By STEVE KRAH
Billy Gernon is reaping the rewards of his labor as a college baseball coach while also giving back to a game he embraced as boy.
Gernon saw his sixth Western Michigan University squad go 22-34 and win the school’s first-ever Mid-American Conference tournament championship in 2016 while the Broncos earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1989.
“We’ve got a lot of exciting things going on,” says Gernon. “I’m trying to capture that momentum and bottle it.”
Left-handed pitcher Keegan Akin was chosen as WMU’s first MAC tournament MVP and was then selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, getting an invitation to big league spring training in 2017.
Akin was the Broncos’ highest draft pick since Harry Shaughnessy in 1970. Shortstop Connor Smith was named 2016 MAC Freshman of the Year.
As if to prove that old adage about the importance of pitching and defense, Western was among the nation’s leaders in fielding percentage at .978 — the all-time best mark at a school that started playing baseball in 1911.
“The strengths for me as a coach speaks to where I come from,” says Gernon. “Competition for big bats is heavy. Competition for defense is not as high.”
Gernon’s first season in Kalamazoo was 2011 after two at Michigan State University and nine as head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.
Gernon grew up near the baseball fields near Mt. Tabor Road in New Albany, Ind.
“The game became surrogate father,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time.
“I came from a broken home at a very early age. I had an unexplainable love for the game. I was gifted at pitching. Being good at it probably made me like it more.”
Now 50, Gernon still fondly looks back to his 13-year-old summer at playing Babe Ruth League baseball in New Albany, Ind., for a trio of enthusiastic coaches — Louis Jensen Jr., Buzz Benson and John Shine.
“They were young guys and they were a lot of fun,” says Gernon. “I remember looking forward to going to practice.”
Jensen is now director of high school eduction for New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corp.
After graduating from New Albany High School in 1985, Gernon took his pitching talents to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. He was the MVP for the IUS and that gave him a chance to play for IU Bloomington as a senior in 1990. Head coach Bob Morgan asked him to join the Hoosiers and he was excited about his opportunity.
Then tragedy struck.
“My brother died it the day I got there,” says Gernon. A car wreck took David Gernon’s life in 1989. “I was a very vulnerable person.”
Morgan’s passion pushed Gernon to succeed on the diamond.
“At Big Ten level, you need to win,” says Gernon. “You need to perform.”
With Morgan’s insistence on hard work, no excuses and accountability, Gernon flourished and became IU’s closer.
“He catapulted me to another level,” says Gernon.
Somewhere along the line, his focus went away from becoming a radio announcer and a chance to coach came along.
“I just decided to go for it,” says Gernon.
There were bumps along the way. At IPFW, Gernon took over a program that made a transition from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I during his tenure. For seven of his nine seasons in Fort Wayne, the Mastodons were not in a conference and had just five in-state scholarships with no paid assistant coaches. The teams averaged 11 home games and 40 road games per season.
Yet, Gernon still scheduled the best competition he could find even if his record (157-275-3 in those nine campaigns) suffered for it.
“The biggest teacher for me, personally, has been failure,” says Gernon.
Time, maturity and sincerity plus having a son of his own (Jacob David is 16 and a sophomore at Portage Central High School) have also taught him to be a better coach.
“I always try to keep my brother’s spirit alive in me,” says Gernon. “It’s important to me that my players know I love them. I need to do a better job of not only making sure I was saying it, but doing it.”
His Broncos have responded to that passion.
“Players want to perform for me,” says Gernon, who is 136-193 at WMU. “When they don’t, they’re so bothered. They don’t need anything from me but to address the wound.
“Failure is an event, not a person. The game is riddled with failure and great players learn how to deal with it.”
More than ever, Gernon is concerned with building the culture.
“Cultures are more important than anything,” says Gernon. “Great cultures win over talent. It’s my job as a leader to have guys know what the culture is and become great messengers of the team’s philosophy and culture.”
Gernon expects players to spread the word in the locker room: This is how we do things and this is what’s expected.
“Great culture is why Western won the first MAC tournament in school history and went to the NCAA tournament,” says Gernon. “We have great leaders.”
And through it all, he’s giving back.
“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time. I’m trying to do everything I can to serve it in the form of gratitude. I talk to current players more about their legacy, how they want to be remembered and the mark they want to leave on other players.
“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach.”
It’s just that important.
Western Michigan University head baseball coach Billy Gernon played at New Albany High School, Indiana University Southeast and IU Bloomington and coached at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before heading north. (Western Michigan University Photo)