Hurricanes baseball coach Jim Morris reflects on beginnings, family

Baseball head coach Jim Morris signs posters and other memorabilia for fans during February’s Fan Fest held at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field to open the 2015 season. File Photo by Nick Gangemi
Baseball head coach Jim Morris signs posters and other memorabilia for fans during February’s Fan Fest held at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field to open the 2015 season. File Photo by Nick Gangemi
Baseball head coach Jim Morris signs posters and other memorabilia for fans during February’s Fan Fest held at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field to open the 2015 season. File Photo by Nick Gangemi

Count on Hurricanes baseball coach Jim Morris to wear two things on game day: the No. 3 that has become his namesake, and a relentless poker face.

I probably dont laugh as much as I should. I am serious all the timealways thinking about something, ways to get better,he said.

Morris’s deadpan expression signals his players to take the game as seriously as he does—but one VIP at the ballpark knows how to break him.

Watch Morris peer upward from the dugout. Above sits his three-year-old son. Morris cracks a smile for little Will, who blows bubbles into the Sunday afternoon air from the luxury box.

“Obviously [Morris] is our baseball coach, but he’s Will’s father first, so he’s always bringing him around,” infielder David Thompson said. “You can see how much he loves him and plays with him out here before practice starts.”

When Morris, 65, retires after three more seasons (he extended his contract for the final time last June), he’ll stop coaching the Hurricanes but continue coaching his son.

“I’m kind of reversing the way you start and end things,” Morris said.

Getting his start

Morris started things at age 8—his Little League career, that is. The team Morris first tried out for told him he was too little to play, but luckily for Morris, another coach spotted him playing catch.

It was for that coach’s Little League team that Morris first took the mound as a pitcher—a proud 8-year-old standing on the hill at night with the park lights on.

“I can remember just kind of looking around and going, ‘This is cool,’” he said.

Morris spent his schooldays playing all sorts of sports – football, basketball, baseball, even golf and track – but baseball proved the most promising.

“My favorite sport growing up was basketball because I grew up in Indiana and North Carolina, where basketball is huge, but my best sport was baseball,” he said.

Morris can thank his coach at Elon University for his more than four-decades-long baseball career. He talked Morris out of going into the Air Force right out of high school.

“That was right in the middle of the Vietnam War, which is absolutely crazy,” Morris said.

After two seasons with the Boston Red Sox organization, Morris quickly took up college coaching. He built DeKalb’s baseball program from scratch and transformed the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets into a competitive team.

Morris left Georgia Tech when the team was No. 1 in the country, motivated by then-Hurricanes coach Ron Fraser to come to Miami. Morris considers the legendary Fraser his inspiration.

“If it wouldn’t have been for him standing there saying, ‘I want you to come. You’re my guy,’ … then I never would have left Georgia Tech,” Morris said.

Coaching at Mark Light and at home

As a college coach, Morris works to develop his players both on and off the field, teaching them about discipline and accountability—skills that carry over.

Even though three quarters of his players go on to sign a professional contract, about 95 percent don’t end up making it, explained Morris. Accordingly, he tries to prepare his athletes for real life the way he prepares them for every game, much like he does with his son.

“All the things it takes to be special on the field, it also takes to be special off the field, to be successful in life,” he said. “That’s why, with my son, we do the same thing.”

Morris hopes three-year-old Will can learn life lessons from sports. Will, who is growing up in the ballpark, already has his own golf clubs, a baseball bat, and balls of all shapes and sizes.

“I just want him to play sports because I think you learn how to compete and about teamwork and … commitment,” Morris said about the rug rat who wakes him up a bit earlier than he’d like on his off-days.

Morris looks out for the best interests of his baseball players, too. He sits down with players to set goals, write them down, and figure out how to achieve them.

“Some of those guys keep the goal sheets forever,” he said.

During his freshman season with the Hurricanes, Thompson once met with Morris to ask what he could do to improve and get back in the lineup.

“He was really encouraging. Obviously he said he was playing the guys that were playing the best at the time, but he’s going to keep working with me and said he’d never give up on me,” Thomspon said.

Morris tries to set an example for his players with a firm attitude during each game.

When Im in the dugout, I need to be serious and under control, he said. If Im out of control, then the players are out of control. And if I am not excited, then the players arent excited. But youve got to show a way to be excited and in control.

Sometimes Morris also sets a subtle example by wearing his College World Series ring. (Hes won two with the Hurricanes.)

“It’s a reminder to the guys that don’t have one, so they know what it looks like,” he said.

Morris has coached the Hurricanes baseball team into the NCAA postseason every year that he’s been Miami’s head coach, but the team hasn’t been back to the College World Series in Omaha since 2008.

“He hasn’t gotten to where he wants to be in a few years, but that’s no knock on him as a coach,” said right fielder Willie Abreu, whose secret handshake routine with Morris precedes every game.

When he steps down from coaching the Hurricanes baseball team in 2018, Morris hopes to leave the program the way it was under Fraser.

“We have been in the top 25 every year since I’ve been here. We’ve been to the World Series 11 times. I would hope that we can continue that standard and go back to Omaha,” he said.

Pitching coach J.D. Arteaga, who also played for the Canes under Morris from 1994-1997, said the skipper has done this by treating every game like it’s the last.

“I played for him in Omaha, and I played for him in exhibition games against the Japanese national teams, and for him, it’s always the most important game, the biggest game of our lives,” Arteaga said. “That’s the way he expects us to approach every game—play like it’s your last one.”

Making big decisions

Morris says his most important ring – the one he wears every day – is from his wife, Nhan. He proposed to her at Alex Rodriguez Park on a Sunday afternoon when it was closed.

You want to go out on the field? Morris asked Nhan.

Morris then brought her to shortstop the position he played as a young athlete and got down on one knee.

She said yes, by the way,Morris quips, retelling the tale.

By the time he retires in 2018, Morris will have spent 45 years as a college coach, but only seven of them as Nhan’s husband and six as Will’s father.

If he is not still involved in baseball in some capacity, Morris envisions himself in the housing industry. He wanted to pursue architecture in college and loves watching real estate reality TV shows.

“I’ve drawn two houses and built them while I was a coach, and in the last 40 years, I’ve owned approximately 40 houses,” he said.

Morris has lived in close to 34 of those homes, but he always ends up flipping them.

“I went out Sundays to go to open houses and saw a house I liked better and bought it that day,” he said.

What’s that say about Morris, who’s willing to make changes so abruptly?

“I don’t have problems making decisions,” he said.

Whatever decision Morris makes after his retirement, he knows one thing for sure: No job will be more important than tossing a ball around with Will.