The Walters State baseball coach announced his retirement this week after an unprecedented era of success during his 14 seasons guiding the Senators in Morristown. They reached the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series under Campbell for the fifth time this season, and he won the national championship in 2006.
At the start of the season Campbell told assistant coaches David Shelton and Joey Seaver, who is set to succeed Campbell, another World Series berth would likely spur his retirement.
“I just felt like it was kind of finishing on top,” Campbell said. “I think we’ve got five starters coming back and we recruited really well. But that didn’t make it any harder. I felt like it was time.”
Shelton basically remained skeptical until the formal announcement.
“Even though he had told us that, I said to myself, ‘I could see him doing it another 10 years,’” Shelton said with a chuckle. “I just know how tough he is and how much he loves it and what a competitor he is. … The sport of baseball, I think, has taken a great loss. He’s had a great effect on a lot of lives.”
Campbell, 69, was an All-Big Seven Conference third baseman for John Broyles at Science Hill, and the easygoing Broyles, whose Hilltoppers won state titles in 1947, ’62 and ’63, likely had some role in Campbell becoming a so-called players’ coach.
“John Broyles, you know, he more or less made each player on the team feel like it was his team,” Campbell said. “Everybody that played for him felt like they owned part of that team. I think I might’ve got that part from John Broyles.”
Daniel Boone alumnus Dylan Pratt played at Walters State for Campbell, and was on the 2008 World Series team that Campbell says was his best collection of position players.
“Oh man, it was wonderful. I loved every second I played for Ken Campbell,” Pratt said while echoing the sentiment of numerous Senators alums. “He was one of those coaches who cared about you as a human being. I mean, obviously, any baseball coach cares about what you do on the field. But Ken really cared about you off the field.
“He didn’t take himself too seriously. I mean, you know there are times a team full of young men like that – you need somebody to get on you and get after you. And he was more than willing to do that when it needed to happen. But for the most part, he was content to let us have fun and let us enjoy the game, because we were a lot more productive that way. We played loose and we played to our ability rather than playing tight. We always played to win. … You can tell a huge difference between a team that’s playing to win versus a team that’s playing not to lose. He was like, ‘Boys, go get ’em.’ And that’s what we did.”
Campbell began coaching in Florida, including 12 years of football in which he said he learned a lot about coaching from the late Bill McCall. Campbell coached baseball 15 years at Eau Gallie High School (Melbourne, Fla.), where his players included Tim Wakefield.
“I was put in the Hall of Fame down there the same day that Wakefield was,” Campbell said. “And Prince Fielder was a senior that year. He was there that day and they had a home run derby, and I saw Fielder win that home run derby. …
“My first year coaching down in Florida, two of the people that were on the other teams in our conference was ole Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants – he was playing for Melbourne – and then Clint Hurdle, the manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was playing for Merritt Island High School.”
Hurdle was managing the Colorado Rockies when Walters State won the World Series in 2006 in Grand Junction, Colo. The champion Senators attended a Rockies game.
“After we won the national championship we stopped off the next day,” Campbell said, “and I was able to talk to him a little bit. He used to come into my office down in Florida and we’d just sit and talk about camps and stuff like that.”
Success has made Campbell’s move to Morristown look like a no-brainer. But it was an unconventional descent from Division I at the time following the 1999 season. Scholarships were scarce (approximately four annually) and money scarcer at ETSU.
“Coach Campbell did a lot with what he had to work with,” said Science Hill alum Todd Anderson, who pitched at ETSU in the mid-90s. Anderson got the victory in one of Campbell’s most gratifying triumphs at ETSU, a win at top-10 Auburn when the Tigers had future NFL wideout Frank Sanders. Campbell also fondly recalls Anderson giving Tennessee’s Todd Helton, Bubba Trammell, R.A. Dickey and company all they could handle in a hard-fought loss, and freshman pitcher Reid Casey beating Tennessee in Cardinal Park a few years later. But it was hard to sustain a rally at ETSU.
“You know, I loved East Tennessee State,” said Campbell, who played at ETSU for Jim Mooney when the Bucs played their games at Mountain Home. “I just knew at that time the program wasn’t fully funded and I just knew I had a better chance of succeeding at Walters State. … And of course, you want to help kids and things like that, but you still want to win. But it was a tough decision to leave.”
The Senators were seemingly always nationally ranked and frequently in the Top 10 while piling up 650 victories in Campbell’s 14 seasons. Not that Campbell anticipated such a run.
“All I knew was that we were gonna work real hard and just do the best we could,” he said. “I never dreamed of a national championship, but once we got in there and started playing people, it seemed like it was a lot easier to get better ballplayers to come down here than it was at East Tennessee State. A lot of players come to junior college because they want to try and sign pro, and they don’t want to wait three to four years. I’ve been blessed to get a lot of good players down here.
“I know when Todd Raleigh was at Tennessee one year, he said, ‘You guys could beat us to death this year.’ And we could have.”
Eleven players off Campbell’s 2008 team eventually signed professionally. Pratt remembers the Senators taking the Double-A Tennessee Smokies to the wire one season in an exhibition game, and getting a lot of good swings and a run off Jeff Samardzija in a lopsided loss to the Smokies in the other exhibition game. Pratt had a hamstring injury when they played the Smokies his freshman season, but he’s thankful Campbell let him pinch-hit.
“I said, ‘Coach, who knows what’ll happen? I may never get to see this kind of stage again. Please just let me get one at-bat. I don’t care if I strike out,’” Pratt said. “And I did. And it was bad. It looked really bad. But he let me get an at-bat.”
Pratt hit a home run against the Smokies the next time he faced them. He said Campbell’s low-key demeanor helped players deliver in the clutch.
“He wasn’t one of these bulldogs, one these guys that’s gonna get in your face and tear you up one side and down the other,” Pratt said. “He’d come in if you were really struggling and he’d say something funny. He’d say, ‘You can do this. I’ve seen you do it. I know you can do it. I believe in you. I know you’re struggling but just relax and do your thing.’ One of his favorite things to say was, ‘Do what got you here,’ and it really resonated with me.”
Many players, including Pratt, said the most fun they had playing baseball at any level was playing for Campbell at Walters State.
“All the players that came through here and played for him – if there’s such a thing as a players’ coach – they all loved playing for him and they all come back,” Shelton said. “We’re a two-year school, but if you had any idea how many people came here and left and came back and said, ‘Golly, I wish this was a four-year school, coach. I would’ve rather spent two more years here than anything.’ You know, that speaks a lot for Ken, and how he was here.
“I had Cody Hawn tell me that, and here’s a guy that went on and played two years in the SEC and is playing professional baseball right now. He said, ‘The most fun I ever had playing baseball was my one year at Walters State.’ And that means a lot to you as a coach and reassures you that Ken was doing something right.”
Winning obviously helped keep the clubhouse loose, but several said that works both ways.
“Coach Campbell always kept it light,” Pratt said. “One time he was talking to one of our hitters who was struggling a little bit. He was a good hitter, and I remember thinking he was gonna be fine. Coach Campbell looked at him and he said, ‘You know that, uh, that fella that plays third base for the Braves, ole what’s his name, Chipper, uh, Chipper Jones?’ And the kid said, ‘Yes sir, yes sir, I know Chipper Jones.’ And Campbell said, ‘Yeah, Chipper Jones. Well, if you just hit like him, you’ll be alright,’ and he just walked away. I was horselaughing – just the way he said it and he was so nonchalant, like, ‘Just hit like that big leaguer and you’ll be alright.’”
Working for Campbell could be as enjoyable as playing for him.
“From a coaching standpoint, I think, one of the things that made him so special was letting his coaches coach,” Shelton said. “He didn’t try to micromanage everything that we do. That’s the only way you can develop as coaches. We all make mistakes, but he had enough faith in us to let us make those mistakes and learn from them. And I became a better coach for it. I would dare say that every coach that’s coached with him feels the same way.”
Anderson was pitching for Pappy Crowe’s 18-under team in the Palomino World Series championship game in Greensboro in 1992, and fondly recalls Campbell and then-ETSU assistant Johnny Cloud making the 3 ½ hour drive to watch him.
“I ended up pitching a complete game in the championship but Ocean View, California beat us 2-1,” Anderson said. “I always thought that was pretty nice for them driving over 3 ½ hours when they really didn’t have to because I basically had already committed to go to East Tennessee State.”
Three years later, Anderson nearly pitched a complete game in ETSU’s upset victory against Auburn. A chuckling Campbell said pinch-hitter Brandon Milhorn missed a “take” sign and hit a 3-0 pitch for a go-ahead double during a three-run ninth.
“I came out in the bottom of the eighth and we ended up going ahead in the top of the ninth,” Anderson said. “I already had ice on my arm and I was like, ‘Coach, I’m going back in.’ And it wasn’t like I had to twist his (arm). He said, ‘Alright.’ I didn’t get the complete game … 8 2/3 (innings), I ended up getting. Scott Able got the last out.
“I remember we went to a steakhouse after that game. That was very rare. And I think we got to basically get whatever we wanted, and that was very, very rare. … Our pregame meals were buttermilk biscuits from Hardees. For what he had, I think he did a heck of a job at ETSU.”
Campbell’s Bucs defeated the likes of Virginia and Wake Forest and were competitive in the Southern Conference. He remembers James Lyons turning around to deliver the big hit right-handed against Wake Forest after the Demon Deacons had made a pitching move intended to produce a lefty-on-lefty matchup.
But Campbell didn’t look back when he left ETSU, and doesn’t anticipate second-guessing this week’s decision. He’ll look for a place in Florida to spend the winters, wants to work on his golf game and spend more time with his 9-year-old grandson and wife Margaret, the latter of whom has usually been nearby at the ballpark.
“My wife always sits behind home plate and hollers at the umpires,” Campbell said. “We could lose by 50 runs and I think she’d say, ‘Those umpires really stuck it to us today.’”
Retirement has seemed like a relatively easy call since clinching that fifth World Series berth.
“They really do it up right out there,” Campbell said. “It’s something. … That final championship game (in 2006), it was about the seventh inning and gosh, it looked like we were gonna win the thing, and I’s just sitting to myself and said, ‘Good Lord, just don’t tease me this way. Don’t tease me this way.’ But we went on and won it, and of course, that was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
“Winning a national championship is a coach’s dream. And I was able to live it at Walters State.”