Billy Gernon inspires Broncos with lessons for baseball, life

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Billy Gernon talks to catcher Jesse Forestell earlier this season.

The first thing you notice when you talk to Billy Gernon, you like him.

The second thing, well, he's got a quote for all occasions, good times and bad, funny and serious.

"It's crazy to me," said Western Michigan senior infielder Hunter Prince, laughing the other day. "I don't know how he knows that many."

Said Grant Miller, a junior infielder: "Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure he has his own notebook of all the different quotes he uses, and when he can use them. In the middle of a practice, he'll put out a piece of paper with all these quotes and go find the right quote.

"They do a good job of illustrating what he wants from us."

That's just part of the story of Gernon, a 49-year-old with a Southern drawl who's in his sixth season as coach of the Broncos. He has WMU in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989 following a stunning victory in the Mid-American Conference tournament over the weekend.

WMU opens play at 6 p.m. Friday night at No. 7 Louisville, not even a half-hour from where Gernon grew up, in New Albany in southern Indiana.

He's part Tony Robbins, part Gen. Patton; he's part Jim Gaffigan and part John Keating from "Dead Poets Society" -- a teacher of so much.

And it's proven the perfect blend of personality for this year's Broncos, who were dealt one blow after another early in the season.

It takes a special person to keep the bond strong as oak, during the toughest of times. And ask around, and you'll learn in a snap that person was Gernon, who stood back Sunday in Avon, Ohio, watching a mob scene of Broncos on the pitcher's mound, after WMU beat Kent State, 12-7, to clinch the program's first MAC tournament title.

"In a heavyweight fight, that guy standing there with that belt is bleeding," said Gernon, "and we were, too. We were, too.

"It was just extremely gratifying. It was surreal when we won it, watching the guys enjoy it. I didn't celebrate as much as I thought. I just remember yelling, 'Where are my seniors?' I wanted to hug them."

Truth is, it’s Gernon's time as much as his players'. He's earned this, with all the long hours, long bus rides, a willingness to take a demotion -- which, in the end, wasn't really a demotion, after all -- and a desire to change his stubborn ways, despite being well into middle age and baldness.

"My trust in him is marrow deep." -- Abraham Lincoln

Gernon's college baseball career began at Indiana-Southeast, where he played three seasons. Drawn to a chance -- but only a chance -- to play at a bigger school, and in the Big Ten, he transferred to Indiana in 1989, planning to try out for the baseball team.

"Then," said Gernon, "everything changed."

Gernon's younger brother by four years, David Taylor Gernon, was killed in a car accident during his senior year of high school. Kids of divorce, the Gernon boys had grown incredibly close as the years went by, brought even closer by the game they loved, baseball; they played together in high school.

Understandably devastated, Gernon decided to pass on his tryout.

The Gernon family after this year's MAC title game: From left, daughter Abby Taylor, Billy Gernon, wife Annie, son Jacob David.

In 1990, he was ready to try again, so he called then-coach Bob Morgan and got all the details. When Gernon showed up, there were 80 kids at a tryout, fighting for two whole spots. Gernon got one of them, and ended up a star in his one season -- beating Bill Freehan's team at Michigan, earning a save against Illinois and eventual legendary coach Augie Garrido, and a win against Purdue.

Most importantly, he found a surrogate dad in Morgan.

"I don't know if I could repay the game," said Gernon, "or Coach Morgan.

"It didn't save my life, but it sure helped me. I was in a bad spot, and that kept me glued together."

It also set in motion his desire to go into coaching; his brother's passing played a role, too.

"It made me want to be around that age group," Gernon said.

Gernon started out coaching high school, before Morgan called a few years later and offered him a student-assistant job, which he took and did for one year. The next year, Tony Vittorio, then the head coach at IPFW, came calling with an intriguing job offer, if not a very exciting salary. Gernon accepted, and, while working, he also took classes toward an English degree. Teaching always intrigued him.

So, eventually, did a classmate named Annie Recker, who would become his wife -- they have a son, Jacob David, and a daughter, Abby Taylor, both with middle names as tribute to Gernon's late brother.

In 2000, the IPFW head-coaching job came open, with Vittorio moving on to Dayton. Gernon got it. And it was a challenge -- Division II from 2000-03, Division I starting in 2004 but with no conference to call home those first four years, and thus so few home games. He had no paid assistants, and only five scholarships -- and those were in-state only. Any work that needed to be done at the stadium, he did with his players, including building an 8-foot wall, a backstop and bleachers.

Gernon stuck it out at IPFW for nine years. The last season, the school finally found a conference -- the Summit League, with all those thrilling bus trips to Utah, the Dakotas and the like.

"I told my wife," said Gernon, "'I can't do this, just for my prostate.'"

He wouldn't have to. Jake Boss Jr., who had just taken Eastern Michigan to the NCAAs in his one year in Ypsilanti, was getting the Michigan State head-coaching job, replacing David Grewe, and he wanted Gernon on his staff.

"The wolf is fierce, but the pack is ferocious."

When you're the boss, it's not often you're itching to work for somebody else. But Gernon knew this time, it was time. He had to take a step back -- ironically, to his Big Ten roots -- to take two steps forward someday.

That was exactly what Boss was hoping Gernon would think.

"When I got to Michigan State, I'd only been a head coach for a year, really not even a full year. Now at Michigan State, I needed somebody with head-coaching experience," Boss said. "To be quite honest, at the beginning there, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just trying to keep it together.

"He was a much-needed part of our staff."

Billy Gernon and the Broncos open NCAA Tournament play against Louisville.

Boss figured the stay might be short, but pivotal -- both for the Spartans, and Gernon's future.

When Gernon arrived at Michigan State, he had a disciplinarian vibe -- one he picked up from Morgan at IU, and his fascination with military. When you're the head coach, it's easy to be like that.

When you're an assistant, it's just different. You're typically closer to the players than the head coach, Boss concedes. You're a sounding board, less dad, more pal.

That's one thing Gernon learned at Michigan State. He also ran practices, and Boss' summer camps. Preparation -- there's another thing he learned.

And he also learned how to work at a big-time program, how to manage schedules, personnel stuff that wasn't exactly at the forefront at IPFW.

His first year at MSU, the Spartans went 23-31. The second year, they went 34-19. And in 2012, they went 37-23 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1979. Gernon was gone by 2012, but Boss didn't diminish his impact.

"No question," said Boss, "we wouldn't have (made) it he had not been here."

So many things stand out about Gernon, among them his honesty -- and, Boss said, his sense of humor.

"I don't think there's a funnier guy I've ever been around," Boss said. "At the end of the day, it's about impacting kids, about making a difference in kids' lives, and having a good time. I think he's really embraced all of that.

"Everybody feels the pressure to win, and when they don't win, you feel you're letting a lot of people down -- family, administration. At the same time, I think he's able to separate the two. And that is something that is contagious."

In May 2010, Western Michigan fired Randy Ford, the coach for six years. Athletic director Kathy Beauregard got some 100 resumes, and one stood well above the rest.

She wanted head-coaching experience, motivation, someone who'd embrace the WMU culture, and, of course, eventual success.

Gernon, she said, was among the easiest calls she's ever had to make in her 20 years as an administrator.

"The team is like a symphony; if you take an instrument away, it affects the sound."

Gernon was given a two-year contract to start, and remains on the job, despite losing records in all six seasons at WMU. There were no winning seasons at IPFW, either.

And here he is, a valued commodity. That should tell you all you need to know about the man.

Billy Gernon in action during his one season at Indiana in 1990.

"He is unique," Beauregard said. "He's a very cerebral coach, but also a very emotional coach. From that aspect, he's one that is different than we've had, and it's really turned out to really be great."

At a mid-major school, as Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan are as members of the MAC, you fight to build a winning and passionate culture.

That’s one reason Gernon is a good fit, even if he no longer has to build a stadium with his own two hands to show off his dedication.

"He absolutely comes to everybody's games, all the football, all the basketball, volleyball, he's everywhere," Beauregard said. "Coaches love coaches, and they're the only ones that really know what this (coaching) life is really like. Supporting each other in that aspect is really a big part of it."

Gernon talks about 16 inches -- as in, the distance from the assistant coach's seat on the dugout, to where the head coach plops down. They're barely over a foot apart, but those 16 inches in East Lansing might've just revived Gernon's career.

It gave him a new perspective on life -- at MSU, he got to see his kids more; Boss mandated a weekend a month off during the summer for his staff, and Gernon could drive his kids to school -- and, of course, his career.

"Professional development is for everybody," he said. "Being a head coach, it can get kind of lonely."

Not that you can imagine Gernon ever being lonely. He struck up friendships in Kalamazoo easily; it doesn't come naturally to everybody, maybe not even most people, but it comes oh so naturally to him. One relationship to flourish was with then-Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, among WMU's most-famous alums.

That led to WMU striking a deal with the Tigers to play some spring games in Tigertown, against Tigers minor-leaguers. The agreement continues, under new GM Al Avila.

"A very impressive individual," Dombrowski, now the president of the Boston Red Sox, told The Detroit News. "We have met on numerous occasions. He's passionate, knowledgeable, and driven to make his program succeed and also to help his players prepare for life."

Take this season. WMU lost its record-setting closer, Gabe Berman, to a freak neck injury. Three different players battled mono. Another, junior utilityman Beau Filkins, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer -- a crushing blow, until he miraculously beat it. In April, Filkins threw out a ceremonial first pitch.

There's life, and there's a game. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which matters most.

Now, that didn't always ease the sting of the Broncos’ rough start to the season -- eight straight losses, and 12 of 13 -- but given all they'd been through, they couldn't even sweat the struggles. A coach who'd dealt with so much tragedy, when he was around their age, wouldn't allow it.

"He really kept the team together as one," Miller said. "A lot of teams would've fallen apart."

"Failure is an event, not a person."

At IPFW, Gernon had a word of the day -- perhaps trying in vain to get some use out of his IPFW English degree.

At WMU, it became a quote of the day, with the quote posted in the locker room before each practice or game. (It's posted right next to the day's expectations, both in the class and on the diamond. "The AC in academics comes before the AT in athletics," said Gernon, "even in the dictionary.")

And the players know they best look at that board, comprehend the day's passage, and be able to recite it, word for word if it's short, paraphrased if it's longer.

"The way that he uses them relates so well to our situation," said Prince, of Grand Rapids. "They're always relevant."

Said Miller, of Bay City: "He can sell you anything."

Like, say, an NCAA Tournament appearance to a baseball team that, weeks ago, was dead and buried by just about everybody who didn't wear a black-and-gold jersey.

Gernon started collecting the quotes in his mid-20s, creating a file he called, "Virtues." He loves speakers, and speaking. He loves John C. Maxwell books, even the electronic ministers on TV. In a five-minute conversation over the phone, he might quote everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare to that wise old sage, Anonymous. Coming from someone else, the quotes could be considered a turnoff, a pretentious attempt to prove your worth. It never comes off that way from Gernon, who figures he's collected 100,000 or so, stored on everything from flash drives to Post-its.

"I'm a skimmer," Gernon said. "I don't go front to back. I'm a skimmer. I like to just roll through things. I like to read a bunch of stuff about military strategy.

"I like things that are well-said, and that are unique, and kind of captures somebody's attention."

Collecting the quotes is just a start. Using them in proper context is much harder.

Gernon hasn't always won on the field, but he just might have a perfect record when picking out those quotes, which never came in handy more than this rough-and-tumble season for a team that actually, and appropriately, has dubbed itself the TrashBoyz.

When they win, they often win ugly -- as was the case in the MAC title game against Kent State, against whom WMU led 12-0 after six, and 12-7 after seven.

"He holds everyone to a standard that's never been held before," Miller said. "That type of accountability really helps everyone on the team get better and grow. He makes us much better.

"He believes in every one of us, loves all of us. You don't get that everywhere."

Nor do you get everywhere a walking, talking philosopher -- and one who can crack a joke as easily as he cracks his latest book, to boot.

Western Michigan's run in the NCAA Tournament might not be long -- the Broncos are 22-32, after all, and Louisville is a power and Big Ten tournament-champion Ohio State is in the double-elimination regional, too -- but like the coach, the experience is sure to have quite the impact.

Now, you'll have to excuse Gernon.

He is off to find just the right quote for this weekend.

"Champions are never chosen from the ranks of the unscarred."