Remembering Steve Kittrell – From the Bird’s Nest
My history with South Alabama baseball began in 1995.
In the years prior to Tony Robichaux's arrival, Louisiana and South Alabama didn't play a conference series during the regular season. Sun Belt baseball was split into divisions back then and you only played games within your division, two series each, in order to save on travel. The Cajuns played Louisiana Tech, New Orleans, Lamar and Texas Pan-American, while the two Arkansas schools, USA, Western Kentucky and Jacksonville battled each other.
Now, I knew about the heated rivalry between the two schools while Mike Boulanger was there. I knew about the bad blood in the 1991 regional when the Cajuns eliminated the Jaguars in Baton Rouge. And, I knew about the full scale brawl in 1992 when the two played in a non conference series at the "Tigue."
And, I knew enough about the Jaguars to where I didn't like them. Or Steve Kittrell, their coach. He and Boulanger were not friends. And, their clubs flat out hated each another.
In 1995 the Jaguars swept the Cajuns in Lafayette, Robichaux's first season. The Cajuns were on probation and would not participate in the league tournament.
But it was the following year that I really started to feel the burn.
The Cajuns had an early conference series in Mobile. A cold front had come through and the weather was so bitterly cold the Friday night game was moved up to 1pm. The Cajuns lost 4-3 in 12 bone chilling innings. The next two games were 3-2 and 5-4. After the third and final game, the Jaguars celebrated, getting together and chanting "one run.....one run....one run."
For me...and I think, for Robe as well, it was on.
The Cajuns finally won a series the following year, snapping a 17-game losing streak dating back to that Baton Rouge regional. But the Jaguars won the league tournament at "Tigue" Moore to get a measure of payback.
During it all, I watched how Kittrell coached his team. I knew he was a protege of Eddie Stanky and I knew Stanky's reputation as a player and as a coach. There was a reason why he was called "The Brat."
And, in Kittrell's case, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.
Kittrell was as competitive as any coach I had ever come across in any sport. South Alabama won the championship game of the league tournament when the Jags' laid down a perfect bunt with a man on third and two outs in a scoreless game. He would use anything, and I mean anything, to motivate his team. I remember the series in Mobile in 1998. The Cajuns' Justin Hemme had homered in the Saturday game and looked into the Jags' dugout on his way to third base. Kittrell used it as motivation, challenging his players because Hemme had "stared" into the dugout. South Alabama came back to win the game and the "stare" was a big part of the story the next day.
I really didn't like that guy. Then again, I had never spoken to him.
My opinion changed over the next dozen years.
We had gone on the air with an all-sports station in and I invited the man to be on my radio show. He was more than gracious. We did about 15 minutes and he spoke highly of the Cajuns and Tony. He told me how much he feared Phil Devey (although he never got his name right, pronouncing it "Devvy".). I thought it was just coach speak. But, as the years went by, I got to know him well enough to where I knew he meant it.
And, I realized I had this guy pegged all wrong.
Between the lines, Kittrell was as fierce as competitor as there was. But when the game ended, it was over. As his relationship with Tony grew, it ceased to be personal. It was just baseball. The two had a deep respect for each other. And, it showed.
That didn't mean Kittrell ever got any less competitive. I remember a game where his team led, but the Cajuns were in the middle of a big rally. Kittrell then became...well...Kittrell. He came out and started an argument with an umpire. And, he wouldn't let it go. He went to every umpire, pleading his case. He stopped the game for more than ten minutes. And, the ploy worked. All the momentum was gone because of the delay. South Alabama won the game. Robe was furious afterward, not at Kittrell, but at the umpires for not recognizing what was going on.
By 2000, I realized my opinion of Kittrell had totally changed. The Cajuns, of course, went to Omaha that year. South Alabama had their worst season since the Cajuns had joined the league. The Cajuns were eliminated on the day of the championship by FIU, who would then face USA for the title. After doing my postgame interview, I went up to Kittrell and wished him luck...and, listening to the broadcast on the way home, I found myself rooting for the Jaguars.
And then asked God not to send me to Hell for it. South Alabama, after finishing fourth during the season, won the tournament.
As each year went by, I found myself looking forward to the series with South Alabama. Certainly the competition was part of it. But my chance to visit with Kittrell, both on air and in person, was a big part of it as well.
I learned he was a bit of a worry wart. His on field demeanor may have come across as cocky at times, but in reality, he was about as humble a man as you'll ever find. And, he was always wondering if his teams would be good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament...even if they were 38-10. And, he stressed before every single game, regardless of the opponent.
He also made me laugh at times. More than once Kittrell was tossed from a game. And, every time I asked him about it, his reply was the same: "I don't know why they threw me out," he would tell me. "I never use profanity."
Kevin Sytko, who played for the Jags and then served as their baseball sports information director, confirmed that about Kittrell. No matter how angry he was with umpires or with players, he didn't use bad language...ever. In fact, Sytko told me when they were on a bus trip and a movie came on, if Kittrell didn't like the language, the movie was shut off immediately. Sytko also told me a lot about how Kittrell ran his program and I realized he and Tony Robichaux had an awful lot in common. There was plenty of discipline...and plenty of talk about life after the game.
Sytko was also the third baseman in that (in)famous 2003 game when the Cajuns trailed by one run on the next to last day of the season. They needed two wins to tie South Alabama for the title. Louisiana had the bases loaded with one out and Corey Coles hit a soft liner over Sytko's head that scored the winning runs.
Except the umpire called it foul.
The soft-spoken Cajuns' assistant, John Szefc, now the head coach at Maryland, went berserk and was ejected. The argument went on but the call stood. Coles grounded into a double play on the next pitch to end the game and give USA the title.
Sytko told me after the game, Kittrell went running up to him wanting to know if it was fair or foul and demanded the truth. Sytko told him it was a foul ball. And, to this day, swears it was.
Which makes two people out of 2,500 who thought so. The umpire being the other.
By that time, I was pretty much ashamed of any animosity I had ever felt toward the coach. Not only had I developed a healthy respect for him as a coach, I genuinely liked him as a man. And, I looked forward to our chats during the season and at the conference tournaments.
The last few seasons, Kittrell's teams slipped a bit and he announced he would retire at the end of the 2011 season. The final time he came to the "Tigue" was a day I'll never forget. On that Sunday morning, I went down to the field. Kittrell was taking a walk in the outfield. I waited until he started to turn back toward his dugout and then approached him. He smiled and greeted me warmly.
I told him I was going to miss him. I told him how appreciative I was of his contributions to the game of college baseball and I believed the game was better because he had been a part of it. Ever humble, he thanked me and then said he wished he had done more.
That day, right after lineup cards were exchanged, Coach Kittrell was called back onto the field. The Cajuns coaching staff, knowing Kittrell loved to fish, presented him with a rod and reel. Even from the press box, I could see how moved he was. And, I learned afterward, the Cajuns were the only team to honor him that season. How incredibly fitting.
In 28 seasons at USA (1984-2011), Kittrell went 1,052-644-1 and led the school to 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, 14 Sun Belt Conference regular season and division titles, and eight league tournament championships. His Jag teams finished with a winning record 25 times during his tenure, collecting 40 or more wins on 14 occasions while advancing to within one game of a College World Series appearance on SIX different occasions. Kittrell was twice named the region coach of the year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, and was also a six-time Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year Award recipient. (Thanks to Charlie Nicholls at USA for the numbers.)
Kittrell coached Luis Gonzales, Mike Mordecai, Jon Leiber, Juan Pierre, David Freese and many other major leaguers.
Kittrell's career came to and end in the 2011 league tournament. I stayed until the game was over to applaud the man. And, as I did, I heard someone yell, "HEY KITTRELL!" It was Gus, a member of the Cajun Cooking Club. I could only imagine the times he had yelled at the coach over the years. Kittrell looked up.
Gus smiled and said, "Enjoy your retirement!!!" Kittrell smiled and waved and touched his cap.
Saturday at Eddie Stanky Field, Kittrell's jersey #3 is being retired. Selfishly I wish the University would have waited until next weekend to do the ceremony, but that's senior weekend and Kittrell would never want to take the spotlight away from the seniors that are going to be honored when the Cajuns go to Mobile.
But you can bet I'll walk out to center field and tip my cap to #3.
Thanks, Coach. We'll never forget the good times.
And, we still think it was a fair ball.