This Cook had recipe for diamond success
Don Cook's four decades as a collegiate athletic director in Connecticut -- the past 21 years at Sacred Heart University, six at the University of Hartford and 14 at his alma mater, Fairfield University -- overshadow his accomplishments as a baseball coach.
When Cook was voted into the Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame this spring, his administrative work was the primary focus of the electors. But with reluctance -- and pardonable pride -- Cook will acknowledge that his was the guiding hand that lifted Fairfield University baseball from a perennial loser at the small college level to a Division-I program capable of challenging the traditional powers -- UConn, Maine, Holy Cross, Massachusetts -- for New England supremacy.
How did he, as head coach for 19 seasons and A.D. for much of that period, achieve so much with so little?
"Energy," Cook said with emphasis. "Energy, initiative, the willingness to work hard and other intangibles helped to offset the tangibles others had."
Although having little financial aid to offer and forced to vacate a home field dubbed "Mekong Delta" for its rough terrain and play "home" games at Roger Ludlowe High Field for a few years, Cook and assistant coach (and eventual successor) John Slosar were able to assemble several strong squads.
"In the mid-1970s, we took advantage of new, need-based federal financial aid opportunities for minority students that became available during a period when the university was struggling to establish some semblance of minority and ethnic balance," Cook explained.
"The decision to go University Division vs. College Division (legislatively changed to three NCAA divisions in 1974) was a university-driven philosophical decision. It was really an offshoot of a basketball strategy that (athletic director and coach) George Bisacca made to play all those University Division schools in the mid-to-late `60s during the (Pat) Burke, (Mike) Branch, (Jim) Brown days.
"I think George and (President) Fr. (William C.) McInnes felt there was a potential PR value to establish a new competitive paradigm to advance the university. It was critical to establishing a new institutional brand to grow enrollment and compete with the more established regional Catholic schools like Providence, BC, Holy Cross, Manhattan, Fordham and Georgetown ... all institutions with whom we (competed) with for students."
During a six-season span, the Stags earned no fewer than four bids to the Eastern College Athletic Conference's New England Regional, with the winner receiving an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Led by future major league pitcher Keefe Cato, basestealer supreme Billy Barnes, Mike Beaudoin, Brendan Vane and others, Fairfield advanced to the ECAC Tournament three straight years, 1977-78-79. The 1982 Stags also received a bid.
Another testament to Cook's skills as a recruiter and coach: Fifteen of his Fairfield players went on to play professionally. During his six years as Hartford A.D., he was the interim coach during the 1987 season when future major league All-Star first baseman Jeff Bagwell played for the Hawks.
What do his proteges say about their experiences on the Fairfield diamond? Here are memories from six of Cook's stars:
Now 55, Kato was the first Fairfield U. athlete in any sport to play at the major league level. Selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1979 draft, Cato went on to pitch in 217 games across eight professional seasons, including eight relief appearances with Cincinnati in 1983 and '84. He won a game at San Diego (June 14, 1983) with 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief. Has made Las Vegas his home since 1985. Married (Terese) and the father of two daughters. Still holds Fairfield records for career victories (21) and earned run average (2.25). He pitched complete-game victories in the opening round of three straight ECAC Tournaments (vs. Maine, 1977; Holy Cross, 1978; and UConn, 1979). Elected to the Fairfield University Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988.
"If I'd had it my way, I'd have gone to college for basketball. I averaged close to 28 points a game in high school (Valhalla, N.Y.).
"If one game stands out, it was being a freshman and a newcomer to the team when we beat Maine in the (1977) playoffs. It kind of set the tone for what we did the next couple of years.
"Don Cook was like a father figure to many of us. He gave me an opportunity that literally changed my life forever. I owe everything that happened to me playing ball, to him."
Kownacki, 57, received a sociology degree from Fairfield in 1978, two years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and playing one season with the Dodgers' Lodi team in the Class-A California League. Resides in Milford with his wife of 33 years, Dru. They have two children, Allison and Brian. The latter gained instant YouTube fame a couple of years ago when, playing for Fordham, he leaped over the opposing catcher to score a run. Bob is a configuration manager at Sikorsky Aircraft, for whom he starred on the company softball team that won 17 ASA Major Industrial Slow-Pitch National titles. Inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
"The game against UConn (a rousing 17-3 win for Fairfield) in my junior year was a big win for us. I hit two home runs in the sixth inning, the second inside the park when their centerfielder missed a shoestring catch. We always wanted to prove we belonged with the big teams.
"We didn't make the tournament in any of my three seasons, but it seemed like we got a little more attention on a regional level. Maybe we were a feared opponent; one year the whole team hit .300. Maybe it helped coach Cook recruit some players.
"I've always felt fortunate to have been recruited by and been able to play for coach Cook and to be able to attend Fairfield University, which was certainly a reach for me.
Being a bit older now I have a better perspective on just what it meant to be influenced by him. Baseball is baseball but when you watch how someone handles himself in certain situations, you understand that whether intended or not, Cook was teaching more than baseball.
"Having a somewhat rough start as a freshman, he still found places to put me, that allowed me to relax, gain confidence and settle in; with other programs that might not have happened. He was patient, not quick to anger and certainly had a style that worked for me. Having had the opportunity to coach a few youth teams of my own, it's a style I borrowed. If you raise your voice too much, the kids will turn you off. Talk to them, explain what you need done, show them how and work to make it repeatable. That is something I learned from coach Cook."
Finch, 64, was among the inaugural group of 11 inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982. Primarily a catcher, he still holds the Stags' career record with a .358 average. He and his wife, Nancy, have been married 41 years, have three children and six grandchildren. Finch retired nine years ago after a 35-year career in education at Kolbe-Cathedral and Notre Dame (his alma mater) high schools. He taught history and social studies, and served as athletic director and dean of students.
"I played three years for Don and I coached with him when they had Cato. We had some good teams when I played; we won our last 12 in a row in 1970 (and finished 13-9).
"Don's hard work was what got me drafted. More scouts started to come around after he upgraded the schedule and we began playing St. John's, New Haven and other good teams.
"I was drafted on the 11th round by the Minnesota Twins in 1971 and played that summer with their Auburn team in the New York-Penn League.
"As a man and as a coach, there was nobody better than Don Cook. It wasn't just about winning. He cared so intently for his players; he bent over backward for us. He knew when to give a kid a kick in the butt, when to listen to him."
Known to many as "Sarge," Gill, 56, moved his family (wife Dewanda, three children) from Bridgeport to Jacksonville, Fla., in 2004. He's employed by FedEx. Their middle child, D'Andra, was high school valedictorian and is now a grad student at her alma mater, the University North Florida. He's involved with his church as a children's minister. Gill hit .322 across three seasons at Fairfield and was drafted by the Red Sox following his junior year.
"I got my nickname at birth from my grandfather. There were three girls ahead of me and I was the first boy. He said he finally got his "Sarge.'
"I liked Fairfield. There was no (racial) problem at all; we had the United Nations there. I was shocked how tough the school was academically. The first semester I commuted, and that got me off on the right foot.
"We had a fair year my first season, a bad year the next when I hit .367. But getting to the tournament in 1977, and beating Maine in the opening game, was very exciting.
"I played five years with the Red Sox farm system. We won the Florida State League title at Winter Haven in 1979. Bob Ojeda was our ace pitcher. Marty Barrett played second and short. I played with Bruce Hurst my first couple of years, and with Rich Gedman later on. If I had this weight when I was in pro ball, I'd have been on TV.
"Don Cook is an outstanding gentleman, always classy. Never overbearing, always a good listener. Although I was quiet, I still had some craziness in me. He stabilized me. God bless him."
Barnes, 57, was a basestealer with few equals on the collegiate level, the fleet outfielder ranked among the top five nationally on a per-game basis three straight seasons (1976-77-78) and concluded his career with a still-standing school record of 122 thefts. He batted .311 across four Stag seasons and was inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.
The Bridgeport native relocated to the Atlanta area some 30 years ago. His first wife died and he's now remarried, to Peggy.
Combined, they have five children, two of whom are in college. Billy spent 20 years with IBM and is now employed by Ennis-Flint, a company that markets its traffic safety and pavement marking worldwide.
"When we played in Georgia with the good Fairfield teams, my goal was to move down here.
"Bob (Kownacki) and Frank (Gill) had a lot of influence on me attending Fairfield. We had a lot of success playing together at (Bridgeport) Central, and we wanted to do the same thing there. Fairfield wasn't even on the map, but it was on the verge.
"I played on all three tournament teams (1977-78-79). The first time we had four brothers out there, which was unusual in college ball. Me, Cato, Gill and (Cedric) Warner.
"After Fairfield, I had a tryout with the Kansas City Royals. I was one of three who made the cut out of 150 guys. When the players with contracts arrived in camp, that was it for me.
"Don Cook is a great gentleman. He wanted me to get a great education. He was a hard-nosed coach; he treated us like men. I'm really happy that he's being honored."
De Vellis, 52, is an assistant principal at West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk and an educator for 29 years.
He and his wife, Christine, have four boys and reside in Newtown. He played four varsity seasons at Fairfield, serving as a tri-captain as a sophomore and co-captain with pitcher Jim Kenning as a senior. He was an All-New England third baseman on the Stags' 1982 squad that finished third in the ECAC Tournament.
"We had a nice little chain going at Central. Don had a good relationship with our coach, Sumner Sochrin, and so I followed Kownacki, Gill and Barnes to Fairfield. I was the first member of my family to attend college. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me.
"As a man, there's nobody better than Don Cook. Honesty, integrity, courtesy. He always had time for me.
"When I was a freshman I was starting at DH. I went into his office one day and told him I couldn't make the trip to Rhode Island. I had a big test coming up. He says, `Why can't you do both at the same time?' So, I make the trip and he has our bus parked in back of the visitor's dugout. After each at bat, I went into the bus, put on my headphones and studied. So, yes, I did both at the same time."