Greg Cote

Expectations for UM baseball are ‘almost impossible,’ — that’s fine with coach Morris

Coach Jim Morris had much early success at Miami, with two national championships in his first eight seasons, but he has spent the past 15 years chasing that elusive third ring.
Coach Jim Morris had much early success at Miami, with two national championships in his first eight seasons, but he has spent the past 15 years chasing that elusive third ring. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Spoil us too soon at your own peril. Set the bar so high, so fast, and then spend the rest of your career trying to live up to the monster you created.

This what burdens and drives Jim Morris, the University of Miami baseball coach, as his nationally No. 4-ranked Hurricanes prepare to host another NCAA Regional tournament starting Friday.

The phenomenon is a familiar one in South Florida sports.

Don Shula in 1970 took an expansion Dolphins franchise only four seasons old and by 1972-73 had it winning back-to-back Super Bowls. He would spend the next 22 years trying unsuccessfully to win another.

Dan Marino arrived as a rookie in 1983 and was playing in a Super Bowl the next year. He’d spend the following 15 seasons failing to make it back. “I never thought that would be my only one,” he told me years later.

The Florida Panthers in 1996 skated improbably into the Stanley Cup Finals in only their third year of existence. It is 20 years (and counting) on trying to get back.

The Marlins won the 1997 World Series in only their fifth year and won another one in 2003. Thirteen years later, they haven’t even made the playoffs since.

Is it the curse of early success?

Ron Fraser, the coaching legend who saved the sport at UM and became beloved, retired after the 1992 season. Then came one failed year under the forgotten Brad Kelley before Morris swept in from Georgia Tech and took over in ’94.

He hit big, fast. Five consecutive College World Series appearances and then a CWS championship in 1999 – UM’s first in 14 years – and then another national championship in 2001.

Fraser was twice king in 30 seasons here. Morris was twice king after eight.

But then that invisible curse!

Fifteen seasons since that second title, Morris is still fighting to win that third – to place a proper bookend on a terrific career in Coral Gables.

“Those two rings are gettin’ rusty,” he said Monday, his old line.

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Morris, 66, shows up every day with a reminder of his shadow. He walks past the slightly larger than life statue of Fraser at the entrance of what still is Mark Light Stadium to me, the cozy little ballpark tucked on the corner of campus.

“I knew I had an impossible act to follow,” Morris said. “Bear Bryant. John Wooden…”

This is Morris’ 23rd season here. He’ll coach two more to get to his Silver Anniversary and then walk away, handing the reins to longtime top assistant Gino DiMare in 2019.

The orchestration of a gradual retirement means time to properly appreciate Morris, whose career has been a worthy successor to Fraser.

It also means Morris gets three more shots at the College World Series win that would end his career right. It was just before the world changed, three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Morris last left Omaha happy.

Morris reveres Fraser; he gave the eulogy at Ron’s funeral in 2013. He knows it will always be Fraser first, Morris second for the order of UM baseball giants. But one more championship would be one more than Fraser. It would not change that order, but it would be Morris’ distinction. His alone. Forever.

“No question. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do more than win another championship,” he said Monday, soon after the NCAA announced the Coral Gables Regional hosted by No. 1-seeded Miami would find the Canes opening Friday night vs. No. 4 Stetson, with No. 2 Florida Atlantic and No. 3 Long Beach State in the other game. “But people don’t realize how hard it is to get to Omaha and win. It’s just so hard. To walk out with another ring would be very special.”

Morris has a great team. His top three starting pitchers are a combined 28-4. He has four batters hitting .336 or better. Catcher Zack Collins should’ve been ACC player of the year. “And Morris’ defense “is probably the best since I’ve been at Miami.”

But it will only be a special team if it wins it all.

Miami is making a nation-leading 44th consecutive NCAA postseason appearance in search of its 25th trip to the CWS. Around here, it’s a failed season if it falls short of at least getting to Omaha.

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“With such high expectations, it’s almost impossible to live up,” Morris admitted.

But that is the bar that Fraser set, and that Morris has met.

One man has a statue out front.

One more championship will get the other man a legacy all his own.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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