Hall of Fame baseball coach calls it a day at OU

Ohio head baseball coach Joe Carbone is pictured during the Bobcats’ game against West Virginia State on March 6.

As the sun set on a warm Tuesday evening, the Ohio Bobcats were looking to add to a 6-2 lead against Dayton in the bottom of the seventh inning at Bob Wren Stadium in Athens.

Senior right-fielder Jensen Painter, who crushed solo home runs in the second and fourth innings, was on first after drawing a walk. Lanky freshman outfielder Tyler Wells was on third.

Ohio head baseball coach Joe Carbone had a trick up his sleeve.

He signaled to Jensen, who ambled toward second immediately after the pitch was thrown. Dayton catcher Josh Jeffery took the bait.

He threw down to second base, giving Wells the green light to take off for him.

Upon realizing the error, Dayton's Jared Broughtman whipped the ball home but Wells' slide beat the tag. 7-2 Bobcats.

It was a play that showcased sound fundamentals, a staple of Carbone-coached teams for the last 24 years.

Those fundamentals were born in a small industrial and farming town in central Pennsylvania located less than one mile from the New York border. Elkland, Pa., thrived from the Elkland Leather Tannery, the largest leather tannery in the world. The company had contracts with the military to produce soles for boots, and every child's father seemed to work in the factory.

When Joe Carbone was around 6, his father rented a backhoe, circled a hayfield behind the house and dug out the sod. The field was all dirt with a home plate made out of 2' x 8' wooden boards. Pallets were pounded together for a backstop. Hitting the ball over a chicken wire fence was a home run.

"It was our little field of dreams," Carbone said recently in his office, which is lined with photographs of Bobcat greats.

Carbone took 100 swings everyday at that field, just like Ted Williams, with his three next-door neighbors taking cuts and shagging balls with him.

When he and his friends outgrew their homemade diamond, they took their talents to Elkland High School.

"Everyone played everything," said Carbone, still shy about accepting recognition for his accomplishments.

Basketball was his best sport, and he was pretty good at soccer, too. (Elkland did not have a football team.) But he always loved baseball the most.

In 1966, there were only two baseball camps in the country. One was the Ted Williams baseball camp in Massachusetts. The other was run by a trio of coaches in Chillicothe, Ohio. So when his neighbor asked him if he wanted to go, Carbone started mowing lawns to save up enough money to attend the Ohio camp.

Finally, he boarded a bus with his friend in Corning, Pa., and made the trek to the baseball camp.

The first night he arrived, the camp staff, which was made up of college students, took on a local Legion team. The Legion team featured a tall pitcher who had been selected in the MLB Draft the year before. The staff team was without a second baseman, so they grabbed Carbone.

He stepped in and surprised himself by getting a couple of hits off the soon-to-be major leaguer as a high school junior.

THE GAME CAPTURED the attention of the two main coaches running the camp, East Carolina University head coach Earl Smith and Ohio University coach Bob Wren.

"I thought I got special care the rest of the week," recalled Carbone.

When Wren first approached Carbone about visiting the university, Carbone committed the cardinal sin for Bobcats.

"You mean Ohio State?"

"No, I mean Ohio," Wren replied. "Ohio State is a bad word."

So the next year, Carbone agreed to visit Athens.

"I loved the campus and everything about it," Carbone said. "But I didn't think I could play baseball here."

The future MLB draftees on OU's squad intimidated the undersized utility man, but Wren persuaded him to accept the scholarship offer.

But even with a scholarship, Carbone's spot on the team was not guaranteed. He had to beat out around 140 players and nine second-basemen for a spot on the squad.

Armed with the confidence he gained at the baseball camp and knowledge of how important fundamentals were to Wren, Carbone earned a spot as the starting second baseman his sophomore year.

In 1969, he led the team with a .367 batting average. As a captain in 1970, he led a team that feature future MLB Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt to the College World Series. "The greatest team Ohio University has ever seen," Carbone said with a smile.

But only a few days before heading to Omaha, a wild pitch struck Carbone in the ankle. It hurt, but not badly enough to have it X-rayed. So he continued to play on it, but quickly realized that it might be worse than he thought. The X-ray confirmed his suspicion. His ankle was broken.

"Things were different (after the injury). You feel like you're half a second behind," Carbone said.

But the self-deprecating coach was quick to point out that the injury had nothing to do with his Major League dreams never being realized. That happened with a conversation at a bar.

After Carbone was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the draft's sixth round, he reported to their minor league team in Kingston, Tenn., then moved to another team in the Midwest League. He was being shuffled from position to position and knew he was overmatched at this level, but he had to hear it from someone else first.

So at a national baseball conference, he approached Royals minor league catching instructor Steve Korcheck.

"If you tell anyone I said this, I'll hunt you down and I'll shoot ya," Korcheck told him. "Our minor league managers all want you as their utility guy, but they just project you to go to AA or AAA. You're not big league material."

WITH THAT, CARBONE'S COACHING CAREER began. It was something he always knew he wanted to do after his playing days were over.

He received his master's degree in physical education at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., spent five years as an assistant coach for Toledo and another 10 years at Ohio State before being asked to apply for the head coaching job at Ohio.

"It never even entered my mind that someone could come and coach at the same place Coach Wren coached," Carbone said.

But using the tools that his mentor instilled in him, Carbone bested Wren. He will leave Ohio as the winningest coach in school history and the second winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history.

His 1997 squad finished 43-18, the best record in school history.

He has been at the school for 24 years, a remarkable feat considering the ever-increasing turnover rate in collegiate coaching ranks. Only 12.5 percent of collegiate baseball coaches have been with their teams at least 20 years and that figure drops to 4 percent for basketball and 2 percent for football.

And he had opportunities to leave. Carbone was offered head-coaching jobs at one Atlantic Coast Conference school and four jobs at Big Ten schools. But the timing was never right, and he and his family were comfortable in Athens.

But even though he will not return to the dugout at Bob Wren Stadium after this weekend's home finale against Miami, Carbone is not finished coaching. His departure from OU was based on ensuring his family was taken care of and being able to take advantage of the university buyouts offered last year.

He now plans to move to Columbus and call up his coaching compatriots and see if he can find the right fit as an assistant on a low-level minor league team, where he can still work on developing younger players with a hands-on approach.

But he is also going to take more time for himself to improve on his "infinity" golf handicap and bag a couple of eight-point bucks, something he has been doing since he was little.

"There's two places I love being — in a tree stand and in a third-base coaching box," Carbone said. "Because I'm there all by myself, doing what I want to do."

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