Mike Lee likens coaching sports to teaching pupils in any other subject.
“If I’m on the field or the diamond, that’s my classroom,” he said.
For the first time this millennium, there will be a new professor of San Luis Obispo High softball.
The longtime Tigers coach and softball pioneer at Cuesta College is stepping aside after more than three decades of coaching on the Central Coast.
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“It’s my 37th year being involved with education and coaching,” Lee said after 15 seasons at San Luis Obispo, which announced the revered coach’s resignation Monday. “It’s just time to pass it along and allow someone else to take the challenge and move that program forward.”
Lee said he will continue to help out the athletic department in various capacities and will keep teaching his criminal justices and economics classes at the school he quarterbacked to a CIF AA football championship in 1968.
But for those who played for and against Lee, the local softball dugouts won’t be the same without his mix of competitiveness and caring.
“He’s a class act,” said Paso Robles coach Val Reynolds, who has coached softball in the area since 1984 and considers Lee to be a close friend and competitor. “I always felt like the San Luis girls were lucky to have his knowledge. He really knows the game, and he taught his team how to play and how to behave.”
One of those San Luis Obispo girls was Katie Burkhart, who played for Lee in the mid-2000s and led Arizona State to a Women’s College World Series championship in 2008.
The pitching phenom said Lee was a great coach because he “was always trying to really explain and help you understand what he’s talking about.”
Burkhart said Lee sent dozens of letters to college coaches across the country during her recruitment process, and the two kept in touch as she played professionally in Japan and Italy and for the U.S. national team.
“He was one of the first people to enlighten my parents on the recruiting process,” said Burkhart, who lives in Tennessee and teaches softball clinics across the country through her business, Pitch Responsibly. “If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have known what to do.”
Following Burkhart’s championship performance at Arizona State, Lee pushed to have her Sun Devils jersey framed in her favorite local restaurant, Firestone Grill.
When she returned to the area that summer, there it hung.
“I was always irritated that they never had female athletes hanging up there … and he never forgot that,” Burkhart said. “I don’t ever look for accolades, but that speaks volumes about the coach and person he is.”
Lee and the Tigers won their first league title in 2004, when Burkhart pitched them to a school-record 21 wins but was the tough-luck loser of a 1-0, 14-inning pitching duel in the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs.
San Luis Obispo won its one and only playoff game to date in 2005 and another league championship in 2007, but has since failed to consistently contend in the area as participation numbers remain erratic.
“They haven’t been very good of late, but I’ve never felt that’s his fault,” said Reynolds of the Tigers, who finished 9-18 this year and 2-10 in the PAC 7. “They just didn’t have the kids out there to compete. He would have to take kids off the street because there wasn’t a lot of interest in the SLO area, which is crazy.”
Lee said the number of players in the San Luis Obispo youth leagues fluctuates, which makes it harder to compete against schools such as Righetti — a beneficiary of a stronger feeder program.
No matter the experience level of a player, Lee’s philosophy never wavered.
“You want them to come with their best effort and you, as the head coach, have to be the leader who exemplifies that,” he said. “They are going to follow you. You’re an extension of what you’re trying to do.”
Lee preached that both winning and losing should be done with grace and that the final result on a scoreboard meant little if the process to attain it didn’t come with maximum effort.
“The lessons that are learned in the classroom or on the field are very important in how to handle particular situations,” he said. “I’m sure my athletes over the years have learned a lot more than just how to play the game.
“You may not always be the best in what you’re doing, but you can compete at the hardest level you possibly can.”
The oldest son in the locally renowned Lee family, Mike’s father, Tom, was a Cal Poly Hall of Fame football coach. His mother, Anne, taught physical education at San Luis Obispo High as well as coached girls tennis for the Tigers. His younger brother, Larry, just wrapped his 12th — and most successful — season at the helm of the Cal Poly baseball team.
“I remember growing up in San Luis,” Burkhart said, “you always heard about the Lee family and how talented the brothers were.
“You go to a town like SLO because of the generation families and the happy-go-lucky feeling of the city. The Lee family really contributed to that.”
Mike made it into the San Francisco Giants farm system before starting the Cuesta softball program in 1980. Within three years of their existence, the Cougars were ranked fourth in the state. Lee guided Cuesta to 313 wins in 15 years before coming back to his alma mater to coach in the high school ranks.
He was a baseball assistant at San Luis Obispo for three seasons before taking over the softball program in 2000.
The Tigers won 187 games since, pushing his career record between Cuesta and San Luis Obispo to 500-417-1.
“I always felt like he was more family than a coach, and he brought that to the team,” Burkhart said. “You want to look up to your coaches, and I definitely was able to do that.”