To understand the true meaning of that coaching cliché "building a program" let your fingers do some walking through the yellowed cards in Jim Dietz's Rolodex. Let's see now, Industrial Metals and Salvage...International Masonry Apprenticeship Training...Kunkel Heating Service...Resilient Floor and Decorative Workers Union 1711...San Diego Building and Trades Council. Is this guy a coach or a contractor?
A bit of both, actually. In his 14 seasons at San Diego State University, Dietz, 47, has built—we're talking hammers, nails and pipe wrenches here—one of the finest college baseball stadiums in the country and a comparable club to play in it.
Smith Field, home of the Aztecs, will never be confused with the elegant arenas of other Western Athletic Conference schools like BYU or Hawaii. No, scenic and spacious Smith is as natural as its turf, 336 down the lines and 412 to dead center. The field features lights, a press box, a concession stand and enclosed batting cages. It also comes with its own two-story clubhouse, complete with locker room, showers, offices, players' lounge and—here's a nice touch—a live-in assistant coach.
It's on the walls of assistant coach Gary Brown's "bedroom" that one finds framed pictures of some of State's most famous alums: big league stars like outfielder Tony Gwynn of the Padres, pitcher Bud Black of the Royals, pitcher Dave Smith of the Astros and shortstop Bobby Meacham of the Yankees. And, while certainly not as celebrated as Texas, Miami or Arizona State, the Aztecs have won 58, 62, 66 and 45 games (injuries marred that one) in the last four seasons. That's more wins than any other U.S. college team.
In 1984 the Aztecs went 66-23 and were ranked No. 1 for two weeks. Collegiate Baseball named Dietz the Division I Coach of the Year and honored him with its Superstar Award for "shedding light on our game in so many ways." This year SDSU was 18-9-1 as of March 30. "It's one of the best programs in the country," says Lou Pavlovich Sr., publisher of Collegiate Baseball, "and Jim, well, he's just one of the great ones. Nobody works harder than he does and touches so many bases." Says Lou Jr., who edits the newspaper, "He has the most unusual program I've ever seen in my life. There's always something going on."
The center of that something is invariably Dietz, radiating the energy of 10 men—electrician, horticulturist, carpenter, plumber, promoter, groundskeeper, you name it. He does all jobs with determination, if not great expertise. But how can you knock a coach whose idea of a double steal is finding two $150,480-volt fixtures in Tijuana for only $50? "It made my whole week," says Dietz.
Dietz, the son of a salesman for rubber goods and mill products, grew up amid the tall timber of the Pacific Northwest. "It was tough," says Dietz. "My dad was never sure of a job; we lived month to month."
His mother, the product of a well-known pioneer family, soon found the Dietz life-style demeaning. She not only told her husband so, she also vented her anger and frustration on her son. "No matter what Jim did," says his wife, Carol, "it wasn't good enough for his mother. He would get three hits and she would want four." So the son, as often happens, got rid of his anger through arduous work in supermarkets, sawmills, and caring for the field at Southern Oregon, where he lettered in four sports. Nothing was too tough. Not even the mill's 2 a.m. "hoot owl" shift on which he worked with loggers so mean they would nail his lunch bucket to a tree, then fill it with deer droppings. "I have a lot of feeling for working people," says Dietz. "I don't have much sympathy for kids who say they're tired."
He made that clear right off the bat in 1972 at his first day of practice at SDSU. Dietz was greeted by an apathetic administration—"They didn't care if we won 50 or lost 50"—and a team that put fun and sun before athletics. State had won a national title in '58 and later had enjoyed some glory days with Graig Nettles on the team (1964-65), but this group, well...needed work.
"I remember my first speech at practice," says Dietz. "I talked about all the new rules—no facial hair, plenty of discipline, dedication. At the end, I asked the players to go halfway with me on this. The next day, one guy showed up wearing half a mustache. I had to cut 12 or 13 veterans that first year."