State of the Hogs: Loveable Norm

Norm DeBriyn was loved by his players, but they still recall the fiery days on the practice field. DeBriyn will be honored by the American Baseball Coaches Association.

Kevin Trainor got it right last week in a fine commentary on the athletic department website calling Norm DeBriyn "one of the most beloved coaches in Razorback history."

That goes for fans and players alike, a reputation that former Razorback Foundation president Harold Horton thinks DeBriyn was protecting a few years back. It's the kind of story that should be told at a dinner Jan. 3 when DeBriyn is given the Lefty Gomez Award at the American Baseball Coaches Convention in Dallas.

The Gomez Award is given to someone in basebhall distinguished himself amongst his peers and has contributed significantly to the game locally, nationally and internationally. The great lefthanded pitcher for the Yankees and Senators was considered one of the game's most colorful and unique individuals and was a delightful after-dinner speaker at packed houses upon completion of a career that included five World Seires titles.

DeBriyn's left-handed humor can do similar things to a Razorback Club dinner. His former players will do the audience and greet him with loving hugs, but tell stories in the back of the room of his intense and often nasty demeanor as a fiery coach.

Former stars like Kevin McReynolds and Scott Tabor loved hearing Horton's story from an elderly couple over displeasure from a football parking issue.

"Please write that," McReynolds said. "It needs to be told."

Horton is more than happy to oblige. He had just given the job of regulating football parking to DeBriyn after a promotion at the Razorback Foundation. DeBriyn continued the job of moving those who did not meet financial giving to the proper lots.

"Norm handled it and got some folks into the proper lots, but it didn't always go well," Horton said. "Sometimes you'd hear from them, sometimes not. But Norm made some folks very unhappy. But it had to be done.

"I remember the first game after Norm took over. He was riding in a golf cart before the game checking on lot and trouble shooting. He was driving up Razorback Road and there was an elderly couple struggling to make it up the sidewalk. The man had a cane.

"Norm, being the good man that he is, pulled over and offered them a ride. They got in and the man was fuming mad. Norm asked him what was wrong. He said he'd parked in the lot by the stadium for years, but that damn Harold Horton kicked him out. He said if he could find that Harold Horton, he'd have him shot.

"Norm tells him, 'I don't blame you. I'd be mad, too.' He threw me right under the bus and ran over me with both wheels."

There were times Norm's players would have thrown him under the bus. Tabor remembers the bus trips to play Southwest Conference games throughout Texas in the 1970s. And he remembers one trip to Lubbock that would have been better served by a bus trip immediately after the series ended.

Instead, the Razorbacks had a night in Lubbock to await a commercial flight home the next day. Somehow, the team was booked into the College Inn, a half motel and half co-ed dorm. Tabor recalls that Lubbock had some gorgeous co-eds.

"I think most of us stayed up about all night," Tabor said. "I have this image burned into my mind of Norm sitting at the end of the hall in his underwear. He caught us all. I got caught at 4 a.m."

So when the team got back to campus the next day, the true Stormin' Norman took charge.

"We ran and we ran and we ran," Tabor said. "He called them Razorback Reminders. We ran into we threw up. We ran some more. We ran the bleachers, we ran 100-yard line drills. We did six sprints in a row. We all eventually just passed out. That team eventually went to the College World Series."

Tabor, the school's all-time win leader, didn't always see the practice flare ups because DeBriyn didn't work closely with the pitchers. But he saw the switch flip one late-season game when the pressure was on to earn top seeding at the SWC tournament.

"It was the last game of the regular season," Tabor said. "Our All-American catcher, Ronn Reynolds, called the games. And we were rocking along. All of a sudden, Ronn was out of rhythm. He wasn't calling his usual game. I never shook him off, but I was shaking off every pitch. It was like he forgot how I pitched."

After an inning of that, DeBriyn sprinted out of the dugout to the mound fuming mad.

"I had no idea what was going on," Tabor said. "He's yelling, 'I'm calling the pitches. No more shaking him off!' He turns around, runs back to the dugout. Reynolds said, 'Sorry. I forgot to tell you.' That shook me up pretty good. I was a freshman and I was scared of him. Well, we all were. It was fear of God type stuff."

There were good reasons. A bad test or a missed class could get you in real trouble with DeBriyn. Tabor didn't have issues, but some teammates did.

"My freshman year, I had a class that went until 1:30, so I was 15 minutes late each day," Tabor said. "It was all good. I remember coming over from Pomfret one day feeling proud about a test score and when I got to the back of the outfield fence, I heard Norm yelling and screaming. I looked over the fence and he was chasing one of our freshmen with a fungo bat, swinging at him. He never caught him and it's good, because he would have killed him he was so mad. He had missed class."

McReynolds, the first Razorback drafted in the first round, said he liked that part of DeBriyn.

"That's what I wanted in a coach, fear of God," he said. "To me, I think that's the way it should be. It should be respecty and fear. I appreciated it.

"I can tell you that's what we needed. We were a bunch of young punks coming in as freshman. I think Stormin' Norman was very fitting, a good title."

McReynolds recalls the DeBriyn tirade with the fungo bat.

"Well, that was a player who had a lot of talent," McReynolds said. "Norm just couldn't get him to do right."

DeBriyn did get the talent out of most players and he recruited some stars. There's a picture in the UA media guide of DeBriyn in uniform beside big league stars Johnny Ray, Tim Lollar, Reynolds and McReynolds.

"I have that picture in my office," McReynolds said. "I see it every day. I know that we all made it there because of Norm. Those four guys bought the lights for Baum Stadium. That's what we thought of Norm."

Tabor quipped, "I'm just glad there were no lights at the old place. Norm practiced us until it got dark. There were no limits from the NCAA. If we had had lights, Norm would have worked us to midnight."

It was a long time before McReynolds could call his coach by his first name. It took a lot of bird hunts – pheasant and ducks – to drop the "Coach" tag.

"He's a lovable guy to us now," McReynolds said. "But that didn't happen until the competitive fire burned out. He still had a lot of piss and vinegar when we played for him. And he had it for a long time."

DeBriyn coached the Hogs for 33 years, moving to the Razorback Foundation after the 2002 season. He won 1,161 games and titles in both the SWC and the SEC, the last in 1999. The constant was hard work, with DeBriyn cracking the whip. McReynolds saw DeBriyn's fire up close since the outfielders were his speciality.

"Gosh, he worked with the outfielders daily in practice," McReynolds said. "He'd get mad at us and he'd get that fungo bat and get us 20 yards away and hit them at us as hard as he could. I didn't wear a cup back then. You figured you better get one. Try catching a ball hit as hard as possible from 20 yards. You end up just protecting yourself.

"But you knew he was making you better. He got it out of you. We played hard for him."

And they played well. The 1979 team should have won the College World Series. They lost a pair of championship games to Cal-Fullerton to finish second, the school's best finish. There were four CWS appearances under DeBriyn.

"What you see now is so many players coming back to see Norm," McReynolds said. "That's a measure of the resepct we all hold for him. If guys continue to return, they love him.

"I know we all realize what he's done to become a Deacon in the Catholic church, all of the training. You see a lot in man's character with that. We are all proud of him for this award in Dallas and his work with the church."

There's something about bird hunting that attracts baseball players. Perhaps it's the timing, in the fall and winter after the professional season concludes. It didn't take long for DeBriyn's former players to pull him into their hobbies.

"I got him started at my bachelor's party," Tabor said. "Norm didn't hunt, but he came and we got him stuff. I had some waders that fit, but I didn't realize they had a leak in the crotch. They hadn't been used in deep water so we didn't know."

They walked in before dawn and there was a narrow bridge over some deep water that the hunting party was careful to get DeBriyn through safely.

"It was a 20-foot drop on either side," Tabor said. "He didn't notice the waders leaking until we got to our spot. He figured we did it on purpose, but we didn't know. It got awful cold for him and he finally said he'd walk in and warm up in the truck."

An hour later after a limit of ducks, Tabor and the rest returned, except there was no DeBriyn.

"Holy crap, we figured he fell in and drowned," Tabor said. "In waders, it can happen. So we ran back and looked everywhere. Finally we gave up, went back to the trucks and drove back to the lodge."

There was DeBriyn. He had walked several miles, hailed someone on the highway and made it back to get some dry clothes.

McReynolds does have stories about DeBriyn falling in while duck hunting. DeBriyn admits to stepping off a levee at the Double Deuce, McReynolds lodge near DeWitt.

"We unloaded the boat and warned him that if you stepped back, your hat would be floating," McReynolds said. "We were getting things out of the boat, and there he went. Sure enough, his hat was floating.

"There seem to be a lot of stories about Norm's hat floating. But Norm has gotten to be a good shot. He's killed a lot of pheasants on our Dakota hunts. He's gotten his own dog. He gets great joy out of seeing his dog work on a pheasant hunt."

Horton wanted to shoot down that myth.

"Norm is an alright wing shooter," Horton said. "But we've found out, not great."

Then, Horton threw his friend under the golf cart and backed over him a few times.

"We were at Bo Busby's place down near Pine Bluff duck hunting," Horton said. "We were about done. Bo had everyone empty the shells from their guns. He said, 'Except Norm. It's just you.' Then, Bo called in a lone duck. It came in and just went right to Norm. It just hung in front of the decoys.

"Norm shot once and the duck raised up a little. Then, twice, it raised up a little more. Then, on the third shot, the duck just went straight up like an airplane. It never lost a feather."

When they tell those kinds of stories on you, it means you were lovable.

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