College baseball: Davidson coach Dick Cooke's improbable journey to the 2017 championships
The baseball coach at Davidson had just made a recruiting visit. He was heading back home, and called to tell his family he was on the way. Should be there in 35 minutes, he said to his daughter.
That was 9 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2012. By 11:30 p.m., he was still not back, and numerous frantic calls to his cell phone had gone unanswered. At midnight, two state troopers showed up at the door. There had been an accident on Interstate 77 near Charlotte, but amid their awful news were two vital words.
The world of Dick Cooke and his family had suddenly become a very different journey.
It is now nearly five years later, since the night a drunk driver — going 100 miles per hour by some witness accounts — smashed into Cooke from behind and sent his Dodge Caravan spinning clockwise into the woods, where it smacked a tree, rear first.
The biggest worry when he was carried into the hospital trauma unit — the punctured lung — has long since healed. Same for the bleeding on the brain, and the cracked ribs. But the fractured-in-four-places tibia has needed surgery and might need more, and the ankle is still not right.
We bring all this up now, because Davidson will be playing in the North Carolina Regional this weekend, its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 115 years of baseball. That would mean the world to any coach, but what about the guy who has been on the job for 27 years, waiting for this chance? Or the accident victim who nearly never saw this moment?
“I don’t remember anything about that night, fortunately,” Cooke said over the phone this week, taking a break from all the congratulations he’s been getting from friends, former players, Davidson alumni, past college presidents.
“That evening, while it certainly has created some physical challenges for me, was much harder on my wife and my daughters. This tournament championship may be a nice culmination for them, if that makes sense. We haven’t talked about that. But I just wonder if they’re going, `Given what we were talking about four-plus years ago, this is kind of a cool follow-up.’’’
So what was going through Cooke’s mind last week, when his Wildcats got the last out against VCU to take the Atlantic 10 tournament and earn their maiden NCAA berth?
“I was very aware of saying, 'I’m going to watch our guys enjoy this,'” he said. “I didn’t ever think, `Wow, this is payback for that woman driving into the back of me.’’’
Davidson’s road here, to meet national No. 2 seed North Carolina Friday in Chapel Hill, would be remarkable enough without the accident.
Consider the roster. By Cooke’s count, only three of his starters and 12 to 13 players on his roster are getting any baseball money from Davidson’s limited scholarship resources. The rest must find their way at a place known for its strong academics and cozy feel – with 2,000 undergraduates. But it ain’t cheap. Next year, it’ll cost $63,000 to cover everything.
“It’s a great product to sell,” he said of Davidson. “We’ve just got to find the athletes who are admissible, and can afford the product. Honestly, we have to have guys who overachieve.”
Consider the tight squeeze to even get into the Atlantic 10 tournament as the sixth seed. The Wildcats needed last-weekend victories at Massachusetts. They lost the first game of the series, and trailed 5-0 in the ninth inning of the second, then hit four homers and scored seven runs to win 7-5. The next day, they won again with five runs in the 10th inning. Of the 18 runs they scored in the three-game series, 15 came on their last at-bat. Something magical was in the air.
Consider the hard way they won the conference tournament, coming through the loser’s bracket. That required special heroics.
There was Alec Acosta, who went into the tournament with one career home run in three seasons and 586 at-bats. He hit five in five games. “He’s been a good hitter for us. He’s not a slap-to-the-opposite-field-singles guy, but he’s just never hit it out of the ballpark much,” Cooke said. “You just hope a guy like that doesn’t think he’s suddenly Mark McGwire.”
There was pitcher Durin O’Linger, who started and threw 141 pitches in a first-round victory, then turned in a pair of critical three-inning relief stints when Davidson needed the arms later in the bracket. His total for four days: 236 pitches, 14.1 innings, three runs, 11 strikeouts. That work load sounded like something out of 1930, before pitch counts became gospel.
“It was iconic,” Cooke said. And for anyone aghast at 236 pitches, here was the coach’s answer: “He’s Phi Beta Kappa. He just got a 4.0 this semester, which you don’t get at Davidson. He’s going to pharmacy school. He’s probably the brightest guy we’ve ever had, arguably. He’s not going to play at the next level. He’s a mid-to-upper 80s (fastball speed) righthander who competes his mind off. I’m not going to be the dude to say, `You know what, we’re going to be kind of conservative.’’’
Put all that together – this was also Davidson’s first league tournament championship in any sport since joining the Atlantic 10 in 2014 – and the tale is special. Plus, the 32-24 Wildcats would seem to have a chance Friday. They led North Carolina 6-3 in the ninth inning in early May before the Tar Heels rallied to win 7-6.
GOING BACK TO CHAPEL HILL!!! pic.twitter.com/jNeVRYqxjM— Davidson Baseball (@dcbaseball_) May 29, 2017
“I’ve been here so long, I think I can step back as a fan,” Cooke said. “I’m excited for the players who are here, but also for everyone who’s passed through here, forever. Or the equipment man, who has been here for 33 years. I’m probably as excited for him as I am any other individual.”
Which is why the post-championship fist pump from Will DuBose – the man who has done the laundry and tended the bats and dozens of other tasks for generations – meant so much to Cooke. “That’s kind of what it’s all about here,” he said.
But above it all, there may be no better story in the bracket than the coach who got a second chance at life, and is now savoring the best time of his coaching career.
There are moments that have made him realize the close call it was that night, such as the visit he and his daughter made to a fire station to thank the first responders who helped him. “One of the guys said, `You made it, huh?’’’ Cooke said. They told him special personnel had gone along on that ambulance run; the people who go when a fatality is feared.
He also thinks about what could have happened had his van collided with the tree head-on, rather than from the rear. He turned to a baseball analogy. “It was a classic example of getting a good hop.”
He tries not to dwell on the Sept. 18 anniversary each year. “But I pass by that spot on the interstate 20 times a month. Every time I drive by, I try to imagine what happened. Your brain kind of protects you from reliving that sort of stuff, thankfully. I’ve never woke up in a cold sweat, I’ve never had any moments of `Oh my gosh, now I remember what occurred.’ And I think that’s a good thing.”
Friday will be very special for Dick Cooke. But so was the day in 2013, when he coached his first game after the accident. A former Davidson player who worked for a senator in Washington D.C, had arranged to have an American flag fly over the Capitol when Cooke returned to the field, then sent the flag to Davidson. It flies there still on game day.