LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn is returning to the College World Series this weekend after a 30-year absence, hoping for one more win than the last time he was there.
|Photo by: Catherine Threlkeld|
The Tide and Longhorns were the only undefeated clubs when Texas won 6-4 in 10 innings in the winners bracket final (the format was different in 1983). Then they fought their way back to the finals, only to drop a 4-3 heartbreaker in the championship.
It would be an overstatement to say Dunn has obsessed about it for the past 30 years. It would also probably be an understatement to say he hasn't thought about it at all.
To be fair, this is only Dunn's third season as a collegiate coach, two at LSU and one at Vanderbilt, so it would have been difficult for him to have made it back. The rest of his coaching career was spent in the minor and major leagues, first with the Cubs and then the Orioles organizations, following a brief career as a minor league player. That career was cut short far too soon by elbow and shoulder problems.
Dunn reported to Alabama as a highly touted freshman in 1981, as both a third baseman and pitcher. He was competing at the positions with future major leaguer David Magadan. They roomed together as freshmen, with Magadan excelling as a strong contact hitter and Dunn as a barrel-chested power hitter. I saw balls come off his bat that looked like they were shot out of a cannon.
But when the coaching staff had the chance to see the thunderbolt of an arm that Dunn had, they decided to use him exclusively as a pitcher. The fact that he hit as high as 96 on the radar gun made it an easy choice for the Tide. These days, that speed is common, but in the early 80s, there were only a handful of college pitchers who threw that kind of gas.
The decision paid off that first year. Dunn had 62 strikeouts in 44-1/3 innings, setting a school record for Ks per 9 innings. The bright and promising career hit a major roadblock the following year, though, when Dunn blew out his elbow in only his second start. He was granted a medical redshirt before coming back and helping the '83 team to the CWS runner-up finish. Unfortunately, the elbow was never quite the same. He regained his velocity, but not his command of the strike zone.
His final start for Alabama in that '83 series painted a picture for the remainder of his playing days. Facing elimination, Dunn and Tide reliever Tim Meacham combined on a one-hit shutout against Bonds and Arizona State in a 6-0 win that put them in the finals. Dunn pitched that game on heart, with a stat line that showed what the elbow surgery had done to his command: 4.1 IP, 0 ER, 7 Ks, 8 BB, 102 pitches. Still, the effort moved them into the final game.
They lost the next day to the Longhorns.
Dunn didn't obsess about the loss. Despite his control problems, he was drafted that year in the 4th round by Detroit. He played in the minors for a few seasons, but the elbow didn't allow him to live up to what was once an incredibly promising playing career.
While the arm was never the same, the heart and desire never died. After finishing his degree, he coached a year at Vanderbilt, then became a scout for the Cubs in 1992. The following year, he began a 14-year career as a coach in the Cubs minor league system, eventually becoming the minor league pitching coordinator. In mid-2007, he took the job as the bullpen coach for the Baltimore Orioles big-league team, staying for 3 years before taking the job at LSU.
His tenure on the bayou has been nothing short of spectacular.
The year before he took the job, the Tigers team ERA was 4.13, they went 13-17 in the SEC, and failed to make the NCAA tournament. In Dunn's first season, he had the team ERA down to 3.25, and this year, they finished the regular season at 2.48, with none of the 12 pitchers on the staff registering an ERA over 3.90.
Also, the pitching staff's strikeouts are up and their walks are down year-over-year. They are recognized as probably the deepest staff of all the teams heading to Omaha, most of which can be credited to Dunn's tutelage.
Obviously Dunn won't be able to step on the mound this weekend and into next week's tournament to avenge the disappointment he felt 30 years ago. But make no mistake, if the Bengal Tigers walk away with the title, he will play a very big role in the celebration.