By David Villavicencio
As Morris answered the phone, he heard the voice of Mike Gustafson, President and CEO of the College Baseball Foundation, and there was good news being delivered.
Morris was voted into the 2020 induction class of the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s something to be included among all the great coaches as a Hall of Famer and I’m so deeply honored,” Morris said. “It was a long journey filled with a lot of games, but I’m honored to be in this position today. I couldn’t have done it without the help of so many people, from players and coaches to administrators and, of course, my family. I’m just very excited about being part of this illustrious crowd.”
Morris – along with former MLB star Jason Varitek, who played for Morris at Georgia Tech, and National Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor – headlines a group of 12 legends who make up the Class of 2020, which will be inducted as a part of a virtual College Baseball Night of Champions ceremony later this month.
“There is perhaps no more fitting honor for Coach Morris than to be named a member of the National College Baseball Hall of Fame,” Miami director of athletics Blake James said. “Coach is college baseball. Over more than five decades in the game, he established a standard of excellence and impacted programs, coaches and players across the nation. While coach Morris is synonymous with the University of Miami for his success on the field, he was so much more than that to our University. On behalf of the entire UM family, I congratulate Coach, his wife, Nhan, and their family on this well-deserved honor.”
Known as “3,” Morris is one of the most successful head coaches in college baseball history, with 1,594 career victories as a Division I skipper. The three-time national coach of the year and 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year retired as one of only 12 coaches from all levels of college baseball with over 1,500 wins.
In 25 seasons at Miami, Morris won 1,090 games, made the NCAA postseason in 23 straight years, reached the College World Series 13 times and won national championships in 1999 and 2001, as well as claimed the ACC regular season title in 2008, 2014 and 2016.
Morris guided the Hurricanes to the CWS in each of his first six years at UM, setting an NCAA record. In addition, Morris won 17 of 23 NCAA Regional appearances at UM, including a record 13 straight to start his tenure in Coral Gables. He made a remarkable 32 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 1985 to 2016, including his time at Georgia Tech.
“I want to thank my family,” Morris said. “I am so thankful for their love and support. It was a burden on me, and I know it was a burden on them, just the amount of time that you spend away from home to be a college coach. But they were always there for me and always supported me and I am very appreciative of that.”
Morris directed the Hurricanes to a 1,090-472-3 (.696) mark since arriving in 1994. Including his 12 seasons at Georgia Tech (1982-93), Morris forged a 1,590-715-4 (.689) Division I record in 37 years as a head coach. Overall, Morris was the head coach at the collegiate level for 41 seasons, spending the first four at DeKalb (Ga.) Community College from 1976-79, and registered a 1,721-754-4 (.694) overall ledger.
“I was very lucky to be given an opportunity at a very young age to be put in a position where I was the head coach of a junior college. At the time, I didn’t even realize how fortunate I was to be put in that position where I had a chance to win,” Morris said. “And then at Georgia Tech it was the same thing with Dr. Homer Rice who hired me at Georgia Tech. They had never won really to any big degree and he trusted me to help them do that.
“People don’t necessarily know this about Dr. Rice because he was a head football coach in the NFL and an athletic director, but as a player professionally, he was a catcher with the Dodgers, so he understood the game,” Morris continued. “He asked me a lot of questions about the program and the questions he asked me, he knew the answers to. He just wanted to see if I knew the answers. I was very lucky that I knew them and was given the opportunity at Georgia Tech with a great product to sell. And I felt very confident that we could win at Tech.”
Win is exactly what Morris did for the Yellow Jackets, transforming a perennial ACC bottom-dweller into a national powerhouse. In his 12 seasons at Georgia Tech, Morris won over 500 games and was a three-time ACC Coach of the Year. But an opportunity presented itself in 1994 that Morris had to consider.
“In junior college, I started a program. And at Georgia Tech we were at the bottom of the ACC and we turned it around. Both programs, when I left, were number one in the country,” Morris said. “And then to get a job like Miami, which I felt was the premier job in the country, was great. I was very lucky that [then-Miami athletic director] Paul Dee and coach [Ron] Fraser both called me up related to the job. But things at Miami were much, much different than what I started with in junior college and at Georgia Tech, because of the fact that at Miami you’re not expected to lose and they’d already proven they could win.”
The expectations were clear from the moment Morris arrived in Miami for his initial job interview. Morris, who had built Georgia Tech into the nation’s top-ranked team, noticed a peculiar doorstop by the bathroom door: the national runner-up trophy.
“Paul Dee told me that he would do anything to help me win and that anything I needed, he would help me get it to win. I was his first hire and I knew that I had his complete support,” Morris said. “And then with coach Fraser, I made sure that I was his pick for the job or I wasn’t leaving Georgia Tech. I wanted his blessing because Georgia Tech had offered me a lifetime contract to stay and they were ranked number one in the country at the time. I actually flew down here and met on my own with coach Fraser to make sure I understood that he was with me and that I was the person he wanted. Those two people were big influences in me taking the job here and giving me the opportunity to do all the things we accomplished. Without their support and commitment to the program, it’s pretty hard to win.”
Fortunately for the Canes, Morris won a lot and there are so many great memories that he still cherishes today.
“I’ll never forget my first win at Miami that took us to Omaha and Danny Graves throwing the last pitch to get us to Omaha,” Morris said. “And, of course, in ’99 when we finally won a championship and watching Mike Neu, who pitched in the big leagues, throw that last pitch and we won against Florida State to win the national championship.”
“He said coming to Miami was the best decision he ever made in his career, and it’d be hard to disagree with that,” said current Miami head coach Gino DiMare, who was hired by Morris prior to the 1999 season. “He went to Omaha in his first six years here and won his first championship in that sixth year and then won another one in 2001. And he could have won three championships if not for that heartbreaking loss in ’96 to LSU. I don’t even know how you deal with that and how that affects you. People have no idea as a head coach losing on the last pitch and you have one out to go, you have no idea how that can affect you. But he was able to bounce back and win it three years later and then win it again a couple years after that.”
In his 25-season tenure at Miami, no program qualified for the College World Series as much as Morris and his Hurricanes. Miami made it to Omaha in 13 of Morris’ 25 seasons in Coral Gables – including most recently in 2016, when Miami was awarded the No. 3 national seed for the NCAA postseason.
“I remember him coming in and right off the bat saying, ‘I’m just going to sit back and watch you guys practice and learn the way you do things.’ That’s big, especially for a guy coming from a program that earlier that same week was named number one in the country,” said former Miami standout J.D. Arteaga, who played for Morris from 1994-97. “For him to be willing to come in and kind of just sit back and do some things our way and then eventually adding to it and really raising the level of the program from a very high level already with what coach Fraser established to an even higher one with the ability to combine both ways, that tells you a lot about him as a person.”
But Morris does not take complete credit for all of his success. While he was the man in charge, he knows he could not have won so much without his players.
“I had so many great players to be honest with you, whether it was at Georgia Tech with Varitek and Nomar [Garciaparra] and many other great players there and then being at Miami with the many, many great players we had here,” Morris said. “I think you’ve got to start with Pat Burrell, who I think is probably the best hitter I’ve ever seen in college, but I was fortunate to have had so many great players from Ryan Braun, who was the National League Rookie of the Year and an MVP, to guys like Danny Graves, who was an All-Star. We had so many guys who went on to be All-Stars and we had guys who have won World Series and there are so many All-Americans. There are so many great players that it’s hard to not name 100 guys, to be honest. I am thankful for all of my players because without those guys, you don’t win.”
Morris’ players are just as grateful for the opportunity to play for him and learn from him.
“Coach Morris – he’s a winner and he’s a perfectionist. The guys trusted him,” All-American shortstop Javy Rodriguez said. “I remember the way he ran things in practice. We didn’t stop until we got it right. And if he felt it was needed, it would be on the practice schedule again the next day.
“The way we practiced is the way we played and that’s what created so many winning seasons and championships for so many programs. He was always looking to perfect the system he had and his plan is what got him into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.”
“I tell everybody I learned to play the game of baseball from coach Morris. From structure and preparation to accountability, I learned it from “3” and I use it everyday,” said former infielder Paco Figueroa, who is now the first base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies. “He was a great teacher. He taught not only baseball, he taught the game of life. Those are the things that carry on and Coach Morris’ players have been successful in baseball, in business, in life and with their families.”
“’3’ epitomized what a true leader and first-class head coach at the college level should be and has been at the University of Miami following the great Ron Fraser,” said 1999 national champion pitcher Alex Santos. “And we shouldn’t forget that prior to Miami, coach Morris also built a great program at Georgia Tech. “3” knew what it meant to follow in coach Fraser’s footsteps. He was always honored to be part of the Miami baseball program and he emphasized what it meant to be a Miami Hurricane. He really drove it home for us: The legacy and tradition, and how important it was to carry the torch not only for those who came before us, but for those who would come after us.”
Morris was not a one-man show leading these players to victory. The legendary head coach credits his staff, especially a pair of Miami players turned coaches, for helping steer the program down a successful path.
“I want to thank all of my coaches over the years. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have outstanding assistant coaches,” Morris said. “One of the hardest things to do is to hire people. At Miami, I tried to hire people that were part of the University of Miami already. Whether it was Gino or J.D. — who have been there for like 20 years — or some of the other coaches I hired, I tried to make sure they were connected to Miami and understood what Miami was all about.
“I was very fortunate that I hired really good people because without good assistant coaches, you’re not going to win,” Morris continued. “I was fortunate to have a bunch of coaches that were committed to doing the best. I tried to hire guys that I thought were going to be successful and understood what it took to win. With guys like Gino and J.D., they were part of the program as a player at Miami, which I feel helped them understand the situation. I also tried to hire people that I thought would be loyal to me and I was very fortunate with those two guys in Gino and J.D., especially.”
DiMare, who played for Fraser from 1989-92, got into coaching following the conclusion of his professional career in 1996. But it was Morris who gave DiMare his first college coaching opportunity in 1997, making the former UM standout outfielder the Canes’ volunteer coach in charge of outfielders and base running.
“My first recollection of him was just how organized he was and how detailed he was and how everything we did was all prepared,” DiMare said. “We would talk about how we did practices and even games and writing lineups, just going over a lineup. He was always very organized. He would meet with his pitching coaches every day and was always talking about the pitchers on game day and knowing how we’re going to handle the pitching situation. And then with me, he took my input in terms of the hitters in the lineup and he was just very detailed and very organized.”
Morris, who started his coaching career in his mid-twenties, groomed the young DiMare over his three seasons as a volunteer coach. Then, in the summer of 1999, the veteran Morris gave his young pupil a crash course on recruiting and player evaluation before promoting DiMare to a full-time position on Miami’s staff.
“My first summer out recruiting when he hired me, I spent the entire summer with him prior to him hiring me. That was the longest interview in the history of interviews because I spent the entire summer with him in 1999,” DiMare said. “We traveled around the country and at the end of the summer, he hired me. But in June, July and August, him and I roomed together in a hotel and just hit every place that we could hit. I learned, in terms of recruiting, what it takes to recruit and getting up at six and seven in the morning and being out until 10, 11 or 12 o’clock at night recruiting and then doing it every day, over and over and over. I learned in terms of how to grade players out through him.
“What I take away from him was how he was always just very, very balanced in terms of his demeanor with the team,” DiMare added. “He was always very even keeled. He never got too high and he never got too low. He always handled himself very, very professionally.”
Arteaga, who helped pitch Morris’ first four Miami squads to College World Series appearances, also received an opportunity to coach at a young age. In 2003, Morris named Arteaga the Hurricanes’ next pitching coach and the legendary southpaw has been tutoring Hurricane hurlers ever since.
“For a guy like me, I could not be more thankful that he gave me the opportunity to play first and then the opportunity to be a coach and that allows me to provide financially for my family,” Arteaga said.
While Morris won early and often over more than four decades as a head coach, he did not want the success of his career to be measured solely by wins and losses on the baseball diamond.
“I’ve always been committed to academics along with baseball,” Morris said. “I found out very early in my career that the most important thing for 95 percent of these guys is the academics. That’s what was going to take them all to be successful in the rest of their lives. So, whether I was a junior college coach or a coach at the University of Miami, I made sure my guys went to class and they studied and they did what they were supposed to be doing.
“I won’t say every one of them graduated because some didn’t, like a Pat Burrell that was the number one pick in the draft and made millions and he didn’t come back and finish or Kevin Brown that was the first guy to sign for 100 million dollars or Ryan Braun who was a great student at Miami,” Morris continued. “The only thing I asked of the guys was to give me their best effort in the classroom along with being the best player they can be and to look out for each other. Every year in my first speech to the players, I would tell them I was going to have their back, and vice versa; I wanted them to have my back and let’s work together.”
“Maybe the best compliment I can give him is how much importance he emphasized to the players on education,” DiMare said. “We always talk about wins and losses because that dictates our careers, but he spent so much time talking to players about school and doing the right things. It is about the education and getting their degrees, but it’s even more about just being disciplined as a person, getting up and going to class, doing the things you’re supposed to do right when they ask you to do it. He made sure to emphasize all those things that were very important in the player’s life.”
With his induction, Morris becomes the sixth Miami Hurricane to gain enshrinement in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, joining former head coach Ron Fraser (Class of 2006), former assistant coach Skip Bertman (2006), left-hander pitcher Neal Heaton (2008), right-handed pitcher Alex Fernandez (2014) and outfielder Mike Fiore (2014).
“Jim’s impact on college baseball has been monumental, not just at UM, but at Georgia Tech,” Fiore said. “His style of play and his ability to not only win baseball games, but to win off the field, is exceptional.
“Speaking from the UM standpoint, he enhanced the legacy of college coaching through what he did at Miami,” Fiore added. “And he enhanced the legacy of what coach Fraser did at Miami, as well as the many great players that played at the University of Miami.”
Morris, who was inducted into the UM Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, is satisfied of what he accomplished as a head coach and the impact he made on the game he loves so much. But, maybe most importantly, the Lexington, N.C., native is proud of how he achieved all of his success in college baseball.
“I am very fortunate that I was a Hall of Famer at Georgia Tech and Miami and that’s something that I’ve always been very proud of, but this is a special thing,” Morris said. “I don’t want to say it’s more special, because there is nothing more special than being a Hall of Famer at Miami or Georgia Tech, but now being part of this group of coaches that have done what they’ve done nationwide is a great honor. I’ve been retired two years and am starting on my third year of retirement and it’s nice to look back and say we did things the right away and did the best we could.”