As he nears retirement, Lamar’s Jim Gilligan still doing it his way

There’s a stretch of road in Beaumont, Texas, that runs adjacent to Vincent-Beck Stadium, home of the Lamar Cardinals baseball team.

Once known as Florida Avenue, it was renamed Jim Gilligan Way in 2010, in honor of the legendary head coach who announced last September he would retire following the 2016 season.

Not everyone has the privilege of having a street named after them. But Gilligan isn’t just another baseball coach. He has dedicated over 40 years of his life to his alma mater and its community. In 2010, the city of Beaumont recognized his contributions by voting for the name change.

“They wanted to know if I wanted it to be Jim Gilligan Boulevard; I wanted Jim Gilligan Way, because, as I tell everybody, it’s my way or Jim Gilligan way,” he joked.

To say Gilligan is the face of Cardinal baseball is an understatement. He was one of its original players, when the baseball program began in 1967, serving two seasons as the southpaw ace of the pitching staff. After signing a professional contract with the Detroit Tigers in 1969, he suffered a strained back muscle during his first year in Class A, and was forced to give up playing after the injury failed to heal properly.

What looked like a setback at the time turned in to an opportunity for Gilligan to start coaching at an early age. After a stint as a graduate assistant at Lamar, Gilligan received his first head coaching job at Western New Mexico in 1972, guiding the Mustangs to a 10-10 record. When his alma mater came calling in 1973, he jumped at the chance to come back to the Cardinals as head coach, where he coached the next 14 seasons.

Following a disagreement over his contract, Gilligan left to join the Salt Lake Trappers of the Independent League as pitching coach and manager from 1987 to 1991. During the 1987 season, the Trappers broke a 68-year professional record by winning 29 consecutive games. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., recognized the achievement with a permanent display featuring his No. 29 jersey, a number he still wears to this day.

The Cardinals struggled in his absence, going 120-152-1. After the school persuaded Gilligan to return for the 1992 season, he didn’t take long to bring the program back to its former glory. Lamar posted a 32-21 record that season, followed by a Sun Belt Conference championship in 1993.

The Cardinals have a staggering 29 30-win seasons under his leadership, eight 40-win seasons, and one in which he set a school record with 54 wins in 1981. All but two of the school’s 12 conference championships came with Gilligan as head coach, along with 12 NCAA Regional appearances. He’s coached 133 all-conference selections, 79 major league draftees, four All-Americans and six major-leaguers in his career.

In 2004, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame enshrined Gilligan as one of its members, the same year former Houston Astros stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were inducted.

“I knew (Bagwell and Biggio), so it was special for me going in there,” he said. “It quadrupled the honor for me when I heard their names.”

“One of the things the team will miss about Gilligan, says athletic director Jason Henderson, is his knowledge of the game. “(He has) decades upon decades of baseball knowledge,” Henderson said. “He knows everybody in every town.”

Gilligan is quick to point out those who have helped him reach his mountaintop of success, including former Texas League manager and Lamar assistant Al Vincent. He credits his high school coach, Jerry Pannell, for giving him the desire to become a coach.

And, of course, there’s LaVerne. The two met while Gilligan was attending Wharton County College, and married in 1974. She has been a tireless supporter of the university, raising funds for the annual baseball banquet and billboard sponsorships.

Last season, Gilligan became only the 19th coach in NCAA history to reach 1,300 victories in his career. The Cardinals are in the midst of another successful season in 2016. Through March 30, they are 17-7, including a win over the University of Texas.

Others may have a tough time envisioning retirement. Not Gilligan. For one thing, he isn’t leaving baseball or the school completely. This summer, he plans to spend some time in the Hamptons as a roving pitching instructor, and will continue to remain close to the Lamar program as an adviser.

“I’m not going to stop coaching, he said. “If I wasn’t going to do what I’m going to do, I would be really starting to get sad right now. I’ll be involved.”

No doubt, he’ll still be doing it the Gilligan Way.

Above and middle: Lamar's Jim Gilligan has coached 133 all-conference players, 79 major league draftees, four All-Americans and six major-leaguers in his career. (Courtesy Kyle Ezell/Lamar University Athletics)

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