Feb. 3, 2012

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The Jimmy Buffett of College Baseball

By Phil Stanton

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

Phil@collegebaseballinsider.com @RoadToOmaha


How do you become a Division I head coach at the age of 24? It might be impossible today, but it happened to Billy Brown in the fall of 1981.


After playing for two seasons at George Mason in 1978 and 1979, he became an assistant for two years for the Patriots under former big league pitcher Walt Masterson.


“I’ll never forget the day,” Brown said. “We’re sitting there talking and Walt stood up and said ‘I’m going home.’ And I said ‘OK, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And he said ‘No, I’m not coming back.’ If you knew Walt, you knew that was it. He was done. He got in his green truck and went back down to Culpeper and never came back.


“In reality, I was probably one of the least qualified guys around but even the best high school coaches wouldn’t have taken it. The job didn’t have any benefits. We had two scholarships. The job was only for somebody who was willing to literally be a part-time guy. You had to be a young kid.”


That young kid has not left. Brown enters his 31st season as the head coach at George Mason. He joins Stanford’s Mark Marquess (35), Wichita State’s Gene Stephenson (34), Florida State’s Mike Martin (32), Stetson’s Pete Dunn (32) and Minnesota’s John Anderson (30) as coaches who have spent their entire career at one Division I school for at 30 years. (Tony Rossi has spent 41 years as the head coach at Siena, part of that time in Division II.)


Brown has piled up 844 victories and his teams have advanced to six NCAA Regionals, going twice in each decade (’85, ’88, ’92, ’93, ’04, ’09).


He has been in the Colonial Athletic Association for its entire existence. Actually, his first NCAA appearance in 1985 was the year prior to the formation of the CAA. That season, the Patriots won the ECAC South Tournament in Greenville, N.C.


“That tournament was wild,” Brown said. “I’ll never forget the opening game of the tournament. We’re playing ECU in the evening. One minute the lights blow out and we’re sitting there, sitting there. We play another few innings and a thunderstorm comes through and the game ends up being suspended.


“The guy we had pitching for us, and you would never think of doing things like this today, was a guy named Dan Atcheson. We come back in the morning and we’re going to resume the game. He looks at me and says ‘I’m good. I got it.’ And he finishes the game the next day and wins its. Unbelievable. We ended up having three complete games, never went to the bullpen, and won the tournament.”


Brown is a native of Northern Virginia and attended George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church. He was influenced by baseball coach Jimmy Miller and by football coach Ed Henry, a name made famous by the movie Remember the Titans. Brown played at the University of Georgia for one year before transferring to Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md. He played there for Steve Bazarnic, who is still the head coach to this day.


“I really fell back in love with baseball again playing for Steve,” Brown said, “and propelled me to get into coaching and finish at Mason.”


Nick Giaquinto, in his 24th season as head coach at Sacred Heart, worked with Brown during the 1987 and 1988 seasons. He played four seasons in the NFL before turning to baseball.


“I knew I was going to be a coach,” Giaquinto said, “and I always thought I’d be a football coach. Somewhere around the end of my career I decided that I wanted to shift gears totally. I had my degree in education so I went to George Mason for my master’s. That’s when I approached Billy and asked him if he could use some help and he graciously accepted. It was a great learning experience. He does a heck of a job with that program.


“It was very organized. When I became the head coach the year after I left him, I used a lot of his practice plans as far as organization. He was very professional the way he communicated with the players. The guys liked him a lot. It was a good experience all around.”


Shawn Stiffler, pitching coach at VCU, was both a player (1998-2001) and assistant coach (2002-06) at Mason under Brown.


“He’s certainly a player’s coach,” Stiffler said. “He makes you feel pretty comfortable and at ease. At the same time, you always know that he’s in charge. As a player, he allows for your personal growth both on the field and off.


“This is one of the reasons I went to George Mason: he talks to you like a man, regardless if you just got done winning a good game on Friday night or you got in trouble. You sit down in his office and he talks to you like a man and holds you accountable like a man. You always know where you stand.”


Stiffler saw that Brown could make the players relax and slow down the game.


“He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen at making the game simple,” Stiffler said. “He really had an ability to break the game down to thirds, innings, outs and pitches.”


According to Stiffler, Brown was not only a player’s coach, but also a coach’s coach.


“I joined his staff when I was 22 years old,” Stiffler said. “He made me feel like I had a say. In terms of pitching, I was going to be in charge of it. If I needed help I would go to him. He let you go out and he let you work. The great thing about him, he would allow me to make mistakes but he would take responsibility for those mistakes. When you leave there coaching for Bill Brown, three or four years, you can leave there and you have a pretty good identity as a coach.”


After 30 years, what differences does Brown see in college baseball?


“One of the things that I see is how dedicated the kids are now,” Brown said. “They go at it constantly, year round. In the past, that wasn’t always the case. It was more of an old-school thinking, you took the winter off, didn’t do much. That’s not reality with these guys anymore.


“The other thing that’s changed is terms of playing is that back in the 80’s, we were playing 35 games in the fall and another 60-plus in the springtime so we were playing all the time. That’s all we did, we just played. But all we did was coach. There weren’t all the things we have to do now administratively. It was easy. I worked on the field and coached. That’s what I did.”


The Patriots struggled to a 21-32-1 mark in 2011, but Brown is upbeat about this season. Mason has rarely had back-to-back losing seasons under Brown.


“We’re excited about where we are,” Brown said. “Last year was not a good year for us. It was a tough year, but we’re excited about where we are and the kids in our program. We’re very optimistic.”


The laid-back Brown keeps it going, even after 30 years.


“He is truthfully one of the funniest men I’ve ever met,” Stiffler said. “If there is a Jimmy Buffett of college baseball, it’s Billy Brown.”


(photos courtesy of George Mason Media Relations Office)