He Tries to Find Middle Ground : College baseball: Arizona State Coach Jim Brock, familiar with despair and euphoria, seeks a winning balance.
His Arizona State teams have won 942 games, including two national championships, appeared in 11 College World Series, sent 135 players to pro baseball and earned him four national coach-of-the-year awards. Yet Jim Brock says if he has two consecutive losing seasons, he is a pink slip candidate.
This from the man who recently signed a four-year contract and whose team, ranked No. 2 in the country last week, missed a 12th trip to Omaha for the College World Series when it was eliminated by Oklahoma State, 10-5, Monday.
This from the man who was born and raised in Phoenix, earned two degrees and a doctorate at ASU, coached at nearby Mesa Community College and has spent the last 19 seasons as the Sun Devil head coach. A pink slip? A record like Brock’s usually means they name a dorm in your honor.
But success exacts its own price and the self-critical Brock, 53, has the sales receipts to prove it.
Depression and an inferiority complex as wide as the Packard Stadium power alleys once drove him to consider suicide. Instead, he became a born-again Christian and embraced organized religion with a bear hug, squeezing it until it had nothing left to give him.
During dark times in the mid-1980s, when his program was at its lowest and his job security at its most tenuous, Brock sought the help of a psychiatrist. He took antidepressants. At one point, he nearly announced his resignation.
By his own admission, he was an angry, unforgiving, impatient man, not easily understood. He was hard on those teams, but even harder on himself. Now, after spending the last 25 seasons as a coach, Brock knows the years have only softened the edges, nothing else.
Brock has waded knee-deep in controversy since he was hired by Arizona State in 1972. He has battled the legacy of Bobby Winkles, the father of ASU baseball and the man Brock succeeded. He has sparred with university presidents, athletic directors, boosters, the NCAA, Phoenix newspapers, other coaches and his own players. Depending on the day, Brock is admired or tolerated. Sometimes he is simply despised.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a popular folk hero,” he says. “I’m a little fun to love, but a little more fun to hate.”
This might explain why Brock, despite owning the eighth-best record among active Division I baseball coaches, still finds himself glancing over his shoulder at times. He frets over failure. He said the only reason he might be safe from unemployment is that his new contract would cost too much to buy out.
This is the way Brock thinks. Some coaches would bask in the glory of their accomplishments. Brock fidgets. The day before the West Regional II in Tempe began, a nervous Brock walked the six miles from his home to his ASU office. He does this sort of thing often. He said it helps relieve tension, a frequent Brock visitor.
Brock worries all the time. He said, only half jokingly, that he wonders if he will be invited to his own going-away banquet. Good question. It is no secret Brock has angered past and present ASU administrations with his stubbornness and outspokenness. It is also fact that he has upset his coaching peers with his on-field theatrics and his refusal to take a more active role in the politics of the profession.
According to Rod Dedeaux, the legendary former USC coach who counts Brock among his friends, the opposition never took kindly to Brock’s leisurely paced shuffles to the mound.
“He was trying to build up the drama a little bit,” Dedeaux said. “I always thought he was a candidate for the Oscars.”
But more than anything, Dedeaux said, Brock has been punished for his wins rather than his style. "(His unpopularity) is probably more attributable to many things, not the least of which is his success,” Dedeaux said. “It’s always a little tough when you’re on the top.”
Brock knows this better than anyone. When he was hired as Winkles’ replacement, the program already had two national championships. His job wasn’t so much to improve its standing as it was not to botch it. In fact, ASU officials considered Brock an interim coach. They told Winkles, who was leaving to the join the Angels’ staff, that he could return to his old position in a year’s time. Not exactly a vote of confidence for Brock.
Nor did it help when word leaked that Brock wasn’t even Winkles’ first choice as his successor.
“Winkles was so popular that my greatest fear was that nobody would come watch us,” Brock said.
But first, Brock had to gain the trust of his own team. So in his first meeting with the squad, Brock handed out 3x5 cards to each player and told them to write any questions they had about him. That done, Brock answered each anonymous inquiry.
The Sun Devils finished 64-6 that first year. And attendance was up.
Behind the gaudy season records, however, was Brock’s struggle with himself. His high school playing career was undistinguished, as were his coaches. He never played in college or in the pros. He was self-taught and at times it showed.
Brock considered his inexperience a weakness. So he overcompensated. He decided discipline could hide his lack of formal baseball training. When in doubt, Brock would resort to rules and drills and, on occasion, rage.
One day during the 1974 season, Brock grew angry with his team during a workout. He ordered his players to run from first base to third, finishing with a textbook slide.
Bump Wills, the son of Dodger great, Maury Wills, was on that team. Wills rounded second base that day and then, while sliding into third, hooked his spikes on the bag and suffered a broken leg.
Brock was distraught. He blamed himself for the injury. “Totally,” he said. “I felt what I had done was out of anger, out of punishment and for all the wrong reasons.”
That night, Brock couldn’t sleep. The next morning--Good Friday--Brock got up and drove his car around the Phoenix area for five hours before passing a church he had once visited. It was there that Brock told a minister that life wasn’t worth living. It was also there that Brock underwent what he calls “a typical conversion experience.”
For about the next four years, Brock dedicated himself to his new-found beliefs. He was a guest on Jim Bakker’s PTL ministries television show. He was a guest on the 700 Club telecast. A book was written about his experiences. A movie, “The Devil’s Coach,” was made. He stopped drinking. He even thought about quitting his coaching position and becoming a full-time evangelical speaker.
In the end, Brock grew weary of it all. He counts himself a Christian, but now one of moderation. No longer does he fly to North Dakota to address a women’s religious convention and then back to Tempe to coach a game. Those days are over.
“I got really burned out,” he said. “I don’t know how I coached as well as I did during those years. It was a sudden experience and then it kind of faded back.”
As his fervor for religion subsided, his program’s success increased. In 1977, Brock won his first College World Series. Hubie Brooks, Bob Horner and Chris Bando were on that team.
In 1981, ASU won another national championship, led this time by Alvin Davis, Donnie Hill, Kevin Romine and Kendall Carter. Brock had done what no one thought possible back when he was hired in ’72: maintain and then gain.
But four years later, Brock’s baseball empire began unraveling like the stitching on a wet baseball. The Pacific 10 Conference placed his ASU team on probation for two seasons and stripped it of its 1984 conference title because of violations involving the work-study program. Then came NCAA sanctions, which reduced Brock’s scholarship pool by 12 over a four-year period. In college baseball, where only 13 scholarships are awarded to each program, the penalty was especially severe.
Brock appeared in front of the NCAA’s Infractions Committee, arguing that he had questioned the university’s interpretation of the work-study rules, but was told all was well.
Waiting near the hotel meeting room that day was Brock’s wife, Patsey, who is a professor of business at Scottsdale Community College. As she sat there, an elderly woman, perhaps 80 or so, took a seat nearby. They exchanged smiles. Moments later, the elderly woman tipped forward and died.
An ambulance was summoned to the hotel. Paramedics administered CPR and in the process, broke some of the woman’s ribs. Nothing worked and the woman was taken away.
Hotel workers promptly rearranged the furniture and before long, a couple was sitting in the same love seat that the elderly woman had occupied.
It was then that Jim Brock emerged from the meeting.
“Well, what have you been doing?” he said.
“Don’t even ask,” his wife said.
But this much was sure: an NCAA inquiry no longer struck the same dread in their lives. Patsey Brock, often the glue in their 34-year marriage, wouldn’t allow it. Not after what happened in that hotel lobby.
“The whole thing made me think we’re all so impermanent,” Patsey Brock recalled.
Brock was cleared of any involvement regarding the work-study abuses, but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Three months later, the Arizona Republic reported that an ASU team psychiatrist, Dr. James Gough, had prescribed Nardil, an antidepressant, to several baseball players. Gough, it turns out, also had seen Brock as a patient and, on occasion, prescribed Nardil to him, too.
An athletic director resigned shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Brock was portrayed in at least one cartoon as a pill pusher to his team.
Brock said he did indeed visit Gough for about four months and that Nardil was prescribed to help him handle his own bouts of depression. “But (Gough), certainly more than Nardil, got me through a tough time,” he said.
As for the allegations of improper prescriptions to his players, Brock reminds everyone that a panel of medical experts found the charges to be unfounded. He said he knew of two ASU players who were seeing Gough at the time, but he wasn’t aware if they were prescribed Nardil.
Once again, Brock leaned toward retirement. “I had made up my mind that the program would never be the same,” he said.
A friend convinced him otherwise. So made bold by beers that night, Brock said he appeared on a local television station to announce his intentions to stay put and to call the Republic “a yellow rag.” So much for public relations.
The 1985 team finished 31-35, Brock’s first losing season at ASU. The next year, armed with only eight scholarships, his team went 34-28. In 1987, again with only eight scholarships, ASU somehow beat UCLA to advance to the College World Series.
“That was the worst club I ever took to Omaha, there’s no doubt about that,” Brock said. “But it was the high point in my coaching career. I sat in the dugout and cried my eyes out. I couldn’t go out and congratulate the pitcher. I had to get a towel and clean up. It was a half hour before I could talk to reporters.”
The Sun Devils finished second in the 1988 series. That was the year Brock, faced with fielding a starting lineup that sometimes included five or six freshmen, placed large signs about his office that read: PATIENCE.
Perhaps he should have done that decorating 20 years ago.
This, however, is the Brock way. Trial and lots of errors. As Patsey Brock said: “Life is full of problems. They say when we don’t have problems, we’re in the box.”
Make no mistake, her husband is alive and kicking. Has he mellowed? So it seems. Brock cried when his team was eliminated in last year’s regionals at Waterbury, Conn. He said he felt bad for his seniors.
He cried, for goodness sakes, when the message strip on the old stadium scoreboard began flashing goodbyes such as, “I’m so sad this is my last game. . . . This is a special day for me. . . . It would mean so much to me if you gave me a standing ovation.”
The last message sent a weeping Brock to the clubhouse.
“You have to understand,” said Scott Dupree, ASU assistant sports information director and the man responsible for the message strips this past April, “that the only two things that have been here since this stadium was built was Brock and that scoreboard (since replaced).”
But there are also times--for instance, three days before the West Regional opener against Pennsylvania--when Brock will unleash a vintage tirade to match those of yesteryear. Upset with the way a workout was going last week, Brock screamed at his players.
“He’s a spontaneous kind of fellow,” said third baseman Todd Steverson. “He has an aura about him,” he said. “He lets people know how he feels, basically.”
Brock’s emotions have only changed in degrees. Improved, yes. New, no.
“I don’t have any trouble with me,” he said. “I just think there are times when I think it would be easier and prettier to be somebody else.”
It might. Then again, that’s never been the Brock way. Never has. And by the look of things, never will.