Greg Cote

To Jim Morris, the Canes baseball coach who'd never fill a legend's shoes — and yet did

University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, who is retiring, is shown as the 2018 season was about to start in February.
University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, who is retiring, is shown as the 2018 season was about to start in February.

The mind can't help but cast back to the start at a time like this, maybe to help cope with the fact this is the end.

Jim Morris knew about the expectations he was inheriting as the University of Miami's new baseball coach in 1994 on his first visit to campus. He was impressed see a College World Series runner-up trophy. Then noticed it was being used as a bathroom doorstop.

A couple of weeks after that Morris was the guest of a local judge and being shown around Riviera Country Club, where a lot of old-money UM boosters hung out, and he was introduced to the matriarch of the family whose donation caused the campus ballpark to be named Mark Light Field.

"Mrs. Light, I want to introduce you to someone," the greeting went. "This is Jim Morris. He'll be replacing Coach Fraser."

The woman offered a cool stare with no smile and said, "No one will replace Coach Fraser."

A quarter century later, from behind his desk, right at the end of his 25-year run with the Canes, Morris smiles.

"You know, she was right," he says.

Partly right, maybe.

Fraser saved UM baseball from extinction and made it a national champion. He was a showman, The Wizard. The bronze statue of him outside the ballpark is, fittingly, just slightly larger than life.

Morris followed impossibly large footsteps, but he filled them. He retires after 41 years as a college head coach fourth in all-time victories at the major-college level.

Now Morris is down to his final homestand — games Thursday, Friday and Saturday vs. Boston College — and as he bids farewell, this is the company he keeps:

Only the Hurricanes baseball legend Ron Fraser himself (30 seasons from 1963-92) and Dolphins icon Don Shula (26 seasons from 1970-95) have had a longer coaching tenure with a major South Florida team than Morris.

And this is the company he keeps:

Only Fraser, Shula, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and former Canes football coach Dennis Erickson have equaled Morris' two national championships encompassing our biggest teams, the Big Four pro franchises and UM football, basketball or baseball.

You done good, Jim. Better than good, by any measure. UM will miss you, even as longtime assistant Gino DiMare takes over next year well-groomed for the job.

Morris outgrew the Fraser shadow and stands on his own in UM history. He replaced a legend, only to become one himself. Criticizing Morris for not being Fraser is like faulting Rembrandt because he wasn't Da Vinci. Appreciate what you have as you bid it goodbye.

Morris, 68, already has shed tears fathoming the end, and imagining how he'll feel Saturday afternoon when he is honored before his last home game. Though outwardly deadpan and seeming stoic, he is an emotional man. When nobody was watching, seven years ago, he proposed to his wife Nhan in an otherwise empty Mark Light Field. He walked her out to the shortstop position, where he played as a kid, and got on one knee.

"I don't look [emotional] in the dugout. I don't wear it on my sleeve," he said Wednesday. "But Saturday will be very emotional. I already know that ahead of time from thinking about it. But it's the right time for me. I've been a head coach 41 years. That's about all the fun or punishment anyone deserves. And the last two years have been punishment, sad to say."

The end isn't always of the fairy tale variety. It wasn't for Shula. For Morris, last season ended Miami's record streak of 44 consecutive years earning an NCAA Tournament invitation. He now faces another year snubbed, barring a small miracle.

"These last two years are not the way I expected or wanted to go out," he admits.

UM has needed eight wins in a row just to get to .500 at 25-25 entering the final regular-season series. The unranked Canes — often starting six or even seven freshmen players — will need to sweep Boston College and then likely reach the ACC Tournament championship game next week in Durham, N.C. to win an NCAA bid.

That would mean six more wins in a row for 14 straight overall. Omaha looms distant as Oz.

I'll say this. No charity from the NCAA selection committee is expected, but if any college program is of a stature to merit the benefit of doubt or edge in an either/or close call, it is Miami. And if any coach has earned the same courtesy on the occasion of his farewell, it is Jim Morris.

Shula always says "maybe we could've won one more game" when asked about regrets. One more Super Bowl win is what he means. Morris can relate. His two UM titles came in 1999 and 2001.

"It seemed kind of easy there," he said.

He would spend the next 17 years chasing that elusive third ring, but the lack of it doesn't diminish Morris' stature or legacy as the consistent winner who has made UM nothing but proud, and as the coach who could never replace Ron Fraser, yet so capably did.

Morris, by the way, became a father late in life and his son, Will, is now 6 and just getting started in baseball. It isn't often a man can retire after a long career with no regrets about having missed his child growing up. So you'll still find the old coach at ballparks around town, but soon with no more pressure on him than to cheer for his boy from the easy side of the chain-link fence.

Now that's the way to retire.

And Jim Morris earned it.

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