Hometown hero leads Cal Poly baseball to new heights

A rich family legacy in local athletics fuels San Luis Obispo native Larry Lee's success, leading the Mustangs to their finest season ever

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comMay 28, 2014 

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Larry Lee is the living embodiment of the term hometown hero. 

The Cal Poly baseball head coach was born, raised and has spent nearly the entirety of his 54 years in San Luis Obispo. He’s molded the same program his father coached nearly 60 years ago into arguably the most successful of any on campus. 

As the Mustangs are set to host a Division I NCAA regional for the first time in school history this weekend, they have the Lee family legacy to thank. The values that Larry absorbed from older brothers Mike and Terry and Cal Poly Hall of Fame dad Tom continue to drive the team to this day — and into the foreseeable future. 

After 12 years as the head coach at Cal Poly, and the previous 16 as the head coach at Cuesta College, Lee doesn’t see himself going anywhere.

“If at all possible,” Lee said, “I’d like to stay here and finish here.”

Lee, who reached four state final fours at the junior college level at Cuesta and will lead Cal Poly to its third NCAA appearance, has had opportunities to take higher-profile jobs but preferred to stay home.

“Larry,” said Cal Poly assistant coach Teddy Warrecker, “is definitely a dying breed, someone who is born and raised in his hometown and who happened to make a big impact in his field in a way that is so well respected in our profession. Anytime I run into coaches that have coached against him, they speak so highly about him. He’s got great values as a coach and probably even better values as a person.”

Best season ever

With its lofty 45-10 record, Cal Poly has already broken the single-season school mark for wins by four games. More wins and a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in June are within reach.

Among the major national polls, Cal Poly’s success has earned it a consensus top-10 ranking. The Mustangs are fifth according to Baseball America, and the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll has them sixth. Earlier this season, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper ranked Cal Poly No. 1. The only other time a Cal Poly team topped a national Division I poll was in 1985, when the volleyball team held the top spot for a week. 

Cal Poly is in the NCAA Division I 64-team post-season for only the third time in school history and is hosting the San Luis Obispo Regional beginning Friday. If Cal Poly wins its regional, it has an outside shot at hosting a Super 

Regional the following week for a berth in the College World Series.

After reaching the regionals in Tempe, Ariz., in 2009 and Los Angeles in 2013, Cal Poly has become a force. 

“You just do things the way you think they should be done,” said Lee, named the Big West Conference coach of the year for the first time this week. “You do them day after day, year after year, and hopefully, it gets to a point where you’re a regional team in most years. When you do that, your existing players and your incoming players, they expect to play in a regional each and every year, and the program has a chance to take off.

“We’re still not where I want this program to be, but at least we’re taking a step in the right direction.” 

It has taken time. After making the jump to Division I for spring sports in 1995, Cal Poly has suffered from a lack of national exposure, a problem that persisted when Lee took over after the 2002 season, and continued with postseason snubs in 2005 and 2012 despite second-place finishes in the Big West Conference and 36-20 records each year. 

With little name recognition, the Mustangs were never going to get the benefit of the doubt sporting unimpressive RPI rankings, and Lee used those slights to inform and evolve his coaching style. 

He created a philosophy that emphasizes winning. Win every game, every inning, every at-bat and every other step along the way. With constant focus on winning micro tasks, the mindset has worked out the past two seasons, and the nation started to take notice.

“The name recognition has skyrocketed,” Warrecker said. “Being No. 5 in the nation, there’s definitely a much greater respect for the program, and it goes back to those things about breaking down barriers. One of the barriers is how we’re viewed, and that perception has definitely changed.”

Leading by example

Before he died at age 90 in 2007, Tom Lee was a living history book. 

He was a Golden Gloves boxing champion who played semipro baseball with Satchel Paige and basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1930s. 

In the 1940s, he served in an American artillery unit in some of the heaviest European fighting during World War II, then returned home to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s from Stanford by the end of the decade. 

But it was his Cal Poly Hall of Fame career as a Mustangs coach that helped shape the lives of his wife, Anne, and their four children — daughter Renee and the three sons. 

Beginning in the 1950s, Tom Lee coached boxing, baseball, football and basketball and was also an athletic trainer at Cal Poly. Lee was considered one of the best boxing coaches in the country and guided one Cal Poly boxer to a national title before the NCAA discontinued the sport.  

From 1960 on, most of Lee’s coaching was with the Cal Poly football team.

In the 1970s, Tom Lee received a second master’s from Cal State L.A. and used it to help found the recreation department at Cal Poly. He was also an assistant football coach at Cuesta College before that program was discontinued in 1978. 

It was with the Cougars that Larry Lee, the youngest, had his turn as a tag-along ball boy.

One of the first memories of his dad that Larry Lee mentions was watching him stay up late to chart plays from college football games on TV. 

Mike Lee remembers taking countless hours of batting practice from his father, even when Tom Lee needed to stand a trash can in front of himself to keep from being hit as the boys got older.

Of the three sons, Mike Lee said, Larry is the most like their father, having inherited his strong work ethic.  

“A lot of who I am comes from him, and the reason I’m in coaching is because of him,” said Larry Lee, who has tried to follow his father’s example as a hard-working, open-minded coach. 

“It was a good environment to grow up in, but I’ll never be close to what my dad accomplished. He was just one of a kind. If I can just accomplish half of what he did, then I’ll be happy.”  

Harshest critic

Like his brothers, Larry Lee was a three-sport athlete at San Luis Obispo High School. He once took a kickoff return 99 yards for a touchdown in a football game against Paso Robles. 

It still stands as a local, state and national record. 

But, Lee said, it never should have happened. He blamed bad special teams by the Bearcats for not catching him. 

It’s clear modesty is also a part of Lee’s nature. When he became the winningest coach in Cal Poly baseball history last season, he declined a ceremony to accept a commemorative plaque on the field, shooing presenters from the dugout. 

“He doesn’t like to have the attention on him,” junior right fielder Nick Torres said. “He’d rather have it on us. He just kind of pulls the strings. He’s like the mastermind behind us winning games.

“Everything we do at practice, all the drills we run, the lineup, he calls the pitches, you see him out there coaching third base — he literally does everything. That’s the way he likes it. He likes to be able to manage and have a hand in everything that goes on in the game. It makes him feel safer about what’s going on. 

Furthermore, Torres said, “He’s very even-keeled. He is mellow, but he knows when to excite us. He keeps good boundaries between player and coach. He knows when he has to be a coach, and when it’s OK to joke around.”  

When it comes to accomplishments, Lee, who set an NCAA record for sacrifice flies in 1982 at Pepperdine, measures himself against the rest of the family. 

The Lee brothers all followed in their father’s footsteps athletically.

Larry Lee calls Mike Lee the most athletic and cerebral of the bunch. Mike Lee was a high school quarterback and excelled at everything he tried, from basketball to tennis to swimming. He played two seasons of minor league baseball as a middle infielder in the San Francisco Giants organization before becoming a teacher and coach, guiding Cuesta’s softball program for 12 years before becoming a coach at San Luis Obispo High School, where he continues to coach. 

The tallest at 6-foot-1, Terry Lee was by far the best baseball prospect. A left-handed-hitting infielder, Lee was selected in the first round, 19th overall, by the Giants out of high school in 1974 and played professional baseball for more than a decade. Terry Lee, who lives in Santa Margarita, was unable to reach the majors but compiled a career .271 pro batting average. 

At 5-10, Larry Lee was the smallest and thought himself to be the least talented, but he used the work ethic he learned from his dad to make it all the way to pro baseball.

In the 1983 championship season with the Low-A independent Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League, 21-year-old Lee hit .316 in 67 games, collecting 74 hits, nine doubles, two triples, three home runs and 36 RBI as a second baseman.

Though his production indicated he was ready for a promotion, Lee decided to retire during spring training the following year. He immediately got into coaching and earned his master’s degree. By 1987, he was the head coach at Cuesta.

“I would have probably played maybe Double A or Triple A,” Lee said. “I didn’t think I was going to play in the Major Leagues. For me, playing professional baseball wasn’t the goal. It was to play in the Major Leagues, and I was pretty critical of my own skills. I was successful, but I’m not what they’re looking for at the highest level.”

Family impressions

Tom Lee’s dedication and commitment to community made lasting impressions.

A renowned boxing coach who helped train Japanese and South Korean boxers for the 1960 Olympics, Tom Lee also had chances to leave the area to pursue jobs. 

He chose to remain in San Luis Obispo, where he also taught youth swim lessons, worked with the city to create basketball and flag football programs for kids and coached his sons’ Little League baseball teams. 

“When he was asked or he was given opportunities to move to other more high-powered programs to become a coach or an administrator,” Mike Lee said, “my dad always told me, ‘This is where I want to raise my family. The quality of life here is second to none, and this is where I’m going to do the best I can with my coaching and teaching.’ ”

Similarly, Larry Lee said he would have been happy spending his career at Cuesta. 

In his final two seasons, the Cougars were the premier program in Southern California, earning either the first or second seed in the regional playoffs.

Lee went 460-241-3 at Cuesta, including a state-leading 44 wins in 1997. His teams won nine Western State Conference titles and qualified for the regionals 11 times in his last 13 years, and Lee left at No. 15 on the California junior college list for career wins. In 2011, he was inducted into the California Community College Baseball Hall of Fame.

When the Cal Poly job opened, Lee said he wasn’t concerned whether he got it or not. When the offer came, his wife, Liz, repeatedly advised him to make the jump, and the rest is history in the making. 

Lee needs four more wins to pass 400 for his Mustangs career. His name will be forever attached to many significant firsts, and in its 20th season at the Division I level, Cal Poly baseball is in the hands of a true hometown hero at the height of his career.

“I’m very proud and emotional,” Mike Lee said. “I just think it’s a wonderful thing for the community, the school, for Larry, his program and for all of those kids. They’re getting the best of the best from Larry and the staff.”

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