Jack Leggett imagined how it would end at Clemson, with a tip of the cap and a wave to the crowd, thanks for the memories.
It didn’t, and that probably pains him, because after 24 seasons, 22 as head baseball coach, Clemson owed him more than an unceremonious dismissal.
Leggett would not complain Friday when he met with a handful of reporters before leaving with his wife on an unplanned vacation, but there’s sufficient reason for him to wonder how his Hall of Fame career took this ugly turn.
“There is a little bit of disappointment on how it ended,” he said. “There is a lot of pride in what we have done, with a lot of positive feedback. Those emotions are running back and forth. It has been an emotional roller coaster the last six days.”
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Only a handful of coaches in college baseball have a richer resume. Though the record dipped the past three seasons, his teams never lost more games than they won, and this season – for the 21st time – returned to the NCAA Tournament.
By most any standard, Leggett was at the top of the profession, and early last year he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Leggett said he regretted nothing, and that what meant more to him than any of the nearly 1,000 victories at Clemson were the people he met along the way – most importantly, the players and former players, staff, colleagues and fans.
He was proudest of doing it “the right way,” without a shred of scandal. His players were students first, and they played with a passion that emulated their coach. Clemson teams were entertaining, and he helped prepare a number of players for successful professional careers. Many of the men he mentored have gone on to extraordinarily successful careers, including two with teams in this year’s College World Series.
And the fans embraced it all, investing their passion and support for a program considered to be one of the best in the nation. A survey released Friday pegged Clemson as the seventh most successful program in the country over the past decade.
So imagine stomaching the fact that the next guy may benefit from Leggett’s sweat equity. Doug Kingsmore’s name may be on the stadium, but Jack Leggett had a hand in building it, from the grass and configuration of the field to the Cajun Café, to the floors and furniture in the new $9 million operations facility.
Leggett wishes Clemson baseball good fortune because of his personal investment in the program and the fact that he recruited many of the players that will comprise the 2016 team. If he allowed his heart to break, it would be because his team knew what he’d been facing since an acrimonious meeting with athletics administrators the previous year and felt responsible for the outcome, but there was probably nothing more to be done.
In the days following the announcement of his dismissal, Leggett worked through his emotions by fielding hundreds of calls, texts and email messages. A public statement released by Clemson didn’t seem sufficient, which was why he was willing to agree to more fully explain himself, to offer extended thanks and to answer questions about his future.
A driven competitor, he lived for the game. If his team won, he started thinking about the next game. After a loss he worried about what he might have done differently to win. Sleep often eluded him, and he joked about those “pillow-pounders.” Even after a good run in Omaha, he would fret over what it would take to finish the next time. The morning after a run to the semifinals in 2010, he was back on the field in Clemson tutoring campers.
Now, the 61-year-old doesn’t know if there will be a next time.
“What do you do next? Where do you fill that energy gap? Where do you fill that passion gap? That everyday work ethic gap, where do you fill that? That is the only question mark in my mind. How do I figure that out?”
Popular among his coaching colleagues at Clemson, he hoped to again feel inconspicuous walking into Death Valley or Littlejohn, places he dearly loves to watch teams he deeply respects. Leggett and his wife have a home nearby on the lake, and in the immediate aftermath they don’t intend to abandon the community or the school.
Yet, knowing him, it’s hard to imagine Jack Leggett not long from the field, plotting to kick another opponent’s butt.
“I need some recovery time, and we will see where it goes,” he said. “I always want Clemson to be successful. I always want good things for the university.
“I want good things to happen. I will never say anything different than that.”