This 1973 University Press archive photo shows Jim Gilligan, right, in his first year as coach of Lamar University, with University of Houston coach Al Vincent.

This 1973 University Press archive photo shows Jim Gilligan, right, in his first year as coach of Lamar University, with University of Houston coach Al Vincent.

Jim Gilligan to close out illustrious Cardinal career

Growing up in the neighborhoods of Bayside, Queens, long-time Lamar baseball coach, Jim Gilligan, imagined living one type of life from an early age — a baseball life.

While living in Queens, Gilligan’s focus surrounded one niche — sports.

“The good thing about growing up in New York, was that there was a lot of guys that played sports,” Gilligan said. “I had great friends that lived on my street that I’d play stick ball with. You could always get a game up, whether it was football, school-yard basketball or baseball. There’s always going to be some New York in me, so I feel like a Texan, until somebody that I’ve known for 40 years calls me a Yankee.”

It wasn’t just baseball that Gilligan was obsessed with. It was all sports.

“When I was high school, I wanted to play basketball, but they wouldn’t let me play, because you were specialized (in one sport),” Gilligan said. “It was obvious I was a baseball player, not a basketball player, though. But, I was one of the guys who told my mother I was going to the library and snuck out to shoot hoops all night.”

Out of high school, Gilligan accepted a scholarship at Morton College, before eventually making his way to LU. In 1970, he took over as the head coach of the baseball program, which was just coming off of a 9-25 season. Three years later, the team finished as co-conference champions. They followed that by winning a Southland Conference championship in back-to-back years.

“We weren’t very good at the time,” Gilligan said. “We weren’t a good ball club the first year, but I had a lot of freshman to build with. Then that program in ’76 was our first conference championship and was a great ball club. It all started that year. I’ll always remember that first ball club.”

From 1973-86, he led the Cardinals to seven league championships and six NCAA appearances. In 1986, he was the youngest coach at the time to record 500 wins. A year later he went Salt Lake City to manage the Trappers, a minor league club of the Pioneer League.

“It wasn’t like a major league crowd, but if you put 10,000 people in a small ballpark, it’s the same type of atmosphere,” Gilligan said. “I really wanted to create that in Salt Lake, and we set a record for attendance. It was a great experience.”

The attendance record wasn’t the only milestone Gilligan’s team was surpassing. The Trappers are best known for their ’87 season when they broke a 68-year-old record for most consecutive wins — 29, and still stands.

“It takes some luck, but it takes a team that dominates and we certainly had that,” Gilligan said, reminiscing. “We averaged 10 runs a game.”

Gilligan said he attributed the 29 games, known as, “The Streak,” to simple preparation.

Lamar baseball coach Jim Gilligan, left, watches LU practice with his brother Dennis at Vincent-Beck Stadium, Tuesday.

Lamar baseball coach Jim Gilligan, left, watches LU practice with his brother Dennis at Vincent-Beck Stadium, Tuesday.

“What you have to do is teach guys how to run, how to hit, how to throw, how to field, and if you do that well you don’t have to give a lot of signals,” he said. “It’s not like football. That sport’s complicating to me, or basketball. There’s too many X’s and O’s. Baseball — there’s a right field, center field, left field — we all know where we’re to play. We’ll shift a little bit here and there.

“When game time comes, managing is, really, highly overrated. So, I didn’t want to risk giving too many signals. We averaged 10 runs a game. Why would I want to mess that up?”

Gilligan said that when he thinks of “The Streak,” he remembers how tough his group of guys were, mentioning there were a few stories he couldn’t repeat.

In 2012, the Trappers celebrated their 25th anniversary of the ’87 season at what is now known as Smith’s Ballpark. Gilligan reconnected with his old players at the celebration, and, even ran into an old co-owner of the team — Bill Murray.

“He told me, ‘If there was a back door to the Alamo, there would be no Beaumont’,” Gilligan said.

Over the years, Gilligan has gotten to know the ghostbuster on more personal level than fans of “Caddyshack.”

“I’ve played golf with Bill 10 —15 times, and that’s where he’s funny,” Gilligan said. “He’s just a fun guy. He hits it longer than I do, but of course he gets lessons every year. He is athletic, though, and a good baseball guy.”

A long way from Queens, the LU leader still has a love for sports and when he’s not on the diamond, he’s catching a round of golf.

“I don’t fish,” Gilligan said. “I don’t hunt. I play golf. I play with guys that I used to play baseball with and guys that have been supporters of my program.”

Gilligan said he doesn’t get too wrapped up in his skill, declaring his golf game as horrible.

“Like everybody else my age, I can’t putt,” he said. “I have fun with it. I’m not competitive with golf.”

Since the baseball man’s return to Lamar in ‘92, he’s helped the Cards to a Sun Belt Conference Championship in 1993. Then he won two more league crowns, three tournament championships and made five NCAA Regional appearances. Last year, he recorded his 1,300th victory as an NCAA coach, only the 18th person to do so.

Gilligan said every time he reaches a milestone he recalls all of his former players.

“The thing about a college career, is everyone’s asking you, ‘Who was your best? Who was your best?’” he said. “I don’t ever want to say, because there’s just so many kids that have run through this program that are phenomenal.”

Coach was inducted to the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, alongside Houston Astros Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. He also has his Trappers jersey in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, recognizing that ’87 season.

A longtime resident of Beaumont, Gilligan said that the city is home for him and his wife, LaVerne.

In 2010, the City of Beaumont renamed the street adjacent to Vincent-Beck Stadium Jim Gilligan Way.

“That’s pretty cool right there,” he said. “Not many people have a street named after them.”

After a 40-plus year career in baseball, Gilligan said he’s satisfied with all of his achievements, but there’s still one thing he’d like to see, and that’s an improved baseball program.

“I think we’ve had an opportunity to take baseball to another level,” he said. “Either we couldn’t afford it, or the emphasis was someplace else. So, if they want to honor me, give it to the next guy and let him take it to another level.”

Taking over the reins for the 2017 season is Will Davis, who comes from LSU where he was an assistant coach.

Passing the torch, Gilligan said he hopes the school can help Davis build up the program.

“There’s a new coach coming in that I’m very impressed with, and I think he could do it, but he’s going to need a little bit more money and a little bit of a facility to become a team like Rice,” he said. “Rice used to be an average ball club. Then, they put seven or eight million into that stadium — built one of the nicer ball parks in the country, and then it happened. So, that if you build it, they will come thing, sort of works in baseball.”

Now 69, Gilligan said it’s time to give the position to younger coach.

“When I first started recruiting here, I was closer age-wise to them,” he said. “So, you were a little closer, because you listen to the same damn music. Now all I’m saying is, ‘Get that rap stuff out of here.’ Can I get a better walk up song?”

In his final ride with the Cards, Gilligan has a lot of seniors returning this year, and said he could hardly describe what one last crown would feel like.

“I just hope we can take this thing further than any season we’ve taken before,” he said. “I don’t have words to describe how good that would be. I’m not that articulate.”

The six-time league coach of the year isn’t leaving baseball for good. This summer he’ll be working as the coordinator of pitching and league advisor to the Hamptons collegiate league.

Gilligan said he’ll stay involved with baseball, because he enjoys teaching the game. It just depends on how fun it is for him, he said.

“This summer is going to be fun — the Hamptons,” he said, smiling.

Grant Crawford

UP Editor

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