Chal Port and his legacy

Chal Port was the best coach I ever had, and his love of his boys poured out of him the way it always does with the best of the breed.

– Pat Conroy, Prologue, My Losing Season

We are not reloading; we are in a rebuilding process.  Our team is made up of reserves of past years and freshmen who will get the opportunity to play this year and hopefully be up to the challenge…Our baseball accomplishments measured by victories this year could be moderate.  From our players we need a dedication of purpose, firm self-discipline and tenacious determination.  Hard work and aggressive play must overcome our limitations.

We will be playing off the enthusiasm of youth, and that should result in some entertaining baseball.  We must judge this team on the basis of their performance, according to their individual abilities and improvement throughout the season.  We want to teach them not to beat themselves and to always play with a fighting spirit and essential mental toughness.

We need to stay out of the way of line drives and recover foul balls so that we can stay within our budget.

– Chal Port, from The Citadel’s 1990 Baseball Media Guide

That last line is one of Port’s more famous witticisms, mainly because it is one of the most publicized, as it got a lot of press after the 1990 team reached the College World Series.  It is quintessential Port, to be sure.

Port died Saturday in Charleston after a long illness.  He was 80 years old.  You can read and view stories and tributes to Port in many places, including Jeff Hartsell’s article in The Post and Courier, WCIV-TV, WCSC-TV, and this selection from the 2005 documentary DVD “Who’d a Thunk It?”.

Chal Port won 641 games and seven Southern Conference championships at The Citadel, but the opening paragraph on any story about his career at the military college always prominently includes that 1990 squad, and justifiably so.  At the time, longtime Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm said he didn’t know of “a lower-budget team to go to the College World Series,” and he wasn’t being patronizing in any way.

Port was the only fulltime coach on the staff; his two assistants were a part-timer (Tom Hatley) and a GA (Ken Creehan).  As for how many scholarships Port had available, I have heard different numbers, though all sources agree that he had far from the maximum 11.7 schollies.  He probably had half that amount at his disposal, at best.

Winning 46 games with a team that had such limited resources, including the wins over North Carolina State and East Carolina at the Atlantic Regional, becoming the only team to ever win two games against Miami at Mark Light Stadium in a regional, and then actually winning a game in Omaha…that was some kind of run.  Nothing like it had ever happened before, and it is hard to imagine it ever happening again.

Port guiding his Bulldogs to Omaha was a godsend for both the local and national media in 1990, as he gave scribes and TV commentators all the material they wanted and then some.  Just a sample:

– [From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution] “After his team beat perennial power Miami to reach the CWS, ESPN’s Tim Brando asked Port how it felt to win in the shadow of the building named for Ron Fraser, Miami’s coach.

‘No big deal,’ he said.  ‘I’ve got a building at The Citadel named after me.  It’s the Port-O-Let next to the dugout.'”

(After that comment, the AJC‘s Tom Whitfield wrote that “Chal Port of The Citadel has been named college coach of the year by The Sporting News…when it comes to down-home wisdom and one-liners, he’s the coach for the ages.”)

– Brando interviewed Port at the Atlantic Regional in Miami.  Also at that regional, a young Miami Herald sportswriter named Dan Le Batard documented an exchange with Port that went in part like this:

Le Batard: “…but Chal, your team…is an impressive 41-12 and…”

Port:  “Good scheduling, don’t you think?”

Le Batard:  “But Chal, pal, your team had a 26-game winning streak this year, the nation’s longest, and…”

Port:  “Aw, we don’t win a lot of baseball games but we do pretty good in wars.”

– Port also gave an interview to columnist William Rhoden of The New York Times:

“When we looked at the calendar last fall, our goal for June 1st was to make sure that the kids had turned in all their equipment.” …

… “‘Baseball has never been big at The Citadel,” he said. ”It’s a military school, and as a military school, football is the god, then basketball. When baseball has a good year, we’re third. When we have poor years, we drop down behind golf.”

For all of the success of this year’s team, Port realizes that The Citadel will never become a perennial baseball power.

”Most excellent baseball players are not interested in marching and wearing uniforms,” Port said.

Of course, one team and a bunch of jokes don’t really define the man.  His overall record is extremely impressive, but when put into context, the adjective “amazing” may be a more appropriate term than “impressive”.  This next section is something I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a study of the records of Port and Fred Jordan, with some minor editing.

Chal Port had to make numerous on-field adjustments during his tenure, including the change from wooden to aluminum bats, and the Southern Conference moving to divisional play (and then dropping the divisions), among other things.  Then there were the off-field adjustments, which included integration, and the fact that going to a military school wasn’t exactly the cool thing to do in the early-to-mid-1970s (not that it’s ever been the really cool thing to do).   Consider what the baseball program accomplished, especially when compared to The Citadel’s football and hoops programs of that decade:

From 1971-1979, the football team was coached by Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker.  Ross in particular is known as having been an outstanding coach, with major success at multiple levels of the sport.  The football team had four winning seasons overall in those nine years, with no league titles and a conference mark of 26-29 (47.2%).  SoCon finishes:  3rd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 5th, 3rd.

The basketball team was coached from 1971-79 by Dick Campbell, George Hill, and Les Robinson.  Robinson would later prove his worth as a coach with an outstanding rebuilding job at East Tennessee State, but during this period the hoops program had just two winning seasons, bookends on seven straight losing campaigns, and had an overall conference record of 43-69 (38.4%).  Conference finishes:  4th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 3rd.

Meanwhile, from 1971-1979 Port went 85-43 (66.4%) in conference play, with three championships, nine winning seasons overall, and eight winning seasons in the league (and the other was a .500 season).  His SoCon finishes during that time:  1st, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.  He finished in the upper half of the league all nine years.

He wasn’t done yet, either.  He had his best teams up to that time in 1982 and 1983, with the ’82 squad finishing 40-8.  At that point another power arose in the Southern Conference, as Western Carolina hired Jack Leggett to upgrade its already promising program.  The Catamounts would win five straight league titles, a stretch dovetailing almost exactly with a gradual decline in The Citadel’s fortunes on the diamond.

Port outlasted WCU’s run and (even more impressively) Hurricane Hugo, however, and orchestrated a season that won’t soon be forgotten, plus a very nice coda (the ’91 campaign).

The 1990 season was incredible, but don’t forget all those terrific teams he had in the 1970s and 1980s.  A few of those squads were just a break or two away from being DVD-worthy themselves (the 1982 team in particular).

Port is, without much doubt, the best coach The Citadel has ever had, in any sport.  He got it done off the field, too, as almost all of his players graduated.

The State of South Carolina has had more than its fair share of outstanding college baseball coaches over the years, but Chal Port was arguably better than any of them, given his resources.  I say that as someone who has a great deal of respect for the wonderful job Ray Tanner has done at South Carolina (not to mention Wilhelm, Bobby Richardson, etc.).

Port’s influence over the game continues today.  Numerous former players went on to become successful high school coaches in the state, preaching the gospel of Chal.

Some of his disciples moved on to the college ranks, including three current D-1 head coaches:  his successor at The Citadel, Fred Jordan; Tony Skole (ETSU);  and Dan McDonnell (who made a little history for himself by leading Louisville to Omaha a few years ago, joining the exclusive club of individuals to have played for and coached a CWS team).

Port’s influence can even be seen indirectly with players like Baltimore Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, whose father Richard was an outstanding pitcher-outfielder for Port in the 1970s.

Chal Port’s ability to develop and nurture leaders inside and outside the game is his real legacy, even more so than his renowned storytelling ability and his championship-winning baseball teams.

Condolences to his family and friends.

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