Inside Pitch Magazine, January/February 2021

Inside Interview: Ron Polk

Godfather of SEC Baseball

by Adam Revelette

Ron PolkGoogle “Godfather of SEC Baseball,” and you’ll find the Wikipedia page of one Ronald George Polk, who completed his 54th season coaching college baseball this past Spring. While he’s never had to make one himself, Polk’s resume includes 31 seasons as an SEC head coach, 1,373 wins, six Hall of Fame inductions, seven tours with the USA National baseball team, eight trips to the College World Series, and eight summers in the Cape Cod League. He’s coached nearly 200 MLB draft picks, 76 All-SEC performers, 35 All Americans, and 26 major leaguers (along with four former players who coached or managed at the big league level).

Polk literally wrote the “book” on coaching, having authored The Baseball Playbook, which is the leading instructional textbook for baseball. He continues to spend his summers as a coach in the Cape Cod League, and transitioned from a volunteer coaching role at UAB to a post as a Special Assistant to the Athletic Director at Mississippi State in the summer of 2020.

Inside Pitch: You’re well known for your ‘old school’ approach with your everyday routine. What are your thoughts on technology these days?

Ron Polk: When I was at Georgia in 2001, we were coming back from the College World Series, and no one on that bus had a cell phone. I mention that at banquets when I speak today, and kids look at me in disbelief. Of course I have a [flip-top] cell phone now, butI don’t have any numbers saved. I mean, I’ve been coaching since 1966, how much time would that take?!

I don’t do e-mail – I don’t even have a computer – so I don’t have to deal with iPhones, texts, or social media. I do have a Twitter account, but it’s run by a couple of former UAB players, they have done a great job with that. I have five typewriters because if any of them break down, there are very few places that can repair them. I have a person in Starkville who gets my ribbon for me, but he tells me that one of these days, there won’t be any more of it to go around.

I’m old school, and I’m fighting it. I think if I was a head coach again I would have to be involved with more technology, especially with so much recruiting online these days.

IP: Another thing you’re well-known for is the plethora of handwritten notes and cards you send out on an annual basis. How do you manage that?

RP: I keep in touch with a lot of people. I order 2,000 Christmas cards a year. I go through about 1,500 birthday cards and 1,000 anniversary cards. They’re all handwritten, it takes up a lot of my time. But I think it’s just the right thing to do, these folks are a part of my life. I asked my guys in the Cape last year how many of them had been to a post office or bought stamps, and only one or two raised their hands. So I asked them what side of an envelope stamps went on, and I got all sorts of different answers!

IP: So how did you disseminate things like practice plans during your time as a head coach?

RP: I would type up the practice plans the night before, and make copies for the trainer, the equipment guy and our assistants. I would take one to the athletic dorm, one to the ticket booth and post one in the dugout. It would’ve been nice to hit a button and have it go to everybody, and I would certainly do that now if I were a head coach.

I still remember in 1975 on my first day at Mississippi State, they put this machine in my office. It was a copy machine – I’d never had one before. It was just huge, and it would make this whirring noise and take a picture of whatever you were copying. So I hit the ‘on’ button and then the ‘copy’ button and whirrrrr, and this thing churns out one copy a couple minutes later. The lady helping me asked how many copies I wanted, and I said “20.” She said, “well, that’s going to take awhile!” So I just stuck with my stencils – where you type on your paper, take the purple carbon off the back, put it on a cylinder and run ‘em off, one by one. It was much quicker than the copy machines at the time.

IP: How did you go about recruiting at the time?

RP: I relied a lot on high school and junior college coaches that I trusted. None of our coaches would miss games. We brought in some really talented junior college players, including Buck Showalter, who played at Chipola College. I went down to see Will Clark play once in high school. It was raining, so there was no pregame BP and no in and out. The game finally starts and he gets intentionally walked four times. I get back and someone asks me how he was and I just shrugged and said “looks pretty good in a uniform.” I used to tease Augie Garrido about that – when he was at Fullerton, he could drive 30 minutes and see 30 draft picks, I drive 30 minutes and I’m in Sturgis, Mississippi, population 260.

IP: How did you come up with the Baseball Playbook?

RP: The Playbook is an interesting story. I just wanted to get kids as much information as possible because I couldn’t be in two places at once at practice. So I typed up everything I could think of, ran them off on that stencil machine, and passed them out to the guys to take home. It was all typewritten with diagrams done by hand. I had my original, and I got everything else back from our players before the end of each season.

When we started winning, I was speaking at clinics everywhere, talking about our Playbook, and coaches would constantly come up and ask where they could get a book. And I’m like “you can’t have my book, this is mine – it’s the only one I’ve got!” And I remember one coach said “I’d give anything for something like that.” My thought was that when kids go to class, they get a book – why shouldn’t they get a book for baseball? The only other thing like it was Walter Alston’s Complete Baseball Handbook, published in 1972.

IP: So how many books have you sold in total?

RP: I’ve sold over 125,000 and I’m sure it would’ve been a lot more if we had a publisher, but that’s okay. My first book I sold was in 1978, done on typewriter with those hand-drawn diagrams. There was a bulldog on the front of the original cover in a batting stance; he was actually batting cross handed, which we had overlooked!

Of course I had to add in multiple signal systems instead of just ours. I sold them at clinics for 10, 15 bucks, and I would sell them out everywhere I went. The issue was I could only sell what I could carry with me through airports and on planes to these clinics. Then Duane Banks, who used to coach at Iowa, mentioned that he taught a Theory of Baseball class at Iowa and asked if he could buy them in bulk. And I mean I couldn’t sell these books to actual classrooms, with my hand drawn diagrams, right? So I redeveloped the book to cover everything from the first team meeting to groundskeeping.

IP: What was publishing something like that like?

RP: For two years, I would write a page a day for this thing. And I don’t like writing at all. People ask when I’m going to write a new version of the Playbook, and I tell them until the distance between the bases changes, I’m good. There’s a lot I’ve taken out and put in over the years, but I don’t see a true ‘version 2.0’ happening!

I paid for my first order – 4,000 books – and put them in my carport in Starkville and sent a letter to every college I could find. I wrote that if they bought a certain amount, they would get a test manual for every chapter. And all of a sudden, I was sending out 20, 25, 30 books at a time. At the end of every night, I’d post the practice plan, type up invoices, box up orders, and the next morning I’m taking them to the post office. I’m burning the candle on both ends, but the book is making good money, too. Then publishers started calling, talking about promotions, advertising, and I remember the best offer I got was for 16 percent profit, and I was making 80 percent profit, so I said “uhh, no thank you!”

IP: And you got John Grisham to write the foreword in the book?!

RP: John Grisham got cut from the baseball team at Delta State and came to Mississippi State. He’s always been a huge baseball fan, that’s no secret. He came to all the games, and of course I didn’t know him at the time, but he’s always identified with Mississippi State baseball. When he became famous, he asked me to come speak with him at numerous functions, and I would roast him, that’s what we did. He bought a suite when we built the stadium. He built a baseball complex at his home for kids, and he kept the grounds and coached there. And he asked if he could write a foreword for the book. I thought it was great, he’s such a great writer obviously. And I have all his books, of course.

IP: Describe the first few stops of your coaching journey, which originally ended with your retirement at age 31.

RP: I was a grad assistant at Arizona and New Mexico before Miami-Dade Community College, where I coached with Charlie Greene for three years. Then I took over at Georgia Southern, which had its challenges, but it was an opportunity to be a head coach at 27 years old. After a few years there, I was going to the home builders association in Statesboro trying to get contributions for a new stadium. That money had to go through the University. I went in after a while and asked how much we had accumulated, and they told me they’d needed the money elsewhere and we had nothing.

We were playing South Carolina that day, Bobby Richardson was the coach, and I announced my retirement from Georgia Southern on the radio show. It was the middle of the season, I was 31, and I didn’t have another job lined up. People in Statesboro were asking if I wanted to sell insurance. I was just burned out.

IP: How did you end up staying in coaching?

RP: I’d gotten to know Ron Fraser, who was at Miami at the time. He called me and asked what I was going to do. I just told him I was going to take care of the players, maybe help find the next head coach, but I was going to finish the season. He eventually offered me an assistant coaching job at Miami the following fall, which I accepted.

Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox were trying to get Ron to come as an assistant general manager, and Jimmy Bragan was set to leave Mississippi State to work with Alex Grammas and the Milwaukee Brewers as his third base coach. Pete Elliott was the AD at Miami at the time, and he asked me if I wanted to be the head coach at Miami if Ron left, and Mississippi State also came in and offered me the job. Eventually, Ron decided to stay at Miami, so I got in my car and headed to Starkville.

IP: When did you realize you had a real chance to develop a powerhouse at Mississippi State?

RP: I was very fortunate. When I took the job, I was the first head coach in the SEC that didn’t have a job somewhere else in the athletic department. Most of the other head coaches also helped recruit for football, Jim Smith at LSU and Bill Wright at Tennessee were equipment managers, Tuffy Horne sold insurance and made $7,500 as the part-time coach at Kentucky.

I also had a full-time assistant coach, which no one else had. We started winning, and we got ahead. We had the outfield lounge, a 24-station radio network, a TV show, the first Dudy Noble Stadium, the first tarp in the SEC, the first lights in the SEC. Then Skip Bertman came into the league, along with Ray Tanner,Hal Baird, Don Kessinger, Rod Delmonico, and SEC baseball took off.

IP: How else has the collegiate coaching role changed, in your opinion?

RP: In 1972 at my first head coaching job at Georgia Southern, I didn’t have a full-time assistant coach. I took care of the field, taught five classes, sold season tickets, made practice plans, and handled recruiting. I had the carpentry shop at Georgia Southern make some chair back seats and sold those season tickets for 10 dollars apiece. Season ticket holders would also get a monthly newsletter from me. I ran a Diamond Girl program – they ran a manual scoreboard for us. The new generation of coaches don’t quite understand what we had to do – they never will – and that’s how it goes. It speaks to the development of our game, and that’s something I’m proud of.

I was the type to get to the office early and stay late. I would get in around 7 or 7:30 and very rarely would I leave before 11 PM. I was a workaholic. I just wanted to make sure the program was successful and that our players enjoyed everything. I just enjoy being around the kids, being around the competition. I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, but I don’t have any regrets at all.

Nowadays you have ops people and development people, and not enough coaches. When the graduate assistant was taken away, we lost a lot of good young coaches in our game, because that entry-level coach that could have their education paid for is gone. I started out as a grad assistant at Arizona, and five former ABCA presidents were graduate assistants: myself, Pat McMahon, Steve Smith, Mark Johnson, and Keith Madison. That’s how those guys got their start. I know that’s not what this interview is all about, but that’s not right. Some people may think I am on the attack against the NCAA and other entities, but I just wanted to get it right.

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