The two honors came just about six weeks apart.
The first was the induction of baseball coach Jack Smitheran into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Orlando, Fla.
Then, on the other side of the continent, in San Diego, the Highlander baseball team beat the University of San Diego, 9-5. The win was number 1,000 for Smitheran in his 32 years as a college baseball coach, adding his name to that of about 30 others in NCAA history books.
Smitheran, 58, has been Mr. Baseball on campus for the last 28 years. Two of his teams (1977 and 1982) won Division II national championships. He has coached 37 All-Americans, including Olympian Daron Kirkreit (’00), major leaguers Steve Lubratich (’77), Brad Pounders (’85) and Rick Rodriguez. In his tenure, 102 Highlanders have been drafted or signed into professional baseball, including Anaheim Angels closer Troy Percival (’90).
“I’ve had the greatest opportunity anybody could have in this country,” he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise at the beginning of this year. “I get to go out and coach.”
“A lot of people probably don’t even know who I am or what I coach, but hopefully they know the program and what the program’s done. That’s to me the most important thing.”
Among his coaching successes are eight titles in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (the league where UCR played when it was still a Division II school), nine NCAA Division II West Regional appearances and five trips to the College World Series in addition to the two NCAA Division II national championships. He was also named CCAA Coach of the Year eight times in his career.
Stan Morrison, the director of athletics at UCR, said of Smitheran, “The great start to the 2002 season is a reflection of the quality of players and the skills of the team that has been assembled by Coach Smitheran in anticipation of UCR’s entry into Division I. The tough schedule is a reflection of the competitiveness and fearlessness of our coach.
“The high graduation rate of his teams is a reflection of Jack Smitheran’s disciplined approach to baseball and his expectations for maturity and development of the ‘total person’ as he works with his student-athletes. I am indeed fortunate, as an Athletics Director, to have a veteran, Hall of Famer and winner at the helm of our baseball program. Our players are even more fortunate because they get to play for him.”
Smitheran was a 1962 graduate of Wilson High School in Long Beach. He played second base during his collegiate career at Arizona State where he was a member of the 1965 national championship team along with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. He remained with the Sun Devils as an assistant coach from 1967 to 1969 when ASU won two more national titles.
In 1970, he moved to Emporia State in Kansas as a head coach, posting a 123-61 record. He coached the Kansas school to the NAIA World Series, and in 1972 was nominated for NAIA Coach of the Year honors. In 1984, he garnered Coach of the Year laurels for success at Liberal, Kansas, in a semi-pro league that was a summer job after he came to Riverside.
This year’s team, the first in Division I, got off to a good start, winning the revived Riverside Baseball Invitational, taking two of three from perennial powerhouse Oklahoma and losing close games to San Diego State and the University of Southern California.
“I always go back to the same old thing: It’s baseball,” he said. “That’s the thing to be thankful for, that I’ve had an opportunity to make a living off a game and be a part of the lives of so many great kids and so many assistant coaches I’ve respected so much. It’s all because of the game.”