Arizona's Lopez is finally back on top
Longtime skipper wins another national title after 20-year wait
OMAHA, Neb. -- It took 20 years, but Andy Lopez did it. He’s in elite company in the college baseball world.
He’d been to Omaha again after winning the 1992 national championship as the Pepperdine head coach. One of those trips was even as the No. 1 seed in 1998 in leading the Florida Gators. But it’s not always the best team that wins.
This Arizona team wasn’t one of the top eight national seeds when the bracket was announced on Memorial Day. Four weeks later, the Wildcats are once again the top team in college baseball -- their first title since 1986.
The win made Lopez the second coach to win a Division I baseball national title with two different schools. Augie Garrido is the only other to accomplish the feat, winning titles at Cal State Fullerton in 1979, 1984 and 1995 and with Texas in 2002 and 2005.
It’s been a long and winding road that has crisscrossed the country for the native of Southern California. It all started at Cal State-Dominguez Hills, a Division II school, in 1983.
"Dominguez Hills was the greatest training ground I could ever experience in my life," Lopez said.
That Toros program was full of issues. He couldn’t even play games on the road his first season as a college coach thanks to incidents which occurred the season before.
After turning the program around in six seasons, it was on to Pepperdine -- where in only his fourth year -- his Waves shocked the baseball world with that first national title. From Malibu, the road traveled to Gainesville for seven seasons, before landing back out west in Tucson with Arizona in 2002.
In all, that’s 30 collegiate coaching seasons and 1,090 wins. Along the way, Lopez is just one of four coaches to make multiple CWS appearances, joining Garrido, Dave Van Horn and Larry Cochell as the only men to do so.
“For us, this is my 35th year as a head coach; five at the high school level and 30 at the college level. I've been really fortunate,” Lopez said. “So the old saying that an old dog can't learn new tricks, I mean, a picture is worth a thousand words. Just take a picture of me. I just really believe you get your guys ready to play good baseball every day at practice.”
Those 20 seasons between titles set the all-time record for time between championship wins. But playing the waiting game is awfully sweet with the way this one ended.
A lot of parallels can be drawn between the first and second. Both were hot at the right time. Both pitched tremendously well in Omaha. In fact, Lopez has led two of the top four all-time team ERAs by NCAA champions while at the CWS. That Waves team posted a 1.00 ERA in 1992. This Wildcats team just missed in 2012, with a paltry 1.13 mark.
Things are also different. Lopez had both of his sons with him in the dugout this time around -- as players.
“My kids are older,” Lopez said. “Back then they were little guys hanging around my ankles. Now I'm the ATM for my daughters and my sons are in my program and I can't get them to shave. So things have changed quite a bit for me. But it's still an unbelievable moment. I will say this on a personal note, any of you young guys out there when somebody tells you time goes fast, my wife and I have been married for 29 years, and 20 years ago we were blessed to come here and actually play well and win a national title at Pepperdine. When we left Tucson, my wife said I'm going to show you something when we land in Omaha. We got to the hotel room, and she pulled out a photo of my now 22 year old son holding on to my leg during the national championship. Now, he’s got a full beard. He's 6-foot-4 and he's in my program.”
Teams have been hot before and won national titles. Fresno State in 2008 is one that comes to mind, but the Bulldogs lost games in the postseason.
This Arizona team didn’t drop one game and became the 14th different team to do so in finishing the season on an 11-game win streak. Lopez’s club never even trailed during its almost two-week stay in Nebraska. Only two other teams had done that before -- Texas in 1949 and LSU in 1991.
For a coach that resurrected Arizona baseball and brought home the school’s fourth baseball national championship, it was a poetic end to beat the two-time defending national champs and finally end the Southeastern Conference’s run of national titles.
“It probably means a heck of a lot more for me personally for us to have won this national championship against Ray [Tanner] because I know what he's done there in the time that he's been [at South Carolina],” Lopez said. “And it validates what I think these guys have been this year, and that's a pretty good team, because Ray Tanner and South
Carolina, that's a very good team.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter who they beat. Lopez is finally back on top and that’s all that matters.