Scott Fowler

Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke decides it is time for a change

Davidson head coach Dick Cooke shouts instructions to his team during the NCAA tournament in 2017 -- Davidson’s first-ever appearance in any postseason baseball tourney.
Davidson head coach Dick Cooke shouts instructions to his team during the NCAA tournament in 2017 -- Davidson’s first-ever appearance in any postseason baseball tourney.

Dick Cooke, the longtime Davidson baseball coach whose Wildcats went on a remarkable postseason run in 2017, has decided to step down after one final season.

Cooke told the Observer in an exclusive interview that he will stop coaching and instead become an associate athletic director for Davidson this summer, just after he completes what will be his 28th season coaching the Wildcats. He broke that news to his players Monday. The school plans to announce the move soon.

Cooke’s successor is already in place. Rucker Taylor, the team’s lead assistant, will be promoted to Davidson’s head coach after this season, Cooke said.

“I’ve never envisioned myself as being the guy who’s going to coach until I’m 70,” said Cooke, who is 61. “I’ve envisioned and hoped for this type of move for awhile. We’ve got a great staff in place, and making the move now will help us keep continuity for a program that has made great strides.”

Davidson baseball head coach Dick Cooke (center) receives his NCAA Tournament ring from Davidson president Carol Quillen (right) and athletic director Jim Murphy in November. Tim Cowie

Like a hitter successfully stretching a single into a double, Davidson has turned a corner in baseball over the past year.

In 2017, Davidson’s baseball team qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history by winning the Atlantic 10 baseball tournament as the No. 6 seed.

The Wildcats then pulled off two upsets of North Carolina – the No. 2 overall seed in the country – in Chapel Hill to shock the Tar Heels and knock them out of the NCAA tourney at home. Davidson ultimately advanced to the NCAA’s final 16 before succumbing to Texas A&M. The whole thing had a Stephen Curry-esque feel.

What made the baseball team’s run all the more extraordinary was that Davidson has long trailed the field in baseball scholarships. Although NCAA rules allow Division I baseball teams to award up to 11.7 full scholarships – commonly parceled out in pieces to numerous players – Davidson currently awards only three baseball scholarships.

Even though those three scholarships are split among about a dozen players, about two-thirds of Davidson’s roster that beat the Tar Heels was made up of walk-ons – and this at a school with a sticker price of nearly $64,000 a year.

That scholarship deficit makes it more understandable that in 2017 Davidson won its first conference baseball championship in 115 years, or that Cooke has won more than 500 games at Davidson but has lost more than 800.

A ‘deeply transformative’ gift

The scholarship gap, however, will soon be shrinking. In November, Davidson announced that a group of anonymous donors inspired by the postseason run had given $5.6 million to create four more full baseball scholarships.

That will more than double Davidson’s scholarship stockpile once the grants take full effect for the 2020 season – a “deeply transformative” gift, Cooke said, that will undoubtedly improve Davidson’s general baseball talent.

In the meantime, Cooke’s final Davidson team also has a chance to make some noise. Although star pitcher Durin O’Linger and hitter Will Robertson have both graduated, about two-thirds of the players from last year’s record-setting team return. Davidson is being picked anywhere from fourth to sixth in the Atlantic 10.

Cooke is a man who loves baseball so much that when he talks about the joy he takes in pitching batting practice it reminds me of listening to a mother talk about her child’s first steps. And he remains deeply grateful that he is here to see all of this at all.

Davidson head baseball coach Dick Cooke had to use a crutch during the 2013 season after nearly dying in an auto accident in which he was rear-ended in 2012. Robert Lahser

In 2012, while driving north on Interstate 77 in Charlotte, Cooke was rear-ended by a woman who was likely driving in excess of 90 mph and who had previously pled guilty three times to driving while impaired charges in the Carolinas.

After impact, Cooke’s silver minivan pinballed through a grove of trees. His brain bled. His right lung was punctured. His right leg shattered. They found him in the woods, crawling toward the interstate.

Some of the first responders that night were stunned that he survived. One saw him several months later and blurted out: “Wow. You’re alive?!”

Still loving the game

Cooke still loves baseball. “I’m at my usual level of excitement and anticipation for the season,” he said. “And once we get to the next step, I’ll be ready to assist the athletic department in whatever way I can.”

His exact responsibilities will remain unclear until a new athletic director is hired – Davidson’s Jim Murphy is stepping aside as AD in June to take a new position at the college.

Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke (center) watches a game from the dugout. Cooke, 61, will coach his 28th and final season for Davidson in 2018 before joining the school’s athletic department. Tim Cowie

Cooke and his wife, Susan, a researcher at Davidson, live within walking distance of the college. They are about to become empty-nesters: The youngest of their three daughters leaves in the fall to go to Presbyterian on a volleyball scholarship.

In the meantime, Cooke will keep preaching the idea that the words “student” and “athlete” can blend together – whether at Davidson or anywhere else.

“Last year proved what I have always believed,” Cooke said. “You don’t have to be your sport 24-7. You want to major in pre-med? You want to build houses for Habitat? You want to work in a soup kitchen? Absolutely. And when you come to the baseball field, work hard. Let’s just see what might happen.” 

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler