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Tony Gwynn -- Brave New Frontier

Publication Date: November 6, 2001

What to Do with Yourself

So, you're coming to the end of a long, productive Major League career, you're a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and it's time to figure out what to do next. Some players stay around the game in broadcasting. A few go into the front office, although almost no stars do. Many decide to dedicate themselves to making up on the time they missed with their families while they were on the road. Most try to stay out of the spotlight for a while. You've got enough money to last the rest of your life if you've been reasonably smart, so what do you do?

If you're Tony Gwynn, you go to work at a place you love. This year, Gwynn will be involved with the San Diego State baseball team as Jim Dietz coaches his 30th and final year there; next year, he'll take over as the top man. This is, essentially, an unprecedented step -- there's never been a Hall of Famer or top player who has come to coach in the college ranks at such a young age (that Gwynn goes from being an old pro to being a young coach is just one of life's little ironies). This week I want to take a look ahead and see if I can find any clues to how he'll do on the job. This is all supposition, of course, especially since this is such an unusual situation.

At SDSU, Gwynn moves into a situation with the potential for some definite growth. Looking at the EFI, San Diego State has underperformed their potential somewhat over the last few years. They have absurdly good weather, an advantage which should be exaggerated a bit by the fact that they're the only really good weather school in their conference. They're a large state school with normal academic standards. In factors that aren't in the EFI, they have excellent facilities (in part thanks to Gwynn) and seem to get reasonable levels of administrative support. The only downside I can see for recruiting purposes is that membership in the Mountain West, where their players don't get to play against other California teams as much, could be a mild detraction, but I don't imagine that it's a huge factor.


As I said, it's unique for a player of Gwynn's stature to do what he's doing, but there have been a few good players who went on to coach in college, usually later in life. Traditionally, coaches are said to come from the ranks of the bench-warmers and hangers-on, since they have to pay more attention to the details of the game and tend to still need to make a living after their playing days are done, although I have no idea if that's still true these days with a $200,000 minimum salary for major leaguers. Nonetheless, here are the best players I can find who went on to coach in college (feel free to let me know who I missed), including a couple of Hall of Famers:

Robin Roberts is probably the only coach who may have been a better player than Gwynn; comparing pitchers and hitters across eras is tough enough that I couldn't call it either way. He was an easy choice for the Hall of Fame, pitching 19 years -- 1948-1966 -- mostly for the Phillies, making the All-Star team 7 times and the top 10 in MVP voting 5 times in those pre-Cy Young days. He went on to eventually coach the South Florida Bulls from 1977 to 1985, bringing the team into Division I. He went 262-240-2 during those years, a decent result for a new team but nothing earth-shattering.

Joe Sewell is the other Hall of Famer that I can find. He was a middle infielder in the '20's and '30's with the Indians and Yankees. To be honest, he was a bit of a stretch as a Hall of Famer, as he went in as a Veteran's Committee pick and probably didn't have the career to justify it, but he was certainly a decent enough player. Much later in life, he came home to coach at the University of Alabama from 1964 to 1970 and went 125-99 and making one post-season appearance when he won the SEC Coach of the Year award in 1968.

Bill Freehan was roughly the equivalent of Sewell as a player, although he didn't get the Hall of Fame support. As a catcher for the Tigers from 1961-1976, he was elected to or chosen for 11 All-Star games and broke into the top 10 in MVP voting 3 times. He coached at Michigan from 1990 to 1995 with indifferent results, going 166-167-1.

Eddie Stanky was a three-time All-Star as a middle infielder for several teams from 1943 to 1953. He's probably the best coach among this group, going 488-193 from 1969 to 1983, including 5 post-season appearances. He also built the program at South Alabama from essentially nothing into a team that can compete despite limited resources, especially given the nature of Southeastern baseball at the time, so he gets quite a bit of credit.

Don Kessinger is the last of the group, I think; as a player he was about at Stanky's level and below the other three and Gwynn. As a coach at Ole Miss from 1991-1996, he was an uninspiring 185-153.

All told, there's nothing in this group to cause any particular optimism about Gwynn's prospects, but none of them have been outright disasters either, and none of them are directly comparable, as I said above, because of the age factors.

Style of Play

The main reason that I would be cautious about being optimistic about Gwynn as a coach is his playing style. Gwynn was an odd mixture, because he tended to be overrated by the popular press and underrated by the statistical community. He had no power and almost never walked, but he could hit almost anything and get on base with it. Unfortunately, that's a hard skill to teach -- if his players try to play like he did, the team may very well set NCAA records for strikeouts. When you add to that the fact that, talented as he was, he wasn't the world's greatest at off-season conditioning, you have a worrisome combination.

On the other hand, there's a long history showing that what players think about baseball is often disconnected from what they do. A quick examples of that can be found in noting that Joe Morgan the announcer regularly disparages the very things that made Joe Morgan the player so valuable.


The good news for Aztec fans is that there's a very large part of the job that Gwynn has a very good chance of excelling at, because every thing that I've ever read about him suggests that he's quite good at the human aspects that are needed for teaching and recruiting, and that he's incredible excited about what he's going to be doing. As I've written here before, I believe that the largest portions of a college coach's job are done before the season starts -- he determines the philosophy of the program, gets the personnel in place, and trains them to do their jobs. If Gwynn can apply his considerable enthusiasm to the recruiting and teaching portions of the job, I think that SDSU stands an excellent chance of becoming a team to be reckoned with.

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