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Retirement causes Eckerd baseball coach to reflect on career

Josh Beauregard did not take the news well.

The former Eckerd College baseball player and current softball coach was driving to work in February when he got the email. After 24 years, Bill Mathews was stepping down as the Tritons' baseball coach at the end of the season.

"I was pretty mad at him,'' said Beauregard, who played at Eckerd from 1999-2003. "I kicked somebody out of his office, and I told him we need to have a chat. It was kind of a surprise to everybody. They kept it a pretty good secret.''

That's typical Mathews. No fanfare. No farewell tour. No big deal.

"I'm ready,'' he said. "People ask me if it's bittersweet. It's not. The timing is good to do what is best for the program. I'm a pretty humble guy. I don't think I'm irreplaceable. It's time.''

The Tritons play their last three-game series of the season Thursday and Friday at home against Florida Southern. Once Friday's doubleheader is complete, Mathews, 57, will take off the jersey for good.

He will not be leaving the south St. Petersburg campus, however. Mathews will remain as an athletic administration professor and an assistant director of athletics.

"I'm not going anywhere, I just won't be coaching baseball,'' he said.

Mathews' career record is 502-694. For much of his tenure he has had no scholarships to provide. Recently, he has been given two full scholarships to divide among his 34 players.

As a member of one of the toughest Division II baseball conferences in the country, the Sunshine State Conference, Eckerd always has struggled to keep up.

This year's team is 25-21, 9-12 in the SSC. The nine conference wins are the most for Eckerd since 2003.

"I went a couple of decades without (scholarships),'' Mathews said. "That's fine. I had to coach. That's the way it is here. We actually had to teach guys, coach guys. That's the thing I've cherished the most about this.''

'Dramatically average' player

Mathews came to St. Petersburg in 1975 from Newport, R.I. He was recruited to Eckerd by coach Bill Livesey, who left Brown University for the St. Petersburg sunshine.

Mathews was a member of the 1977 team that featured future MLB players Steve Balboni and Joe Lefebvre. That team played for the Division II national championship.

"I was a dramatically average player,'' Mathews said. "I was a 'B' Team guy who was a hard worker.''

By his junior year, Mathews was a player/coach. He remained an assistant at Eckerd until 1981, when he became head coach at Canterbury in St. Petersburg. In 1991, Mathews took over for John Mayotte and became the Tritons' 10th coach since the program started in 1963.

His first team won only 16 games, but it did feature future MLB pitcher Jim Mecir. In 1994, Mathews had his first winning season. His best season was in 1999, when the team was 30-23.

When Mathews arrived at Eckerd there were about 700 students and tuition was around $7,000 annually. Now the school has nearly 1,800 students and tuition is about $37,000 per year.

"We didn't even have outdoor plumbing at the original field,'' Mathews said. "We had to run across the street and through the little park and use the restroom in the library. It wasn't until 1996 that we built the new facility. The guys thought I was crazy to be celebrating the fact that there were showers. Indoor plumbing. Wow, we finally made it.''

While the win/loss record isn't sterling, Mathews' influence on the program goes beyond the playing field.

"He's one of those coaches who does everything the right way,'' said Jeff Bromley, who played at Eckerd from 2004-08 and is now the school's director of compliance and an executive assistant to athletic director Bob Fortosis. "He graduates his players and creates a good student-athlete experience. I'm a firm believer that anyone who plays for his program is better off for it.''

In perspective

Mathews earned his 500th career win on April 19 against Palm Beach Atlantic. He celebrated with the players, but it was all put in perspective the next day.

"There was a little piece in the Times on Sunday morning and it had something about Eckerd coach Bill Mathews wins 500th game and so on,'' he said. "If you notice a few inches above that, there was a note that Florida State coach Mike Martin won his 1,800th game. I'm going to be vain? That's a wonderful touch of humility.''

A gathering is planned after Friday's final game. Alumni and faculty and staff have been invited to attend, and Bromley expects a big turnout.

Mathews figures more than 500 players have come through the program since he took over. Many of those players are still in the area.

"I don't remember the years or the teams, but I remember the players,'' Mathews said. "It keeps you humble because you know the goal. The goal is that they graduate and become successful post baseball.''

Mathews will not be without baseball. He will still be involved with summer camps through the Tampa Bay Rays. He is the Rays official scorekeeper during the regular season. And he will remain a board member of the International Sports Group, which is responsible for coordinating baseball clinics worldwide.

Mathews said it won't be easy giving up his head coaching duties, but he is not looking back.

"When I make a decision I like to think I make them for the right reasons,'' Mathews said. "And I couldn't have done any of this without my wife, Karen. It's going to be emotional because this is a good team we have this year. They are going to be a very good team in the years to come. I just can't wait to see how good they are going to be.''

Retirement causes Eckerd baseball coach to reflect on career 04/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:05am]

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