Fire still burns for Lopez as UA marches on

Fire still burns for Lopez as UA marches on

Published Jun. 7, 2012 10:14 a.m. ET

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Now introducing ... coach Al Lopez.

Huh? Cue the double take.

But that’s how it was 20 years ago, when Andy Lopez was introduced at a pre-College World Series banquet, back then the coach of Pepperdine University’s baseball team.

"Talk about being humbled," said Lopez.

Two weeks later, anyone who didn’t know his name at the banquet surely knew it after Pepperdine won the national championship.

Now, two decades later, he’s in the middle of chasing title No. 2 with Arizona (40-17), where he’s finishing his 11th season and has his Wildcats rolling with a high-powered offense and an underrated pitching staff. Arizona faces St. John’s at Hi Corbett Field on Friday, Saturday and possibly Sunday in the best-of-three series. It’s UA’s first as host of a Super Regional for the right to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

It’s almost like déjà vu all over again for Lopez, whose Pepperdine Waves flew under the radar all the way to the national title. Arizona, despite its third consecutive NCAA appearance, is still looking for some respect.

Not that Lopez needs it, expects it or thrives on it. Yet his resume all but dictates it. His low-key, just-get-the-job-done approach might not have him in the limelight, but it is his way -- the right way.

"Dedication to fundamentals," he said of his philosophy.

Sure, fundamentals are boring -- you don’t see YouTube videos highlighting routine plays, after all -- but that’s Lopez. Get it done, get it right. Simple plays that eventually turn into more simple plays that eventually turn into victories.

The two-time national coach of the year has won 1,082 games, losing just 664. He’s one of only 11 active coaches with a national title and one of three coaches who have led three different schools to the College World Series.

At UA, he’s been a big deal since leading the Cats to the World Series in 2004, their first since 1986.

"Coach Lopez has been a tremendous coach and leader for Arizona baseball," said Greg Byrne, Arizona’s athletic director. "He and his staff have recruited extremely well in the always-challenging world of college baseball, where you don’t know if the young man you sign will show up on your campus or turn pro out of high school.

"He is a great coach and cares about the young men in his program athletically, academically and socially. After the many years of coaching, he still has a tremendous fire in his belly, and we hope he is our coach for many years to come."

At age 58, after 30 years of coaching, he still does have the fire.

Not bad for a guy who, as the son of Mexican descendants, never thought he’d get into coaching but instead planned to follow in the footsteps of his late father, Art, as a long shore man in southern California. But, to no surprise, he was good at coaching due to his strengths in teaching and leading.

Lopez is a big deal back home, too. He’s a hometown hero made good, particularly in the Hispanic world he grew up in.

"It’s humbling," Lopez said. "And amazing. I’ve been blessed."

As he looks back on his life and his successes, he said he’s grateful for everything -- all the hits, runs and, yes, errors.

And there have been errors. When he was younger and still finding himself like many young people in San Pedro, Calif., in the mid-1960, he was part of a group called the "Persuasions" that was not exactly a fun bunch. Not a gang, exactly, but "not a group wining Boy Scout merit badges either,” he said. A group of "punks” trying to act bigger than they were, he said. When he goes back -- and he goes back to see his mom, Connie, often -- he sees the aftermath of the "Persuasions," some of whom are no longer alive and able to do the same.

But had it not been for the grace of God, his grandmother’s prayers and a strong mom and dad, Lopez probably would have turned up "oh, I don’t know, either in jail or who knows how it turned out?"

He also became disenchanted after a good butt-kicking that assisted in turning his life around.

"I got the 'you know what' kicked out of me by five guys," he said. "The Persuasions didn’t come to defend me."

And that was that. He moved on.

Lopez "was introduced to school work" and became a stellar junior college player, eventually getting a scholarship to play at UCLA in the early 1970s. He became the starting shortstop there and eventually was a ninth-round draft pick.

Encouraged to stay in school and not go professional by his father, Lopez graduated, becoming the first in his family to get a college degree. His daughters have since gotten degrees, and his sons are headed in that direction.

But UCLA wasn’t always easy for the fish out of water.

"I just felt out of place, often saying, 'What am I doing here?'" he said. "But my dad said to hang in there and that I’d be fine."

He was. It was at UCLA that he befriended two basketball players named David Myers and Brad Holland, often spending time at the basketball team's practice watching the late, great John Wooden work his magic in practice. And it was there that he picked up some of the coaching techniques he uses today.

Lopez would later visit Wooden, who was then retired but still had an office at UCLA, and soak in the wisdom. Lopez said Wooden loved baseball.

"What a great man he was -- a kind and gentle spirit," Lopez said. "I’d go to practice and be in awe."

He added: "What I took away from him is that you prepare your team to practice. And that practice belongs to you (the coach), and the games belong to the players."

Lopez lives by that today. His practices are intense, but come game time, "I rarely have any antics and very rarely get involved, except for strategy."

Johnny Field said the main reason he came to Arizona was because of Lopez and his style.

"He’s a strong mental coach," Field said. "And he gets you prepared for more than just the game, but the game of life. He’s very special."

Part motivator, part program builder and part philosopher, Lopez has had more than 110 former players sign professional contracts, a number that should increase by at least five this summer. And as important as that is for recruiting, that’s just a bonus for Lopez. He’s had more than 30 ex-players reach the major leagues.

"I say this all the time (to the guys): You may not have a chance to be a big-league player, but you always have a chance to be a big-league human being," he said. "I don’t think you can be that without having some sort of strong mental toughness. These days it’s not easy being a father or making a living or being a good husband. Life is tough."

Lopez has made it look easy, even after overcoming the admitted obstacles of his youth.

He's lived his own philosophy of finding a way, thus one of his old-fashioned (but still applicable) sayings: "Somewhere in America."

"When we are working out and someone doesn’t make a play or doesn’t execute, I say, 'Somewhere in America,'" he said. "The guys at first kind of looked at me because they didn’t understand ... but it’s true.

"Somewhere in America, someone made that play. They were able to get it done. I’m looking for someone to make that play in Tucson, Arizona."

This weekend's Super Regional will be the test as to whether UA can get the job done and get back to the World Series for the second time since 2008 -- and maybe win a second title for Lopez 20 years after "Coach Al" led Pepperdine to an improbable national championship.

Destiny? Fate? All Lopez knows is "you can’t stop it. And that you have to work like a madman to get there -- and do the best to accept the results."