Ron Rushton finished the high school baseball season last week the way he ends every season: quietly. He had a talk with his team out near the left field wall of Derks Field, away from the press and fans. He helped gather up the gear and spoke softly to those offering congratulations or condolences for finishing second in the 4A tournament. He thanked everyone right down to the team equipment managers, who appeared to be taking Taylorsville's loss much harder than he was.
Another season gone. That makes it 22 for Rushton. In that time he has ended most every year successfully. He has ended them all with dignity.In an era in which things like sportsmanship and class seem to be considered extra baggage, Rushton has employed both, and in the process won more games and championships than anyone currently coaching. Several weeks ago he passed the 400-win mark, a milestone he is almost reluctant to claim. "I'm not sure that's exactly what the number is," he says. "I've never really kept track."
But someone did.
It really hasn't been that difficult a career follow. Rushton has left a trail as plain as an elephant track. He has averaged nearly 20 victories a season, won four state championships and generally gone through the opposition without regard to race, creed or point of origin. During his first year as a head coach at Granger High he took the Lancers to the state 4A semifinals. That was the warmup act. He went to the semifinals twice during his four years at Granger. Next he won two state titles and finished second three times in 11 years at Cottonwood. Lately, he's entertained himself by winning two state championships and finishing second twice in seven years at Taylorsville.
Not the kind of guy you want to see grinning at you from the other dugout.
"Ron has been able to win at three schools. That tells you something," said Granger Coach Mike Folster. "Sure, they've got good kids there (at Taylorsville), but Ron's had our number. I don't know of anybody who has ever done a better job in high school."
Rushton is always included when talk gets around to the best prep baseball coaches in Utah history. He has a reputation of being an impeccable teacher of fundamental, and a coach who has good rapport with his players.
Also on the alltime greats list is former Hillcrest coach Don Gust. "He's the toughest guy to beat I ever had to play," says Gust. "It was always the biggest game of the year, no matter where his team was from."
Rushton, an unflappable baseball man, becomes somewhat sheepish when it comes to accepting praise. Coaching dozens of players on to college or pro careers is one thing. Talking about himself is another. "Good kids make good coaches," he defers.
Not that he doesn't have his animated side. Former Taylorsville player Mike Littlewood, who is just winding up his career at BYU, recalls being told to bunt when the Warriors had a five-run lead one day. The opposing coach thought that was rubbing things in, so he ordered his pitcher to throw at Littlewood. Rushton, enraged, charged the opposing coach. "They were toe-to-toe," says Littlewood. "He was going nuts. I thought they were going to start shoving."
On another occasion the Warriors got kicked all over the field in a game, after which Rushton spent an hour chewing out the players. "The coach just ripped on us forever. If you make an error or strike out, that's OK. But if you mess up on the mental stuff and don't do your best, he'll get on you," Littlewood continues.
Rushton remains one of the best-liked baseball coaches in the state, both by players and coaches. He refuses to blame losses on the standard excuses, i.e. lack of rested pitchers, poor officiating or scheduling, etc. Last weekend his team played until 1 a.m. on Friday night to get into the finals, then turned around and played two on Saturday. The Warriors came back to win the first game before losing out to Bountiful in the finale. Afterwards, he didn't mention playing three games in 18 hours. He only said he was happy enough with second place, because his team played its hardest. Winning, Rushton contends, ranks far behind trying.
"I think he's the best. He's proven that," says Bountiful Coach Phil Olsen. "He's just so under control all the time, and, well, I'm so out of control all the time . . ."
Rushton stops just short of kicking the dirt and blushing about his phenomenal coaching record. "Aw," he says, "I've just been blessed with good kids."
Saying he's had good kids to work with is like Aaron saying he had good bats; like Streep saying she's had good props. Everyone's got the same basic materials. It's all in how you put them to use.