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30 March 2007

The team that Mo’ built

With the sun beating down on the grass, Jim Morris stands as if leaning on the rail of his front porch-at home.

His native soil is the kind that will stick to a player’s cleat and toughens the sole, akin to his 14-year influence as the baseball head coach at the University of Miami.

His life is baseball. His team is the Hurricanes.

The clank of aluminum connecting with baseballs, the thump of that familiar leather sphere nestling in the glove are like the sounds of nature.

Players sit chatting on the bench as the MetroRail rattles down the track only a few dozen yards behind the dugout while Morris gazes out on to his shining diamond.

But this is merely a recent image of baseball. His oldest recollection of this world goes back to his childhood, growing up in central North Carolina-the same mill town where his parents went to school.

His parents both grew up in North Carolina, attending Lexington Senior High together and marrying young.

Morris’ mom worked at the mill, making money to put his dad through college. Then, they swapped roles, with his dad working first as an adjuster for a trucking firm and then for an insurance company, to put his mom through school.

Born Feb. 20, 1950 in Lexington, James W. Morris III and his dad had a relationship that was all about sports.

Morris was motivated at young age to do well in school so he could play. It kept him busy. It kept him out of trouble.

On the mound or on second base, Morris remembers playing under the lights in the Jaycees, or Junior Chamber, little league-and also that the other team across town told him he was too little to play.

Morris’ life, one could say, began at a YMCA field on the other side of the train tracks after another coach let him compete.

“Normally when you’re young, you’re playing it just to play it,” Morris said, “but it ended up being my whole life.”

Although a minor league team made its home in Lexington, they could not compare to the always-enchanting New York Yankees, Morris’ favorite childhood team.

Ironically, as he pursued his passion, Morris ended up playing in the Boston Red Sox minor league system for two years and later naming his dog Fenway.

After graduating from Ben L. Smith High School in Greensboro, N.C., Morris attended Brevard Junior College before enrolling in Elon University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Health and Physical Education. He went on to earn his Master’s of Education degree in Health and Physical Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., leaving grad school with a 3.9 grade point average.

While coaching at DeKalb College from 1976 to ’79, his first head coaching job, he even worked on a Ph.D. from 1976 to ’78 at the University of Georgia.

“I’m never going to finish it. I need my dissertation and I’m not going to do it. I hate English and I hate writing. I’m a math oriented guy; I’m a stats guy. I’m not a writer,” he said, adding facetiously, “I can add and subtract, but I can’t write a complete sentence.”

At one point, he said he felt a doctorate would help, but changed his mind.

“There’s no reason, I’m a coach,” he said. “I don’t want to be called ‘Dr. Morris,’ I want to be called ‘Coach Morris.’”

And he would be, first as an assistant at Appalachian State in 1975 before leading DeKalb for four seasons.

Morris later made a name for himself at Georgia Tech, where he went 504-244-1 in 11 years, a .624 record.

In his career, which spans four decades, Morris has knocked on the College World Series door more than any of his peers and has won 1,240 games, or 71 percent, prior to this season. In fourteen seasons at Miami, 1994 to 2006, he has gone 605-221-3 and won two national championship titles, in 1999 and 2001.

“Jim Morris is one of the finest people we’ve attracted to the University of Miami,” said Athletic Director Paul Dee, who hired Morris in 1993. “He’s just a phenomenal coach.”

But Morris, who wears number three, has not chalked up that many wins by being an “in-your-face” kind of coach.

“I think I’m a guy who hollers when he has to holler, but not very often,” Morris said, explaining he tries to deal with players individually. He added, “My assistant coaches, in the past, have accused me of not hollering enough.”

Jorge de Cespedes, one of Morris’ closest friends, noted how Morris’ reserved nature comes into play.

“A very important part of his success as a coach is that he’s a guy that comes across quietly with a big stick,” de Cespedes said.

The coach also said that his personality is sometimes misinterpreted during games.

“I’m probably not as calm as they think I am during the game,” he said. “Everybody goes, ‘Jeez, I can’t believe in the game you look like you’re just so calm.’ What they don’t understand is that inside you’re grinding away [inside].”

James Klotz, who has known Morris for a decade, offered insight in to who Morris is.

“He’s a man of character,” Klotz said. “He’s wonderful with the kids and his players. He’s an educator and baseball coach, but first he’s an exceptional man.

“He’s the kind of man you would tell your son to emulate.”

Real estate is one passion of Morris’ that many may not be familiar with, specifically that he estimates owning 33 houses in the past 30 years. He noted that he planned to be an architect when he first went to college.

“I’ve drawn a house and built a house and designed a house and I enjoy [it]. On Sunday afternoon, I’d rather to go open houses than play golf, so I really enjoy that aspect.”

Learning and improving as a coach are also important to Morris.

“Any time I can be around good coaches or read books on guys that have won, whether it be Jimmy Johnson or Pat Riley or anybody, then I’m going to read their book and see if there’s anything I can gain from that,” he said.

But, when it comes down to it, there is only one thing that truly defines Jim Morris-something that gives him dreams and nightmares.

“My life is baseball, basically,” he said, “and I enjoy it very much.”

Greg Linch may be contacted at g.linch@umiami.edu.