Back when 60-year-old Scott Berry was a younger coach at Southern Miss — and long before the grass baseball field was replaced with artificial turf — he would spend long hours making sure the field was immaculate. Every blade of grass, every speck of dirt had to be just right.
His daughter, Kathryn Grace, in college now, was a tiny girl. “Daddy,” Kathryn Grace asked her father one day on the field at Pete Taylor Park, “is this your garden?”
It surely has been. The winningest coach in Southern Miss history, Berry has grown ball players and he has grown winners. He did it all with class. When I wrote last week of Berry’s consistent winning ways at Southern Miss, I had no idea he would a week later announce his retirement, which will come at season’s end. I did know that he wasn’t going to coach for much longer because he has said so several times in recent years.
Why now? I can guess. Number one, like any coach who has ever done it, he wants to go out a winner. Who wouldn’t? His current Golden Eagles hold a 13-game winning streak, the nation’s longest, heading into the last weekend of the regular season. They are 35-15, 20 games over .500, and have a good chance for a seventh consecutive 40-victory season. No other Division I school in the nation has more than five straight 40-win seasons currently. Ole Miss, Florida State and Southern Miss came into this season as the only D-I schools with 21 consecutive 30-win seasons. USM now has 22. Both the Ole Miss and FSU streaks will end at 21.
Number two and perhaps more importantly, Berry would never retire if he didn’t believe he was leaving his garden in capable hands. Berry strongly believes the right man is already in the program. USM’s official news release of Berry’s impending retirement says that search for Berry’s replacement is underway. Forget that. Associate head coach Christian Ostrander, who has been a whiz with the Golden Eagle pitching staff, will be the new Southern Miss baseball coach. You can book that.
When Corky Palmer retired in 2009, the transition to Berry was seamless. The same should be true going from Berry to Ostrander.
But that’s a story for another day. Today is about Berry, who has earned the lasting respect of his coaching peers. One is Mike Bianco, coach of defending national champion Ole Miss, who decisively swept Berry and Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional last spring en route to Omaha. Bianco’s first year as head coach at Ole Miss coincided with Berry coming to Southern Miss as Palmer’s lead assistant. They have competed against one another on an annual basis since then — and on even terms before last year’s Super Regional. In a phone call Tuesday night, Bianco said news of Berry’s retirement caught him by surprise.
“But I’m happy for him, happy for his family,” Bianco said. “When you’re in this profession, you miss a lot stuff with your family. You don’t have a lot of spare time. I read Scott’s statement, and I am sure all that figured in.”
Asked about his relationship with Berry, Bianco responded, ”We’re not best friends or anything like that. We don’t go hunting and fishing together. But we’re baseball coaching friends for sure. When I think about the people I really respect in this game and the people in the game I call friends, Scott is definitely one of them at the top of the list.
“You’ve watched it, you know,” Bianco continued. “Corky did a great job down there. He really did. But Scott has taken it to a whole other level when you talk about the consistency of the program and what they’ve accomplished in terms of their facility and fan support. They’ve become a national program and that’s tough to do at a so-called mid-major, but Scott’s done it and it’s also how they’ve done it. They play the right way. His teams play hard, they really compete, and they are great kids. That’s a credit to him.”
Berry, as he has said so often in the past, has much the same respect for Bianco.
When Corky Palmer announced his retirement 14 years ago, his Southern Miss team suddenly got white-hot, earned an NCAA berth, won an NCAA Regional at Georgia Tech and then a Super Regional at Florida. Palmer’s career ended in Omaha.
Could something similar happen this season for Scott Berry?
And, if it did, wouldn’t that be fitting?