It wasn’t the heart surgery two years ago that brought about Andy Lopez‘s retirement announcement at the start of the week.
Nor was it the fact that he passed his 60th birthday last year. And, despite several below-par seasons lately, his athletic director said publicly that his head coach’s job was secure after directing the University of Arizona baseball program for the last 14 years.
It was something much simpler. Reality had finally set in for Lopez after the four decades he dedicated to the game, from high school and college player through 33 years as a coach.
The 61-year-old national Coach of the Year, with two national titles on his resume, isn’t too old to coach. There are others in the college game who are older and still coaching at a high level.
His recovery from quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2013 shows just what kind of shape the man is in. He had surgery in October that could easily have spelled the end of his coaching career. He missed fall practice, but was back on the field in January to oversee individual workouts in preparation for the season, and then back in the dugout in early February for the opening game with Kent State.
But the energy it takes to oversee practice and manage games pales by comparison to what it takes to ride the recruiting trail in the off-season. And since the summer of 2011 those recruiting chores have weighed more heavily on Lopez. That was when his long-time assistant coach, Mark Wasikowski, left to accept a similar position with the Oregon Ducks.
Wasikowski was the cornerstone of his recruiting efforts. He was also a trusted confidant who first played for Lopez when Lopez was the head coach at Pepperdine, then joined his staff there as a volunteer assistant. Wasikowski was also part of Lopez’s staff for three years at Florida, leading the recruiting effort for the Gators. And the last 10 years he was back again with Lopez in Tucson, again playing a pivotal role in recruiting.
At Florida, he helped build a top-25 program with successful recruiting classes, and then began pulling in top-10 recruiting classes as soon as he arrived in the Old Pueblo. He was particularly effective in recruiting in the talent-rich state of California.
That kind of recruiter is hard to replace, and Wasikowski’s departure presented Lopez with still another hurdle to getting the program back on track. That additional pressure may have pushed Lopez toward taking a hard look at just how badly he wanted to continue devoting a major part of his life to the challenge of getting his program back on top again. Since winning a national title three years ago, his teams have posted a 36-54 conference record.
What appeared to be a sudden decision has actually been percolating since last year, says Lopez. The final decision, made after huddling with wife Linda and their four children, apparently came just last week. The school made the announcement Monday.
Lopez wouldn’t let his athletic director, Greg Byrne, go public with the news until his team had wrapped up the final weekend of the season because he felt it would draw attention to him and not the team, which closed out the 2015 season with an 8-1 win over Hawaii.
The Wildcats finish with a 31-24 record, not good enough to get them into the post-season. This marks the third straight year Arizona has failed to make it into the NCAA Tournament – after winning a national championship in 2012.
But he leaves behind a solid program that he coached back to national prominence. After taking over in 2001, he led the program to its first College World Series appearance in Omaha since 1986, its first-ever super regional title, first 40-win season since 1989, and the school’s fourth national title. The last championship was 29 years ago.
The year they won the national title, the Cats won 48 games, the first time that had been done in a quarter-century. They went undefeated in the postseason, winning 10 straight games, and beat two-time defending national champion South Carolina to claim the title.
Lopez was named national Coach of the Year for his 2012 success, the third time in his career he earned that rare honor.
He leaves the game with 1,174 career victories, eleventh-most among active Division I coaches
In addition to tradition, the coach who takes over for Lopez will also have another recruiting tool to use in trying to fill the void left by the departure of one of the winningest college coaches in the sport. The Wildcats moved last year from the on-campus stadium the team called home for nearly 50 years to the city-owned Hi Corbett Field, an 8,665-seat facility used by Major League teams during spring training.
And let’s not forget the loyal fan base. Each year, the program draws more than 100,000 fans to its games, usually ranking among the top 20 Division I schools in the country in that category.
Andy Lopez leaves the Arizona program in a good place, despite a few sub-par seasons lately. Now Byrne just needs to find someone to rally the troops and lead the Cats back to Omaha.
And there will undoubtedly be a long line of candidates eager to take on that challenge.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)