Commentary

Sweetest swan song for Palmer

Southern Miss coach will retire after leading Golden Eagles to first-ever CWS

Updated: June 12, 2009, 11:21 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Nobody really knows how Corky Palmer will take to retirement. He folds dirty clothes, keeps an impeccably neat desk, and on the first date with his wife, he took her to a baseball field and said someday, he wanted to coach at Southern Mississippi. Even Palmer's slow Southern twang oozes baseball. Most of the time, he sounds as if he's talking through a giant wad of chewing tobacco.

[+] EnlargeJ.R. Ballinger
AP Photo/Paul AbellSouthern Miss will make its first-ever appearance at the College World Series on Sunday in coach Corky Palmer's final season in charge of the Golden Eagles.

So it stands to wonder what a man who's only 55, who's taken his job home for more than 30 years, is thinking these days, as his time with the Golden Eagles is limited and the unknown is waiting.

"I don't think he's sad at all," Southern Miss pitcher Collin Cargill said. "This is exactly the way he wanted to go out."

On Sunday, the Golden Eagles will play in their first-ever College World Series, two months after Palmer announced his retirement, weeks after the college baseball world scoffed at the team's at-large selection. Southern Miss had lost its star, Brian Dozier, to a broken collarbone in April and had dropped 17 games before the calendar turned to May.

Even Palmer will say he's had more talented teams in the Golden Eagles' streak of six consecutive tourney appearances before this crazy run to Omaha.

"Baseball is a game of streaks," Palmer said. "Where there's a will, there's a way. And I always said, 'Why not Southern Miss?'"

Truth be told, Palmer, in his younger days, wasn't always so optimistic. Shortly after he married Debbie three decades ago, he invited some people over to watch the College World Series on TV. Palmer told her that the CWS was the one place he'd hoped to go but probably never would because he wasn't good enough.

"I wouldn't say that," Debbie told him. "Because you are."

Baseball is a game of streaks. Where there's a will, there's a way. And I always said, 'Why not Southern Miss?'

--Corky Palmer

Palmer was a catcher for the Golden Eagles, coached at a couple of high schools and a community college, then landed his dream job at Southern Miss in 1998. He has taken his alma mater to seven straight regionals, but this team had a special feel to it. Nothing seemed to faze these players.

They won at Georgia Tech and Florida, and rallied from five runs down last weekend to beat the Gators for a trip to Omaha. When they got back to Hattiesburg, 1,500 fans were waiting for the team on the field.

"We're all pretty wide-eyed right now," Cargill said. "But we've played in front of some pretty big crowds all season. I think we'll be all right."

Palmer has a way of keeping them calm, of being tough, prodding and lovable all in one practice. He drew some laughs Friday in what is normally a long and dry pre-CWS news conference, and sat at a table with a group of graying coaches. A couple of microphones away was Augie Garrido, who's 70 and still going strong at Texas.

So why is Palmer leaving now, with at least 10 good years left, and a program that is just beginning to peak?

[+] EnlargeCorky Palmer
AP Photo/Steve ColemanWhen asked why he's retiring at the relatively young age of 55, Palmer replied: "I like fishin'."

"I like fishin'," he said to a few laughs.

"Everybody has a different approach … Not to knock Coach Garrido or other guys, but I never was a guy who wanted to coach in my 60s or anything. I love the game; I'm as competitive now as I ever was. I just wanted to do some other things. You know, I didn't leave things so well at the office for a long time. I got better as I got older. Even though I was coaching for 32 years, sometimes I feel like it's more than 40."

He will take a part-time job in the athletic department as a fundraiser. Once a Golden Eagle, always a Golden Eagle. And Debbie, who is retiring from her nursing job, has a list of chores for Palmer to start on once they're back from Omaha.

When he proposed to her many years ago, he promised that once he got established as a coach, he'd buy her a house in the country. That house, on a creek bank, surrounded by trees and wildlife, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the tornadoes churned around them, Corky and Debbie huddled on the couch with their Great Dane. A tree fell on the house and landed one wall away in their bedroom.

"We had somebody taking care of us," Debbie said.

Now Palmer will finally have time to take care of the little things that went ignored in a 30-year blur. Debbie wants him to help plant trees and keep the beavers away. She isn't worried about Corky getting bored. Palmer had thought about this for at least two years, but still agonized when he told the team in the locker room last April.

"I think he knew when it was time," she said. "He will be fine. I know him well enough to know that he's not going to have second thoughts at all."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.