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Johnson: Coal City’s McDowell has a lot to be proud of

Published: Friday, April 25, 2014 9:47 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 25, 2014 9:50 p.m. CDT
(Craig Lincoln for Shaw Media)
Coal City head coach Jerry McDowell talks to the Coalers before their game against Sandwich in Coal City on April 23. McDowell earned his 1,000th career victory the following day.

Jerry McDowell isn’t the first baseball coach to win 1,000 games, but he certainly joined some select company. It almost is impossible to say just how select.

Per the IHSA website, nobody in Illinois history has 1,000 career prep wins. The all-time record holder is Dave Swisegood, who entered the year with 948. McDowell, of course, doesn’t have 1,000 high school wins, either; Coal City’s 14-1 defeat of Illiana Christian on Thursday was McDowell’s 474th prep win to go with the 526 games he’s won at the junior-high level.

Sixty managers have won 1,000 or more games in Major League Baseball history, but then their teams play 162 Before the early 1960s, they played 154). McDowell’s teams have played as few as 10 and no more than 38 games in any one season.

It’s safe to say that 1,000 is a number that hasn’t been reached often by coaches at any level. McDowell certainly never expected to get there when, fresh out of Eastern Illinois University, he went 2-8 during his first season as a head coach at Gardner Grade School in 1984.

That he has, McDowell says, is a credit to his players. It is a credit to his longtime assistants, Greg and Nate Wills. It is a credit to longtime Coal City athletic director John Cullick, who McDowell got to know early in his GGS days and who brought him to Coal City. And as much an anything, it is a credit to longevity. This is McDowell’s 50th season as a head coach between the two levels.

“One added advantage I’ve had in getting there is that I’ve coached two seasons for so many years,” McDowell said Friday. “Coal City is a small community, one that’s embraced athletics, and that’s been a great advantage. Being the coach both places, you get to know ’em as they come through junior high, and you’re able to bring them up through high school with the same techniques and fundamentals.”

The time required to coach two teams for long enough to get to 1,000 wins has come with some costs for McDowell, who also is a basketball referee in the winter.

“There’s been a great sacrifice from my wife and my family,” McDowell said. “You do get used to it, and there are breaks that come from the weather and things like that. But there is some sacrifice in that you don’t get to see some of your kids’ activities.”

McDowell has encountered some trying times on the field in the past couple of years as well. Last season’s Coalers went 12-16-1, ending their run of 17 straight winning seasons since he’d become their head coach. Thursday’s win made the 2014 Coalers 9-8 overall, though McDowell is encouraged by them playing what he says is their best game of the season against Illiana.

“We’ve been up and down and inconsistent,” McDowell said. “Our bats went silent [in a 4-1 loss to Sandwich Wednesday], and then we come out the next day with base hit after base hit after base hit. We scored 12 runs in the first two innings. It was day and night. Hopefully, we’re gonna come through more here as we move forward.”

It’s not all been bad for McDowell’s teams. His Coal City Middle School team won the state championship, the Warriors’ third under McDowell, in the fall of 2013.

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