Winningest college baseball coach going strong at 80

Updated: May 12, 2006, 3:06 PM ET
Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. -- In the past half-century, Gordie Gillespie has won more than 1,700 games -- more than anyone in the history of college baseball.

He also won five Illinois state championships as a high school coach -- in football. And, oh yeah, back when he was a college freshman, he guarded basketball's first dominant big man, George Mikan, and came away with a win.

On Saturday, Gillespie plans to be in the dugout coaching a college baseball team, something he's done since 1953 -- first at Lewis University, then at Ripon College and now at the University of St. Francis. Gillespie is trying to win his second NAIA World Series title at St. Francis, to go with three he won at Lewis.

Augie Garrido, the Texas coach who's won five national championships at two different schools and more games than anyone in Division I history, is about 130 wins behind Gillespie.

Heading into this weekend, Gillespie has a record of 1,707-883.

"Everybody in our industry knows who he is," Garrido said. "Everybody respects him. He's a coach's coach."

Gillespie is signed to coach two more years at St. Francis, and nobody expects the 80-year-old to do anything but coach at least that long.

"With his love for the game, he's not going to quit coaching ... until he does pass away," said Dave Laketa, the school's athletic director, who played football for Gillespie at St. Francis in the late 1980s. "He just loves baseball."

Gillespie, who can look at photos of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on his office wall and recall watching them play, sees no reason to quit.

"I still know where I live," he said, chuckling. "My wife, when she sends me out she teases [that] she puts identification tags on me in case I get lost, but so far I haven't had to use them."

Then, turning serious, he adds, "I think I'm a better coach today than I was 30 years ago."

That's saying something, since 30 years ago Gillespie was winning his third straight NAIA baseball championship at Lewis, where he coached for 24 years. It was also the year he won his second of five state football championships at Joliet Catholic High School -- a 27-year run that the Chicago Tribune noted in 1991 by naming him the head coach of the state's all-time high school football team.

His team's record this season, 30-24, does not sound impressive -- but this is a team that lost its best hitter to injury in the second game of the season. Gillespie's best pitcher just came back from injury after missing most of the season, and his second-best pitcher hasn't pitched since he hurt his arm just a handful of outs shy of completing a no-hitter.

"In just one year I've learned a lot about studying pitchers, defense, studying counts," said Mike O'Shea, his center fielder. At the same time, though, "It's like you're playing for coach who's 30 years old."

There are reminders that he's not, starting with his tough stand on any kind of "hot-dogging," as he calls it, any hint that his players are trying to show up the other team. Or his stand on facial hair.

"I can accept it, yeah, but not on my team," he said.

Still, the Chicago native is not one of those old-timers who talks about the good old days and how players today can't match the ones of his youth.

"We couldn't get on the floor with these ... athletes today, they'd laugh us off the floor," Gillespie said.

His players almost forget that he's old enough to be their grandfather, that he's been around so long that the best player he coached, Ed Spiezio, is a former major-leaguer and the father of a current major-leaguer, Scott Spiezio.

"You see him walking to the mound, I think my grandmother's 80 years old and she barely makes it to the bathroom," said third baseman Billy Sawisch.

But what impresses his players most is that so much of what Gillespie is trying to get across isn't about baseball at all. When he yells at them -- and he does -- it is as often about their behavior as their play.

"He wants to win, but he cares more about how we conduct ourselves, he's more concerned about how we will be after we graduate than winning a silly conference game," Sawisch said.

Gillespie is demanding. He gets on his players, sometimes loudly and sometimes with language that one might not expect from a kindly looking and devout grandfather.

"If I'm not demanding that you play smart, if I'm not demanding that you're putting out, I'm not getting the best out of you," he said. "The best teachers are demanding that the work gets done."

It was the influence of his own coaches in high school and college, including legendary DePaul basketball coach Ray Meyer, that led him to coaching.

"I said, boy, if I could be anything like those fellas in influencing people's lives, I wanted to be like that," Gillespie said.

So he passed on a chance to play professional basketball with the Chicago Stags, the predecessor to the Bulls, and started teaching and coaching -- both because he figured it was time to start a career and because teaching was a lot more stable than pro sports, which didn't pay that much at the time.

Since then, he's had chances to coach in the big leagues but always turned them down.

He came close once, about a decade ago when he talked to the Cubs about coaching in the organization. But that job disappeared with the firing of the general manager who wanted to hire him.

He has no regrets, though, saying he is exactly where he wants to be.

"I love teaching, and I really like young people," he said.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press