It’s a record that has stood since 1984 when former Florida right-hander Russ Kibler entrenched himself as one of the finest pitchers in the country. Kibler, a 12th round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers out of Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville attended Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City for two years (1981-82) before transferring to Florida (1983-84).
His good friend and Sandalwood classmate, left-hander Clay Daniel followed the same path. Kibler and Daniel signed with legendary Gulf Coast Community College head baseball coach Bill Frazier out of high school and solidified themselves as the #1 & #2 starters as freshmen.
Playing in the rough and tumble Panhandle Conference helped prepared them for the Southeastern Conference.
“The Panhandle (Conference) is outstanding baseball and we had to be on our game out there,” Kibler said. “We had Pensacola and Chipola. They were always good. You had to go through them to move on.”
The battle-tested Commodores were loaded with outstanding talent in the early 1980’s and several of those stars made their way to Gainesville to significantly impact the Gators program- shortstop Steve Lombardozzi, pitcher Rich Bombard, third baseman Scott Clemo, Kibler, Daniel, and Bruce Crabbe, who could play just about anywhere.
Then Florida head coach Jack Rhine, who led the program for two years brought in two outstanding assistant coaches, Dusty Rhodes and former Gulf Coast pitching coach Ray “Smoke” Laval.
Rhodes, who is currently an assistant coach at Flagler College spent six years at Florida where he became one of the most respected coaches in the SEC. He later went on to start the University of North Florida baseball program (1988) and remained the head coach until he left after the 2010 season. He was a superb coach who, in my opinion, should have been named the Florida head baseball coach when the Joe Arnold Era ended after the 1994 season.
Meanwhile, Laval, who was also a Gulf Coast graduate remained an assistant at Florida for just two years, but was instrumental in the development of Kibler, Daniel, and the UF pitching staff. Florida led the Southeastern Conference with a 2.85 ERA in 1983, which was the lowest recorded ERA in the modern day finally eclipsed by Vanderbilt in 2011 (2.44). In 1983, Daniel had the lowest ERA in the SEC (2.26) while Florida’s Byron Jefferson led the league with a 2.02 ERA in 1984.
Under Laval, the Gators led the conference with 456 strikeouts and a 3.55 ERA in 1984. Many of you know that Laval took over the UNF program in 2011 upon Rhodes departure.
Kibler concluded his Florida career by pitching 15 complete games. It’s hard to imagine that mark being eclipsed in this day and age. It should be noted that there were a few seven inning games when doubleheaders were scheduled. Regardless, pitching 15 complete games in this conference is an exceptional feat.
It wasn’t easy either. Southeastern Conference baseball didn’t just arrive 20 years ago. It’s been a grind for generations. And there were some sensational bats to navigate past to secure those victories.
“Dave Magadan led Alabama to a number two finish and Texas beat them in the CWS,” Kibler recalled. “And there was Mississippi State, who at that time had Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark…and Jeff Brantley and (Bobby) Thigpen. It was brutal.”
All Magadan did was establish a Southeastern Conference record by hitting .525 in 1983. It’s a record that still stands. Palmeiro, a three-time All-American is the only triple-crown winner in SEC history- a .415 average, 29 home runs, and 94 RBI’s. Clark, Brantley, and Thigpen were studs for Ron Polk and the Bulldogs and went on to have great big league careers.
Kibler was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 4th round in the 1984 Major League Baseball Draft two slots ahead of yet another Sandalwood High/UF teammate, pitcher Scott Ruskin, who was taken by the Texas Rangers.
His first assignment was Medford (Oregon) of the Northwest League and made his way to AAA Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League in 1986, before suffering a posterior labrum tear. He saw Dr. James Andrew in Birmingham, but the medical procedures and rehab techniques were very different back then. His career ended in 1988.
Coincidentally, Kibler graduated from UF with a degree in Exercise & Sports Science and currently makes his living (in part) by helping athletes get back to the playing field.
“I’ve have been in the O.R. for years selling the equipment they repair these rotator cuff and labrum repairs with now,” Kibler said. “When I had my surgery back in 1988, these weren’t even available to Andrews to repair my posterior labrum tear.”
“When the good Lord puts your path together, you’ve got to walk it.” he said.
Kibler’s work takes him throughout north Florida, which often includes stops in Gainesville. He makes it point to catch the Gators when time permits.
He and his family will be special guests of Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the Florida baseball program to attend Friday’s game against Georgia, while meeting Shore and the Gators.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “The article came out about them going to Arkansas and it made mention of that record and to be honest with you, I didn’t even know about this particular record. The only one that I knew about was the single season winning percentage.”
“It’s just been fun,” Kibler added. “I’ve never met Logan personally, but I love his demeanor on the mound. And whenever he’s quoted in the paper, he seems to be a quality guy and is one heck of a pitcher.”
When photographers line up for the money shot of Shore and Kibler standing side-by-side; there will be two quality guys who happen to be two outstanding pitchers from two different eras and it proudly belongs in an Orange & Blue frame.
Mark McLeod has covered Florida baseball (and football) since 1996. He is a co-host on “Sports Time!’ heard weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on Florida Sports Talk/NBC Sports- FM 100.1, AM 900, & AM 1230 (Gainesville/Ocala). Listen at FloridaSportsTalk.fm. He also co-hosts “The Gator Blitz” podcast twice weekly at Gator Sports Radio.com Follow Mark on twitter @McLeodLive