#TGW: Forks in the Road to a Historical Path

March 21, 2018


By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Danny Hall ’s team came to a potential fork in the game Tuesday just as his 1,000th win as Georgia Tech’s head baseball coach began rounding into view.

A 6-0 lead built over seven innings had slipped into a 6-4 anxiety attack as No. 6 Auburn scored three unearned runs in the eighth and added another unearned marker in the ninth on a damp, cool, breezy Midwestern kind of night in Russ Chandler Stadium.

Then, with two outs and two runners on after Tech closer Jared Datoc issued a four-pitch walk, the Tigers (19-3) sent big Brett Wright – who has hit five home runs this season -- to the plate.

He didn’t go deep, instead smashing a nasty hopper to third base.

Wounds were still fresh from Tech freshman infield Luke Waddell earlier in the inning bobbling two similar balls and then throwing them away, yet this was not the first fork faced by Hall in his 45 years in college baseball. Not by a long shot.

When he was the age of some of his players, the winningest coach in Tech history in any sport wasn’t even sure how much longer rawhide, leather and bats would be in his life after earning Mid-American Conference honors in 1976 and 1977 at the University of Miami-Ohio.


 

 

“I was pre-med, majored in biology, kind of hoping to get drafted junior year [in ‘76],” he recalled. “That doesn’t happen so that’s kind of a gut check, a reality check that, OK, this baseball thing may not work out.”

Figuring it out

Hall went off to play some more, joining an Ohio summer team helmed by Don Purvis, the head coach at Miami’s MAC rival, Bowling Green.

Soon, possible paths began to lay out for the brainy ballplayer, and that was a big deal for the native of Coolville, Ohio.

There, in a village of about 650 in southeastern Ohio, hard by the Hocking River near its confluence with the second mightiest river in the Midwest and in the dusk of Appalachia in a region known as “Chemical Valley” for all of the companies headquartered up and down the big river, and not far from the coal mining worlds of West Virginia, promise was hard to find.

Purvis had a suggestion.

“He said ‘Did you ever think about coaching?’“ Hall recalled. “So, I played for him, really enjoyed playing for him. I wouldn’t say he brought me out of my shell, but just gave me a lot of confidence as a player. I told him I would go to Bowling Green and be a graduate assistant.”

Hall never made it to the flats of northeast Ohio and Bowling Green.

After returning to the rolling hills of the southwestern part of the state, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati, in Oxford, and again earning all-conference honors, he wound up re-committing to Miami.

“The guy that I was playing for [coach Bud Middaugh] got wind of it, and he didn’t want me going to Bowling Green,” Hall said. “I had no choice. He made sure I stayed.”

With a graduate assistant position created especially for Hall waiting so he could work toward a master’s degree in administration, he returned to Coolville and came upon a unique job opportunity both indigenous to his home region, and attached to his passion.

“A guy asked me, he said, ‘Would you coach an American Legion [summer] baseball team? This guy ran a huge warehouse for DuPont, right on the Ohio River,” Hall said. “He said, ‘I’ll pay you to work in the warehouse but you have to coach the team because I want you to coach my son.’

“I said OK. He paid me really good money . . . So I coached that team that summer, and at the end of the summer he says ‘I want you to come back next summer, and I’d really like to hire you. I think you’d be really good as part of DuPont.’ I would have been in more of an administrative position, probably managing the warehouse.”

The pay at DuPont may have been appealing, but Middaugh again stole Hall away.

In his second year as a graduate assistant, Miami’s Redskins (they’re the Redhawks now) won the MAC title, Middaugh’s third as head coach.

“The coaching was probably always in my blood because my dad [Danny} was my high school football and baseball coach,” he said. “That second year in graduate school I knew that I wanted to pursue coaching . . . and Bud Middaugh gets hired at the University of Michigan. He took me to be his assistant at 24 years old.”

On the way

This was 1980.

Middaugh crafted a madly successful run at Michigan, where in 10 seasons the team was 465-146-1, winning seven Big Ten Championships and punching four tickets to the College World Series. Hall helped coach players like Barry Larkin, Casey Close, Chris Sabo, Jim Abbott, Hal Morris and Scott Kamieniecki.

Yet the ‘Baby Boomer’ started slowly as a Wolverine. The Great White North was cold in more ways than one.

“The trick is I get up there and it’s not a full-time job. I basically punched a clock, worked on the grounds crew for two years, but I was the only assistant,” he said. “We had a lot of success, and after two years I become a full-time coach with benefits and the whole nine yards.”

After a few years, Middaugh talked Hall out of an offer to become head coach at Miami, but he couldn’t talk him out of taking a job at Kent State (Ohio) University in 1987.

Hall tried to talk himself out of that one.

Soon after the job just west-southwest of Cleveland came open in 1987, Hall found himself recommended for it by the sales representative who connected Wilson Sporting Goods to Michigan.

The first interview did not go so well.

“They weren’t in competition for MAC championships so initially I was like, I don’t think I want to go there because I had played against Kent and it had that stigma,” Hall remembered. “I go for the interview, and the athletic director is not even there. In 10 years, the place hasn’t changed at all, and I go back to Ann Arbor and I’m like, I’m not taking that job.

“So the guy from Wilson calls, and says how’d the interview go? I said Al, the A.D. wasn’t there. I’m not taking that job . . . So he calls the A.D. . . . The A.D. calls me and says, ‘Would you mind driving back over here?’ “

The second interview went better, but it took a change of heart for Hall to become a college head coach for the first time.

“I drive home, and I know they’re going to offer me the job. I’m turning it down. Slept on it. Got up the next morning, and I’m shaving and I go, ‘If they call me, I’m taking it. It’s my time to go see.’ ”

Kent State called again.

And Hall said yes.

Did he have some sort of a crazy dream the night before?

“I have no idea. It was just like it hit me, and it was just like I’m going to do it. That afternoon he calls, and offers me the job. The rest is history.”

Laying down history

The Golden Flashes struggled in Hall’s first two seasons as head coach, finishing two games above .500 each time. From there, Kent State finished third, second, first and tied for first in the MAC in consecutive seasons, earning NCAA bids the latter two campaigns.

He doesn’t hesitate to explain that he and his staff benefitted upon going from eight scholarships to 13 after his first couple seasons. It helped, too, that a partial indoor practice facility was built in a similar time span.

When Jim Morris -- the second-winningest active coach in Division I baseball -- left Tech in 1994, Hall got a call from athletic director Homer Rice.

This time, there would be no hesitation. Morris had designed an enviable program.

“I think I’m very lucky to have kind of gotten -- and this isn’t a negative -- out of the Midwest to get a program like Georgia Tech when I got the program,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often.

“I was fortunate there, and then here we’ve had great players and coaches and administrative support. It’s a great state for baseball so there’s a lot of pluses.”

Moving forward, leaving a legacy

Hall’s done plus work.

His first Tech team reached the College World Series championship in 1994, losing to Oklahoma, and his teams have made it to the NCAA Tournament in 20 of 24 seasons.

They’ve won five ACC tournament titles, and advanced all the way to the CWS three times in 1994, 2002 and 2006. He’s had 114 players earn All-ACC honors, 117 players drafted and can say he coached multiple Major Leaguers, including Charlie Blackmon, Mark Teixeira, Matt Wieters, Jason Varitek, Buck Farmer, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Dietrich, Jay Payton and Blake Wood among the many.

One might think that at age 63, he’s nearing the end of the finish line.

The Jackets finished strong Tuesday, as Waddell fielded Wright’s ground ball and threw to first base.

That was in the dirt.

Sophomore Kyle McCann dug it out.

Game over.

Right turn at the fork.

It was a good night.

Tech moved to 12-8, avenging a 12-7 loss at Auburn one week earlier. Freshman pitcher Brant Hurter started and pitched five scoreless innings. Freshman center fielder Michael Guldberg hit a three-run home run. Sophomore Andy Archer pitched two more scoreless innings to drop his ERA to 0.59. The Jackets fought around three errors and three base running blunders.

And Hall moved to 1,000-513-1 at Tech and 1,208-630-1 as a college head coach. He ranks seventh among active coaches in career Division I wins.

So, he and his wife, Kara, took pictures in the cold.

Two of their three sons were front and center, in the dugout and in right.

Third-year sophomore Carter Hall was in the dugout, where he’s nursing a back injury, and like his father, he’s prompted to consider a career in baseball beyond playing “whether it’s front office or coaching . . . “

Freshman Colin Hall had a hit, drove one in, and scored another while playing right field.

Danny Hall III was there, too.

“It’s definitely awesome to be part of. Obviously, we’re very thankful that we’ve been able to play for him . . . any time you can be a part of someone who’s accomplished so much, and had all that success that speaks for itself . . .“ Carter said.

“His routine . . . it kind of speaks for itself when someone can be here for 25 years. He’s definitely doing something right, and we’ve learned and adapted some traits.”

With 41 years of this game in his book, Hall, shows no signs of leaving his game. He wants to take Tech back to the big games.

“That’s his ultimate goal, to get back to Omaha [site of the College World Series], and I think he’s doing a great job this year preparing us for that moment,” Colin said. “I don’t see him retiring anytime soon.”

Coach Hall won’t speak to numbers. Not ages, not wins. He’s chasing moments.

“I never look at number of wins. My goal is to try to make every team we have competitive enough to have a chance to get to Omaha,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been there, and I’d love to go back. That’s kind of what drives me. I want to make Georgia Tech relevant in baseball.”