Born and raised in San Luis Obispo County with deep ties to the biggest baseball programs in the area, Chal Fanning has a new challenge in a different state — but still located directly in his comfort zone.
Fanning, who managed the San Luis Obispo Blues summer collegiate baseball team for 12 seasons and spent the past three years as an assistant at Cuesta College, was named the pitching coach of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., on Wednesday.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Fanning, 46, who graduated from Paso Robles High in 1987 before playing and coaching at both Cal Poly and Cuesta. “When you look at all the family, friends, Cuesta, Cal Poly and just the whole San Luis community that I’ve known and been around for a long time; that’s the bitter part.
“But the sweet part is that I’ve been working for this for a long time.”
This will be Fanning’s third stint with a Division I program but first since 2003. He had been trying to get back in the ranks since he and his wife, Michelle, closed their lighting retail business in September 2010 due to the economic downturn.
“It’s been a trying process the last three years,” said Fanning, as the couple was forced to sell its home among other possessions. “Ever since we closed our business, my wife and I knew I needed to get back to baseball full time.
“We realized that baseball was my passion. It’s where I excelled.”
Fanning, who was a pitcher on the 1992 Cal Poly team that finished third in the Division II national tournament, threw his hat in the ring for as many vacancies as he could across the country.
There were times when he felt close to landing one, Fanning said, but he continuously came up empty handed.
“I seemed to finish second in a lot of races,” he said. “I kept feeling like a silver medalist at the Olympics.”
Down but not out, Fanning heard of the Austin Peay opening when he and his wife were on their way to an annual camping trip in Kings Canyon near Fresno in early August. Having dealt with coaches all over the country in filling out the Blues’ summer rosters, he called Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano to put in a good word with the nearby school. Serrano helped Fanning get the job, and now the two will become instant rivals on the baseball diamond and recruiting circuit.
“This is a tough fraternity to get into,” said Fanning, whose first interview for the job was conducted via Skype from the Kings Canyon Lodge. “I just feel very fortunate to be back and coaching. I can’t even put into words what an outstanding feeling it is.”
Austin Peay competes in the Ohio Valley Conference and its baseball team has produced 36 Major Leaguers, including current Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis and New York Yankees pitcher Shawn Kelley.
“I believe we were fortunate to find Chal, and he will be a good fit for our program,” said Governors head coach Gary McClure in a news release.
“Among all the candidates, his experience as a pitching coach really stood out. Chal has recruited and coached top-level talent wherever he has been. He will be able to help our program maintain its high standard going forward.”
Fanning first coached the Blues in 1994-96 before heading to Missouri to be an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, helping the Tigers bring aboard future MLB players such as Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler and Blue Jays and Brewers pitcher Shaun Marcum.
But when Cal Poly hired Larry Lee —who Fanning played for at Cuesta — in 2002, he returned to San Luis Obispo to join his former coach’s staff.
After just a year with the Mustangs, Fanning entered the business world by starting Glow Illuminating Designs with his wife, who has also owned an interior design company in San Luis Obispo since 1991.
It took him just three years to miss baseball enough to return to the Blues in 2006, where he’s helped build the team and the California Collegiate League into respected institutions across the nationwide baseball scene.
“He’s a local guy and a baseball guy that cares a lot about the development of players,” Cuesta coach Bob Miller said. “He’s got a great knowledge for the game. He’s not just a pitching coach — he’s very well rounded.”
Fanning thanked Miller for giving him a position on the Cougars staff during a time of transition and turmoil in his life.
“I’m indebted to so many people in the baseball community and in San Luis Obispo that supported me over the years,” said Fanning, who went 425-226 with the Blues. “I wouldn’t be where I am at now without them.”
A moment he’ll never forget, Fanning said, was when he met with the Cuesta team one last time before shipping off to Clarksville.
“I told those guys that if there’s one thing you take away from your time with me, it’s that you’ve got to keep getting up and playing,” he said.
“If you strike out or have a bad inning, you’ve just got to get back in the batter’s box and good things will happen.”