By STEVE KRAH
Sam Riggleman spent four decades leading young men on and off the baseball field.
As a head coach at six different institutions — John Wesley (Mich.), Mt. Vernon Nazarene (Ohio), Southern Illinois, Bethel College (Ind.), Dallas Baptist and Spring Arbor (Mich.) — he went 1,023-661-2 with four trips to the NAIA World Series (two each with Dallas Baptist and alma mater Spring Arbor) and two NAIA National Coach of the Year selections.
Riggleman has been inducted into halls of fame by the American Baseball Coaches Association, NAIA, National Christian College Athletic Association, Bethel and Spring Arbor and has received ABCA’s Ethics in Coaching Award.
He retired following the 2016 season.
Then Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., came calling.
It was a week before the start of the 2019 season and the Lakers suddenly had a need for a pitching coach.
“He was looking for someone with some experience and provide a different perspective,” says Riggleman, who accepted the invitation and went about assessing the pitching staff while relishing the idea of creating a competitive culture and mentoring young coaches (Detillion, Newman and Cody Grice).
Riggleman made it clear he did not want to step back into the world of recruiting or administrative details, but he had plenty to offer.
“Teaching and watching guys get better still lights a fire,” says Riggleman. “It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.”
Two years prior to Riggleman’s arrival at GVSU, the Lakers had been focused on velocity enhancement programs.
“The ability to command the strike zone was really, really in jeopardy,” says Riggleman. “We walked away from all those (velocity-building) things.”
Pitchers were asked to — do just that — pitch.
“How do you set people up and put them away?,” says Riggelman, who is back for the 2020 season. “How do you force contact on your terms?”
Riggleman has been refining mechanics and mechanical efficiency and getting his hurlers to attack hitters, putting them in defensive (ball-strike) counts.
GVSU pitchers are asked to command two-seam fastballs in order to create late movement while also developing an effective change-up.
“Guys are spending plenty of time working on breaking balls,” says Riggleman.
“There’s so much quality in players across the board at the Division II level,” says Riggleman. “There are no breaks here. Every single day is going to be a battle.
“How you go about preparing teams becomes the critical issue.”
At his previous stops, Riggleman prepared his players like they were going to compete at the highest level.
“We made practices competitive and demanding,” says Riggleman. “We forced failure on them and made them make adjustments because that it what’s going to happen in the game.
“We have to find a way to replicate. That’s what I’m trying to do at Grand Valley.”
It was early in his career that Riggleman figured out the kind of coach he wanted to be.
“Coaching is an opportunity to help kids develop in their personal, spiritual and emotional lives and athletically,” says Riggleman. “So many life lessons can be pulled out of this game. I’ve tried to take advantage of that.”
As a college coach, Riggleman knows that parents are turning over their sons to guide them in the right way and he does not take that responsibility lightly.
“I had an obligation to do that,” says Riggleman. “Kids are a lot more important than I am.”
When Riggleman was at Mount Vernon Nazarene and in his formative years developing his coaching philosophy, Bob Starcher was head coach at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.
“He took me under his wing,” says Riggleman of Starcher whom he met in the fall of 1979. “I saw guy who put incredibly competitive teams on the field and truly loved his guys. It was a model I gravitated toward.
“You don’t stay in coaches for 40-plus years and enjoy doing it, if you’re doing it exclusively to win games. I never lost sight of what I was doing and why I was doing it — developing young men.
“You’ve got to demand a great deal, but you’ve got to love them at the same time.”
Riggleman learned how to get players to exhibit quiet toughness and be very competitive yet humble. His successor at Mount Vernon, Keith Veale, went into the NAIA Hall of Fame Jan. 3 in Nashville and Sam and wife Kathy were there for the induction.
Riggleman played for ABCA Hall of Famer Burbridge, who won 1,003 games and retired as Spring Arbor head coach after the 2004 season, then coached alongside him before taking over the Cougars program.
“He had such an instrumental impact on me,” says Riggleman of Burbridge.
The two roomed together at the ABCA convention and shared many ideas about baseball and life.
In 2000, Burbridge was head coach for a team of all-stars that went to the Czech Republic and Riggleman was brought along as pitching coach. The following year, Riggleman was head coach on the tour.
Jones preceded Riggleman at SIU.
“His style was really different and unique,” says Riggleman of the former Salukis and University of Illinois boss. “He was and tremendous game coach. Very intuitive.”
Riggleman spent five seasons (1995-99) in Mishawaka, Ind., at Bethel College (now Bethel University).
“We had a great run there,” says Riggleman, who went 176-88 with two Crossroads League championships (1997 and 1998) and a league tournament title (1998) and led Bethel to three NCCAA national runner-up finishes. “A lot of fun and some really good teams there.”
He often got a chance to right son Jeremie’s name into the lineup at shortstop.
“My single greatest highlight of my coaching career was to coach Jeremie at that time,” says Riggleman, who is the grandfather of four. Jeremie Riggleman is now an assistant professor of art at Taylor University. Sam and Kathy’s daughter, Sarah, is married and lives in Granger, Ind.
Sam Riggleman enters his second season as baseball pitching coach at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., in 2020. He was a head coach for 40 years, including five at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Ind., and won over 1,000 games. (Grand Valley State University Photo)