Baseball Coaching Legend Mike Gillespie Dies

Editor/Collegiate Baseball

IRVINE, Calif. — Mike Gillespie, one of the most creative and bold baseball coaches in history, died at the age of 80 on July 29.

He coached on the NCAA Division I level for 31 years with an overall 1,156-720-2 record with stops at the University of Southern California (20 years) and his final 11 years as the skipper at U.C. Irvine.

Counting his 16 years as a junior college coach, he led teams to 1,588 wins over 47 years.

Of the 50 or so times his teams have attempted to steal home, his players were successful every time but twice.

The most famous steal of home came during the championship game of the 1998 College World Series.

Clinging to an 11-8 lead in the top of the seventh against Arizona State, Gillespie called a steal of home with the bases loaded and two outs which was successful. USC went on to win the national title, 21-14.

Gillespie’s ball clubs have played 4-man outfields and 5-man infields.

Possibly his most unique use of an extra infielder was when his College of The Canyons ball club was playing Jerry Weinstein’s Sacramento City College ball club years ago.

One of Weinstein’s players had bunted for 30 base hits that season all along the third base line.

So Gillespie did the unthinkable. He pulled an outfielder and placed him 15 feet from home plate near the third base line to take away the bunt from this young man. And the strategy worked.

He was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2010.

“Mike was a legendary man and coach,” said UCLA Head Coach John Savage.

“He just retired after the 2018 season at U.C. Irvine, and it is tragic that he passed so soon. Several months ago, he came down with a respiratory illness and never really recovered.

“People respected him for what he stood for as he helped thousands of people in the game over his long career. He made everyone feel important who played or coached with him. He had such an impact as a communicator and teacher and was a great role model. He will go down as one of the greatest college coaches baseball has ever seen.

“He had such an unbelievable presence whether you played for him or were in the opposing dugout. Everyone knew who Mike Gillespie was.”

Gillespie is one of only two men to both play for and coach an NCAA-championship baseball team. He was the leftfielder for USC’s 1961 national-championship squad and coached the Trojans to the program’s 12th title in 1998. 

Prior to being the skipper at USC, Gillespie coached at the College of The Canyons where he built the program from scratch.

In 16 seasons, Gillespie compiled a 418-167 record and won 11 Mountain Valley Conference championships, including six consecutive from 1981-86.

He captured three state titles and finished as the California runner-up twice.

His teams finished with 20 or more wins in 13 years of his tenure, posting 30-plus wins six times.

Gillespie’s final squad won 41 games in 1986, the most-ever by a California community college at that time.

In 2018, he was asked what he learned during his amazing college head coaching journey.

“It really has been a great life being a baseball coach,” said Gillespie.

“But I must plead guilty in being a great copycat. I can’t possibly mention every person who touched my life from a coaching standpoint. There have been a number of coaches I have learned from whether it be a coach on the other side of the field, a coach at a clinic or a coaching mentor.

“I would like to single out a few. The first is Wally Kincaid, Hall of Fame coach at Cerritos for many years.”

His teams won six California Community College titles, more than any other coach in California history.

Even more amazing is that his ball clubs produced an incredible 60-game win streak that spanned three seasons — the longest in baseball history.

“Other remarkable people I learned from include Jerry Weinstein (Sacramento City College/Colorado Rockies), Mark Marquess (Stanford), Jerry Kindall (Arizona), John Savage (UCLA). Plus, there are many, many others.”

Magic Of Wally Kincaid
Gillespie said he has acquired a mountain of knowledge through his years in the game.

But the one bit of advice that has stood the test of time was from Cerritos’ Kincaid.

“I watched this man closely through the years and picked up many things. But the one phrase which was so important to me and rang true was ‘Throw strikes, play catch and put the ball in play.’ That is the game stated in simple terms. But it is everything you need to do in a game for success.

“It really does describe the game if it is done right. I don’t know when I first heard him say that. But it has been at least 40 years ago.

“Another thing I picked up from coach Kincaid was that his pitchers were never afraid to throw 3-2 sliders or 3-2 changeups. It was completely foreign to me. While they were doing it, they made our hitters look foolish.

“I thought it would be a great idea to copy, but throwing a slider or changeup in a 3-2 count is extremely difficult for pitchers. If you can do that as a pitcher, it allows more success.

“His teams were so skilled and so disciplined as they played with such confidence. His teams never said anything. For me, he was the first coach to set the standard.”

Gillespie said that one key thing he learned in his career is that every player on the team should be taught as many skills as possible.

“I like home runs and would love it if every one of my players had power. But there comes a time in most games that you have a chance to win where a bunt is appropriate or hit and run is the right move or a stolen base and possibly a squeeze bunt.

“It just makes sense to me that every player’s skills are enhanced by learning all aspects of the game. Then when a situation comes up in a game, every player has a fighting chance to exploit it.”

Gillespie had some of the top closers in college baseball history over the years.

He rolled out Jack Krawczyk at USC in 1998 and Sam Moore at UC Irvine who each had 23 saves to rank tied for second in NCAA Div. I history, plus many more.

Krawczyk Was The Best
“Possibly the most amazing closer we had was Jack Krawczyk. He was a non-scholarship player who recruited us. We lucked into that deal. He didn’t pitch much as a freshman. He was very tall at 6-foot-5, and his best fastball at that time was about 85 mph.

“But he had this Bugs Bunny changeup that few people could hit. And he was absolutely fearless. He was never afraid and had that mentality that dared hitters to try and hit his pitches.

“Most couldn’t as attested to his 23 saves during the 1998 season which still is tied for second in NCAA Division I history. His changeup was probably 75 mph or slightly slower. But you could not detect anything different in his motion from his fastball and changeup. To the batter, they both looked identical.

“There was enough on his fastball that you couldn’t ignore it. When you talk about relievers, he was the best we had.

“There is a mindset that the successful closer possesses that I don’t think you can teach. What is hard to identify are pitchers with this mentality who can thrive in difficult situations late in games. We are talking about the 1-run or 2-run lead or inheriting runners.

“You must have the toughness to deal with situations like this. Some have it and most don’t.

“The other thing is being yourself as a pitcher. If you throw 88 mph, then throw your fastball at that velocity. Don’t try to throw it 94 mph. You see so many pitchers try to muscle up and fail in the process.

“If you have a great changeup, believe in it, dot it where you want it to go and don’t be afraid. It’s easy to say and not so easy to do.

“Wherever I have been, I don’t remember recruiting a pitcher with the idea of using him as our closer. We just sort pitchers out on the staff and see who is capable of doing it.”

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