After 37 years as head baseball coach, McSpadden retires
When Galen McSpadden took over as head baseball coach at Seward County Community College in 1981, he inherited a program with a mere handful of players. The previous coach had been dismissed and plans to fill the roster had not begun. McSpadden, exiting the worlds of professional baseball and pitching coach at Southeast Missouri State University, needed a team.
“It was a last-minute recruiting challenge, and it kick-started my coaching career,” he recalls. He put together a “great bunch of guys, with only three or four pitchers, and ended up with a 33 and 7 season; back then, you could only schedule 40 games a year.”
Two thousand games later, McSpadden will end his run as head coach on May 21. Though his last day on campus will come at the end of the summer, McSpadden has one clear focus: the needs of the players, the program, and the institution. He’s proud of more than 1,240 wins over 37 years, but more likely to talk about the students he has mentored along the way.
“There’s a lot of young men who were coached in this program who appreciate Seward County and what it did for them through the way they were treated,” he said. “That’s what I’m proud of — having built a program that gives young men the opportunity to come in and play and advance their academics, baseball skills, and open doors to their futures… I don’t believe we’re put on this earth for any reason but to help others.”
McSpadden’s timing comes down to that standard. After a lifetime of playing a game he came to love as a boy, he says, “it’s time for me to take care of my family,” specifically his wife Debbie, and his dad, Junior, who will soon be 94.
As for his Saints family, McSpadden is more concerned about how to ensure continued success than with reaching retirement benchmark dates.
“It’s time for the baseball program to continue without me, and I want those players who are coming back to have continuity, and for the new recruits to have confidence,” he said. “I feel the program is healthy and will continue to compete.”
As the program transitions from the McSpadden model, SCCC Director of Athletics Roy Allen and longtime Assistant Coach Mike Davidson will shepherd the process.
“You know, when you step away, you can’t reach back in and try to micromanage or help make decisions. The next head coach will take on those responsibilities,” he said. “Even though I’ll be around this summer, my focus is going to be helping out with the Capital Campaign and staying out of the way of the baseball program.”
McSpadden, who simultaneously served as SCCC Athletic Director and baseball coach for 34 years, stepped down from the dual role two years ago. He said the experience gave him valuable insights about how to navigate a transition.
“When you’ve been part of a system for so many years, things get interwoven to an extent you may not realize,” he said. “My approach has been, step back, listen, and let the people you have hired do their jobs and provide direction if necessary.”
‘Blessed with a good left arm’
It’s nearly impossible for McSpadden to envision life without baseball. Growing up in the country of southeast Missouri, he spent his childhood immersed in nature and the game.
“We lived on a wildlife refuge, so I had 30,000 acres for hunting and bass lake that I lived on. I hunted, I fished, I helped farmers, and I played baseball,” he said. “My dad likes to tell me, ‘When you were two years old, everything that was lying on the ground, rock or stick, whatever, you’d pick it up and throw it.’”
When McSpadden turned five years old, his father signed him up for summer baseball, coaching him as the years went by.
“God blessed me with a good left arm,” McSpadden said.
Though the McSpaddens were people of modest means, “my parents supported me all the way through. Living in the country my parents had to drive me everywhere to play. They sacrificed some things for me to do that, to help me feel good about myself,” McSpadden said. Through high school, he pitched for a little town called Zalma, a class 1 a school, and walked on to the baseball team at Southeast Missouri University at Cape Girardeau after graduation.
“I was very small in stature, and I didn’t think I was good enough to play college ball, but things worked out and I had a great, four-year career.” Being a left-handed pitcher, McSpadden added, “is a plus in the game of baseball.”
The summer after his sophomore year and following his junior and senior years in college, McSpadden headed west to play for the semi-pro Liberal Bee Jays, where he got the attention of professional scouts. After graduation from SEMO in 1974, he was drafted by the San Diego Padres as a left-handed pitcher.
During the seasons that McSpadden filled the dugout for the Bee Jays, he met his future wife, Debbie Pottroff. The young married couple moved often as his baseball career developed — to Walla Walla, Wash., to Reno, Nev., to Phoenix, Ariz., to pitching in major league spring training, to a Triple A team in Hawaii, and Double A in Amarillo. An injury in 1978 brought McSpadden’s career to a close.
When he looks back on his playing days, McSpadden doesn’t view the negatives. He treasures the original Topps Bubblegum Company baseball card he bought from eBay several years back, and the bright memories of hope, fellow players, and love of the game it represents.
“I’m so grateful that I was given an avenue to explore my love of baseball,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with being able to stay in a game that I fell in love with as a kid. That’s not something that happens for a lot of people. I owe everything good that has happened along the way to the good Lord, parents, friends, coaches I played for, coaches I have coached with, players that I played with and players that I have coached, friends, and of course, my family. And, I’m thankful for all who have taken a chance on me, SEMO University, the Liberal Bee Jays, the San Diego Padres, and for the last 37 years, Seward County Community College and the Liberal, Kansas community.”
Back in Debbie’s hometown, changes in the athletic department of the then-fledgling junior college, not yet 10 years old, had created a vacancy on the coaching staff. Her mother made sure the McSpaddens learned of the opportunity.
“I was familiar with Seward County, having played two plus summers as a Bee Jay, and when I learned of the opening, I decided to throw my hat in the ring,” McSpadden said. The last applicant allowed, “Dr. Hooper and the board took a chance on me. I’ll always appreciate that.”
Galen, Debbie, and their newborn daughter Kelli moved into dormitory housing to serve as resident directors. As the years at SCCC passed, the McSpaddens moved to a place of their own. The family grew with the birth of a son, Josh.
Then, despite his busy coaching schedule McSpadden was presented with another unexpected opportunity.
“Dr. James Hooper took an even bigger chance on me when he talked me into taking the athletic director position that opened up in the middle of the year,” he said. “He literally had to talk me into it, because I liked coaching and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to do both things.”
He wasn’t wrong, but McSpadden proved up to the challenge.
“My goal when I took over was to create an athletic department that was competitive, respected, and would represent this community at state, region and national levels as well to wallpaper that gym with banners, and gosh, we’ve come close,” he said.
These days, he enjoys being able to savor the many academic and athletic achievements that are represented by those banners.
‘The thinking man’s sport’
Throughout the changes, baseball remained his first choice.
“Part of the condition with being AD was that I get a full-time assistant coach, and that was allowed. That really helped the program, with the recruiting, the training, all of it,” he said. “I’ve had three assistants over the years. Paul D’Amico for 5 years, Darin Thomas for 9 years, and, for the last 18 years, Mike Davidson. Paul went on to become a baseball coach and high school principal. Darin is the head coach at UT Arlington.” The program could not have been built without their help, he noted.
But it’s the student-athletes who bring the biggest smile to McSpadden’s face.
“The memories are outstanding,” he said. “Most of the guys I’ve coached have gone on to play at four-year schools. The graduation rate is above 90 percent, and then there are the close to 100 players who have had the opportunity to play professionally, either out of this program, or went to another college, and then signed.”
The rate of success on and off the diamond is no surprise to McSpadden, who believes baseball is vastly underrated for its deeper lessons.
“There’s intricacies of the game that people don’t see if all they’re hoping for is a big home run, or a no-hitter or a great play,” he said. “But baseball is a game of socialization for the spectators where you can go sit and visit and have a great time with family and friends, and not miss anything. It’s that pace that’s human, and allows for human interaction.”
The slow pace is an asset for the players on the field as well. The game has a time of its own.
“In baseball, you’re standing around so much, you’ve got to motivate yourself when there’s nothing out there to motivate you,” McSpadden said. “That’s a life lesson right there.”
Running in the background, where spectators may not notice it, is the strategy: when to hit, when to run, when to bunt, who to bring in a pinch hitter or a new pitcher.
“It’s a thinking man’s game because you’ve got time to think. Other sports like basketball and football are so fast-paced, the dynamic is different,” McSpadden mused, adding, “I don’t think fast enough to be able to coach those other sports.”
In McSpadden’s view, the biggest lesson baseball offers is how to cope with failure.
“Nine guys against one batter. It’s designed for you not to be successful,” he pointed out. “A 300 hitter is considered very good, but he’s failed seven out of ten times. What other jobs is going to reward you if you’ve failed that much? You learn how to handle it in baseball and that prepares you for life.”
‘Heading home after 37 years’
As he views his own trajectory through life, McSpadden is ready to embark on a new season. It’s no surprise that baseball will still play a role. Son Josh and his wife, Jessica, live with their two sons, Boston and Cannon, in Midlothian, Texas. Kelli, married to Terry Tiffee, lives in the same community with their twin boys, Talan and Brennan, and daughter McKenli.
When a house midway between his two children’s homes came on the market, McSpadden took a closer look. Six blocks from Josh and Kelli respectively, the place came with a barn, two acres, a small stream, and endless possibilities. The McSpaddens snapped it up, and are adding a batting cage to the property, perfect for the grandchildren who will soon have a standing coach on duty for their Little League teams.
“I’ve never been a planner, and this came up like so many things in my life — boom, there it was,” he said. “It’s the right time. Debbie needs to have knee surgery, for the fourth time. My dad doesn’t want to move from Missouri, but I think he’s willing to come visit so I’ll kidnap him for a while in order to make the most of our time together.
“I’ve been blessed by baseball and I owe a lot to this college. It gave me an opportunity to have a coaching career, raise two children, coach my own son in college ball, and it gave me a chance to deal with hundreds of students, staff, team members. It’s a special place with a Seward County Way.”
McSpadden’s only regret is that he will not witness the dream that started many years ago — the Sharp Family Champion Center.
“However, I am excited that the dream has a great possibility of becoming a reality in the near future,” he said. “I hope that all of the past, present, and future Seward County Baseball Players and supporters will continue to contribute to a vision that will help raise the bar of pride and success of the SCCC baseball program, and Liberal.”
As McSpadden leaves the field, SCCC President Dr. Ken Trzaska said he, too, has benefitted from the coach’s expertise.
“It’s been an honor to work with such a legend,” he said. “I’ve learned significant, meaningful lessons from Galen, and I’m going to miss him. His humility and commitment to the work we do at Seward are unparalleled.”