moment. We’ve beaten seven ranked teams since I’ve been here and it’s been a great, great, great time every time.”

This year’s marquee game was a 72-70 loss at Kentucky in November, a game that Miami led most of the way. Swingman Nick Winbush set the Rupp Arena record for 3-pointers by a visiting player before Wildcats’ freshman sensation John Wall hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer.

“We’ve played some teams awful tough,” Coles said. “Ask Kentucky who came closest to beating them, not only in score but in the way of beating them.”

Two points remains the smallest margin of victory for Kentucky this season.

But the MAC season is what Coles prepares his teams for. The rivalry game with Ohio is very important to him, but Coles also still considers Ball State a rival.

Recently Coles has had plenty of success against the Cardinals, as Miami has won nine straight against Ball State, dating back to 2004.

“It’s very much there,” Coles said. “I think it’s there and I think your coach thinks it’s there and the players think it’s there. Ball State gets my juices going.”

 

-30-

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#buntingisawful

My anger had been building all spring. Game after game I watched college baseball players square around and perform the most boring act a batter can: the sacrifice bunt.

For months, it didn’t bother me much. I understood the game had changed with the introduction of BBCOR bats, which took a lot of pop out of college hitter’s swings. Coaches were working harder to manufacture runs. I could live with this for three hours a few times a week.

Still, it was, at times, frustrating. I watched an Ohio State game on the Big Ten Network and saw even Greg Beals, the Buckeyes coach and former Ball State coach I had covered the previous two years, resort to bunting. I found it difficult to believe. While I had covered him, his teams had rarely bunted. I looked up how often Ohio State had sacrificed this year and saw, in mid-April, it already had more sacrifice bunts as Ball State did all of last year. I told myself it was a new team, a new park, a new conference. But even the former players I talked to couldn’t believe Beals was bunting.

The season went on and the bunting epidemic continued. I was frustrated when Harold Martinez, Miami’s cleanup hitter was asked to sacrifice in a game at North Carolina. I watched Clemson hopelessly flail at bunts in its first game of the ACC Tournament. I was reaching my breaking point.

And then, the next day, it happened. North Carolina State was facing Georgia Tech in both team’s second game of the ACC Tournament. The game was tied at one in the third inning, with Jed Bradley, the Yellow Jackets’ ace, on the mound. He was scuffling a bit and had allowed the first two batters of the inning to reach base. This brought Andrew Ciencin, the Wolfpack’s three-hole hitter, to the plate.

He was asked to bunt.

I lost my mind. I had lost where the Wolfpack were in their lineup and incorrectly identified Ciencin as Pratt Maynard, the team’s best hitter, and was incredulous he would be asked to give himself up. I took to Twitter and vented my frustration, including the hashtag #buntingisawful, which has followed me ever since. As I was alerted to the fact it was Ciencin who had bunted, it did nothing to calm me down. Here was the senior captain who was trusted enough to hit third in the lineup, being told to sacrifice.

The bunt did not work, as they so often don’t. Bradley took his free out and proceeded to strike out the next two hitters. Georgia Tech went on to win the game in 15 innings.

That was the bunt that pushed me over the cliff. I couldn’t watch any more coaches ask their best hitters to sacrifice without getting fired up about it. The hashtag began to take on a life of its own.

It got so bad (good?) that in one NCAA Tournament game when I was watching an inning of a North Carolina game from the stands instead of the press box and a bunt happened without my inflamed tweets following it, I was told other press members wondered what had happened to me. Throughout the College World Series people tweeted at me when bunts happened, sometimes defending a coach’s decision, other times appearing as enraged as I had ever been by a sacrifice bunt.

It has become a tic. I see a sacrifice bunt; I reach for my BlackBerry or my laptop to type #buntingisawful.

***

I wasn’t always this way. Though I was raised in Cleveland in the 1990s in an environment that was about as American League as they get, I understand there are occasionally times to bunt. I used to despise the hit-and-run much more than the sacrifice. The images of a strike-‘em-out-throw-‘em-out double play are much starker than a sacrifice bunt.

As a 12-year old I was good at bunting. It was a reliable way for me to make contact with the ball. I appreciated that.

Still, Earl Waver baseball is what I grew up with and what I want to play.

***

The newly-acquired hatred of the sacrifice isn’t really about it being bad strategy. I know the saber stats that show you decrease your chances of scoring when you sacrifice and I believe them. But as advocates of the bunt have pointed out to me, in college the lack of quality defense often helps to make the bunt a better play. If this year’s CWS taught us anything, it was that.

*Also, quit picking against South Carolina.

No, this is about something a little deeper. This is about coaches pulling the bat out of the hands of their best hitters. It’s one thing to ask Keith Werman and his .026 ISO to bunt. It’s something else entirely to ask the SEC Player of the Year to sacrifice, as Kevin O’Sullivan did in the third game of the Gainesville Super Regional. The Gators won the game and the series when Preston Tucker hit a three-run home run following Mike Zunino’s bunt, but realistically he should have been walked to load the bases anyway.

No Major League manager would ask an MVP candidate to bunt with the season on the line. In fact, that might be a fire-able offense. I know college and the majors aren’t especially comparable, but how is taking the bat away from your best hitter a good idea at any level of baseball?

The sacrifice just seems like an awful idea. You only get 27 outs in a baseball game. It’s difficult for me to comprehend why a manager would willingly give so many away so cavalierly.

***

Over the last month, the tic has begun to subside. I knew this would happen. Major League managers, especially American League ones, don’t call for many sacrifices. Whether this is because they abide by the sabermetric stats that show the folly of the sacrifice or because so many of their players simply are incapable of laying a bunt down doesn’t matter.

I covered the Indians-White Sox series last weekend. On Sunday, there were three sacrifice bunts in the game’s first six innings. Alexi Ramirez, the game’s second hitter, was asked to advance Juan Pierre from second to third with a sacrifice. I sighed and sent a half-hearted tweet condemning the move. Two bunts and an intentional walk later, I was almost ready to admit defeat.

I still despise the sacrifice. I still can’t stand over-managing. But I think it’s time to put the vitriol away. Baseball is a wonderful game, full of beauty and surprise. It is about Asdrubal Cabrera’s defense and Eric Hosmer’s swing. The embarrassment of admitting such a trivial play causes me such consternation isn’t worth it. I don’t want to explain my groans when a hitter squares around anymore.

Bunting is still awful, but I’m sick of letting the sacrifice bunt come between me and my love for the game.

Leave a comment

Filed under college baseball

Harry Potter and a Generation’s Early-Onset Nostalgia

My introduction to Harry Potter was in fourth grade when my teacher read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aloud to the class. I don’t remember if we read the whole book as a class or if I had to go find a copy of the book to finish myself. I do know, however, that I was drawn into the world created by J.K. Rowling.

I was an avid reader already, blowing through my elementary school library’s collection of the Redwall series, the Boxcar Children and, of course, the sports section. Still, like many children my age, Harry Potter became an integral part of my childhood. I dressed up like him on Halloween, for a while Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the longest book I had read, I saw the movies (though never at midnight) and developed the requisite crush on Emma Watson.

I was a dedicated fan. Not the biggest, but for a middle school boy, I think I was a pretty good one. That is, until the fifth book came out.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out in the summer of 2003, the summer between seventh and eighth grade for me. I hated it. Harry was too whiny for my taste. There wasn’t enough of Hermione. Sirius dies. I’m not sure it was significant that the fifth book was the first I read as a teenager, but maybe I was looking for a reason to leave the series behind.

In any case, the luster was gone. I almost quit the series. I had already seen the first three movies, but wouldn’t watch any more. I read the final two books, but felt no rush to get my hands on a copy as soon as they came out. The last two books were much better, but my fanaticism was gone. They were just more books for me to read, which I did happily.

So when the eighth and final Harry Potter movie opens tonight, I will not be standing in line. Many of my friends, however, will be. They view tonight as a very significant event in their lives; some have even called it the end of their childhood. While I admit I am not much of a fan anymore, I still cannot understand this line of thinking.

The seventh book came out before my senior year in high school, a much better ending point for our childhoods. The books carried us from elementary school through high school; they were our childhood friends, the things that brought us surprise and a desire to keep turning pages. The movies are just an interpretation of what we already know. The movies have been well done, from what I have seen, but there are no surprises.

Perhaps my friends are seeing the same thing coming in less than a year. Perhaps they see graduation and real jobs or grad school and are doing their very best to cling to this last summer of “childhood” before school starts again. If that is what they are feeling, I can hardly begrudge them.

For we all know how the movie will end tonight. This is not the end of our childhood; this is watching the tape of our high school graduation for the first time. This is nostalgia, this is clinging to our childhood and, for those standing in line at the theaters, there is nothing wrong with admitting that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My very early 2012 CWS predictions

South Carolina won its second straight College World Series title last night, defeating Florida 5-2. It was a much less exciting game than either Monday night’s thriller or the clinching game of last year’s CWS, both won by the Gamecocks.

But it was the kind of game we have come to expect from South Carolina this year. Ace Michael Roth confused hitters with his arm angle and solid command. The Gamecocks played good defense and got enough hitting at the right time to win.

I’m a bit surprised South Carolina won, but not stunned. Florida was more talented and for much of Game 1 on Monday, it felt like the Gators would prevail. But when South Carolina worked out of a bases loaded jam with no outs and the game on the line, it became clear the Gamecocks were going to go back to Columbia with another trophy.

But with another college baseball season over, it is time for what is apparently becoming a tradition of mine: picking the field of next year’s College World Series 50 weeks in advance.

Last year, I got four picks correct (North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Florida). I feel pretty good about getting half the field, but I’m sure I can do better this year.

So before the last fans clear out of Omaha, here’s my predicted field for 2012 (in no particular order):

Florida

The Gators were the preseason No. 1 and finished the regular season ranked there. The entire starting rotation returns as does SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino, shortstop Nolan Fontana and INF/RHP Austin Maddox. They’ve got talent coming back, talent coming in and Omaha experience. Plus, have you seen that rotation? I don’t want to gush too much about Hudson Randal, but he was masterful Monday night. They’ve got my early vote for preseason No. 1 again.

South Carolina

I didn’t pick the Gamecocks to return to Omaha this year, and was proven very wrong. I was concerned they wouldn’t be able to make up for the loss of Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson. I was apprehensive about how tough it is to repeat. I shouldn’t have worried. This pick is largely contingent on Roth returning for his senior year, but South Carolina has young arms and will return Christian Walker, its best player.

Texas A&M

Pitchers John Stilson and Ross Strippling are likely gone, but Michael Wacha isn’t. Wacha is one of the top draft prospects for 2012, and the Aggies should have plenty of offense to support him. They’ve proven they can win, and might be the best team in the state.

Stanford

If Wacha isn’t the top college pitcher drafted next June, it will likely be Mark Appel. Along with a bevy of talented underclassmen hitters, Appel helped the Cardinal reach Super Regionals this year. They should be ready to make the jump next spring and get back to Omaha.

Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech’s June swoons are well documented, but I’m willing to pick the Yellow Jackets anyway. They were one of the youngest teams in the country this year and still managed to tie Virginia for the ACC regular season title. Righthander Buck Farmer should move easily into the Friday starter role and make up for the loss of Jed Bradley and Mark Pope.

North Carolina

There are some key losses for the Tar Heels, including righthander Patrick Johnson and shortstop Levi Michael. But I was very impressed by freshman lefthander Kent Emanuel this year, and he will likely be joined by a couple highly thought of incoming freshmen pitchers. North Carolina might be a less offensive team than it was this year, but it has the pitching staff to make up for that.

LSU

I was rewarded for picking North Carolina last year on the strength of a couple talented players and the belief it couldn’t miss Omaha two years in a row. So this year I turn to LSU, which hasn’t made the College World Series since it won the tournament in 2009 and missed the tournament altogether this season. The Tigers return second baseman JaCoby Jones and ace Kurt McCune, without losing too much. They have some talented players in their recruiting class and should be highly motivated after this year’s disappointments.

Miami

The Hurricanes used five starting pitchers in their 61 games this year. All five were underclassmen. I like any team that returns its whole starting rotation, especially one that is as good as Miami. Freshman Bryan Radziewski was especially exciting to me this year as the Hurricanes Friday starter. Miami loses some big bats (Rony Rodriguez, Nathan Melendres, Harold Martinez), but there’s enough returning talent to provide the runs Miami will need to return to Omaha.

Notably absent: Vanderbilt, Texas, California, Arizona State

Texas and Vanderbilt are kind of in the same boat. Both loss their whole starting rotations, but have talent waiting in the wings and important recruits coming in. Both could easily be in next year’s field, I’m just choosing to go in a different direction. Arizona State might be good enough to make it to Omaha, but I’m assuming the Sun Devils will be serving their postseason ban in 2012. Cal is very intriguing, and lefthander Justin Jones by himself was enough to give the Golden Bears consideration. But after surviving the ax, it’s unclear what kind of recruiting class coach David Esquer was able to put together. I just don’t feel comfortable picking a team that will likely have no impact newcomers.

2 Comments

Filed under college baseball