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Razorback Road: A legendary pinch hitting role

BY ANDRES FOCIL
Razorback Road: A legendary pinch hitting role

Just a few days after the big ball drops in Times Square and we usher in 2014, one of the most beloved ball coaches in Razorback history will be recognized by his peers in Dallas. One of the truly nice guys in intercollegiate athletics, former Arkansas head baseball coach Norm DeBriyn will be honored not just for what he accomplished at the University of Arkansas but for what he contributed to a sport he has dedicated his life to for more than five decades.

DeBriyn will receive the 2014 Lefty Gomez Award from the American Baseball Coaches Association at its annual convention in Dallas on Jan. 3. The Lefty Gomez Award is one of the most prestigious awards in all of amateur baseball. Named after the great Lefty Gomez, the award is presented by the ABCA each year to an individual who has distinguished himself amongst his peers and has contributed significantly to the game of baseball locally, nationally and internationally.

DeBriyn took over as the Razorback baseball head coach in 1970. In his 33 years at Arkansas, DeBriyn guided the Razorbacks to two Southwest Conference titles, one Southeastern Conference title, one SEC Western Division title, 15 NCAA Tournament appearances and four College World Series appearances. The Razorbacks had their best national finish in school history under DeBriyn in 1979 as they finished runner-up in the College World Series.

Upon his retirement following the 2002 season, DeBriyn ranked 14th all-time in career wins among NCAA Division I head coaches with a record of 1,161-650-6 and a career winning percentage of .641. He currently ranks as the UA’s all-time victories leader. As a head coach, DeBriyn coached 19 All-America selections, six Freshman All-Americans, 58 All-Conference selections and 48 All-Conference Tournament selections. DeBriyn was named SEC Coach of the Year in 1999 and SWC Coach of the Year in 1978, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1990. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and the Razorback Hall of Honor in 1991. He was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame in 2003 and is also a member of the Wisconsin-Oshkosh Hall of Fame.

And while now his resume would suggest that he was always destined to be one of college baseball’s greatest coaches, his college baseball coaching career actually began with a much more modest flair. In fact, DeBriyn’s path to history actually began when he was called upon to pinch hit.

DeBriyn was a football, basketball, and baseball standout at DePadua High School in Ashland, Wisconsin. He continued his playing career at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and earned his degree there in 1963. In football he played split end and was a first baseman and outfielder on the diamond.

He launched his coaching career with a five-year stint as head baseball and assistant football coach at Hortonville (Wis.) High School. He then moved to the University of Northern Colorado, where he served as freshman baseball coach while earning a master’s degree in physical education.

It was then, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh graduate applied for a physical education teaching position at Arkansas. DeBriyn accepted the position without an interview and headed south. Upon his arrival, DeBriyn asked if he could help out with the baseball team, then coached by Wayne Robbins. Little did he know that before the fall was out, he would not only be helping with the baseball team he would be filling a role that would change the course of his life and the history of Razorback Baseball.

In the fall of 1969, Coach Robbins, the Arkansas baseball coach at the time, quit to pursue a political career. When interim coach Bob Sluzarek stepped down after only one day, DeBriyn, a physical education teacher got the call to be the 10th Razorback baseball coach.

And while this was a tremendous opportunity, the job was nothing like it is today. Arkansas was playing baseball as an independent and the Razorbacks played their games at Fairgrounds Field, a modest pile of dirt located at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

Through the years, DeBriyn literally built the program from the ground up guiding the Razorbacks into the Southwest Conference and to the luxurious George Cole Field. Later as the program blossomed it was his relationships that helped catapult Razorback Baseball into what it is today.

"The success of our baseball program can be directly attributed to Norm DeBriyn," former Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles said. "His long-lasting friendships with the Baum and Walker families made the new stadium possible. They trusted Norm. Trust is the number one factor in every relationship. Baum Stadium stands as a tribute to the work ethic and honesty of Norm DeBriyn."

DeBriyn currently serves as an Associate Director of the Razorback Foundation and a part-time scout for the Colorado Rockies. He and his wife, Caroline, have been married for 43 years. They have two sons, Todd and Marty, one daughter, Carrie Jo and one grandchild, Carly.

On a personal level, I have had the opportunity to work with many outstanding coaches, but "Coach D" is among the best colleagues I have ever had the privilege to work alongside. Since meeting Coach DeBriyn more than 25 years ago, I long admired his accomplishments but have also been intrigued by the seemingly endless contradictions that make him one of the most fascinating individuals I have been around.

Gentile and generous off the field, his on field persona was something drastically different. Nicknamed "Stormin’" Norm DeBriyn by some former players, some of who ironically are still unwilling to come forward for fear of retribution, DeBriyn could peel paint from the bench by staring through a player who missed a sign or made a mental error in the field.

Long before ESPN’s SportsCenter showed managers tossing bases or turning their hats sideways to argue with an umpire, DeBriyn won the hearts of his players and Razorback fans by going toe to toe with Southwest Conference umpires seemingly dedicated to short-siding the only non-Texas school in the league with a controversial balk call or a missed third strike.

But as intense as he could be in the heat of competitiveness, he also enjoyed a laugh and never took himself too seriously. One night before a big road series, we sat at a dinner table together with other coaches and staff. To my amazement, Coach DeBriyn shared that he was often mistaken for Irish born Arkansas track and field coach John McDonnell while out and about in Fayetteville. The thought of an accent from Oshkosh, Wisconsin and County Mayo, Ireland being so easily confused was astonishing. As the conversation continued, someone at the table suggested that I could do some pretty good impressions of current Razorback coaches.

As he took in those words, Coach DeBriyn’s eyes immediately lit up and that wide Wisconsin grin spread across his face. "You know K.T., can you do those impressions for me?"

So I began, first with then football coach Danny Ford, and those double negatives in a southern accent that made every sentence an adventure for the listener. Then on to McDonnell, and that thick Irish brogue that inspired young men to run faster and farther as it bellowed across the track as if it were transported by some sort of amplification. And finally, the Georgia drawl of Frank Broyles and re-living some of those unforgettable phrases uttered during nine years of ABC football telecasts with the legendary Keith Jackson.

With each impression, Coach DeBriyn’s eyes twinkled and his smile grew wider. He laughed and he laughed until he stopped as suddenly as a runner rounding the bag and receiving the stop sign from his third base coach.

Then in his Fargo-esque tone he looked straight at me and said, "Uh K.T., I know you do an impression of me too. Don’t you?"

That was the moment I felt like the freshman who had missed curfew or the umpire that clearly missed the call at first base. I was frozen and had no response. After a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity, he cracked a small grin and let me off the hook. "You know, I know you do K.T. I know."

Despite his many accomplishments, DeBriyn never wanted the attention. In fact, when he won his 1,000th game in 1998 I had to do something I never did with him previously or after. I lied.

Earlier in the day, David Walling pitched a complete game masterpiece recording 16 strikeouts as the team recorded a 16-0 win over Eastern Illinois giving Coach DeBriyn his 1,000th win. Later that afternoon, Arkansas was playing a men’s basketball game at Bud Walton Arena. I can’t remember what the excuse was, but I invoked the name of Coach Broyles to get him to the arena for the game. As I guided him courtside and long-time men’s basketball public address announcer John George began the presentation, I got that glare that he usually reserved for his players.

But as he dutifully walked to half court to receive his plaque and the capacity crowd rose to its feet to salute him, that smile came back. It was a moment I won’t forget and one that was worth throwing the ole’ ball coach a curve ball on.

So I hope he will allow me another pass on this column. After all, I can’t think of a more deserving recipient of one of college baseball’s most distinguished honors. I’m not sure how things would have worked out for the Razorbacks if that bright eyed P.E. teacher hadn’t stepped to the plate in the fall of 1969, but I’m sure glad we will never know.

Razorback Road is a weekly column published on Thursdays by Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Kevin Trainor. Trainor is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and has worked for Razorback Athletics for more than 20 years.



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