By Ed McGranahan.
CLEMSON — When Jack Leggett scans his 20th roster at Clemson he sees a team of predominantly competitive, driven players consumed by baseball. Leggett says he sees guys a lot like him.
Moments before Clemson’s season begins today Leggett will again deliver the starting lineup to the home plate umpire then sprint back up the first base line to where his team waits to mob him. It’s a tradition that was modified due to the potential wear and tear on a body that’s tested its limits and lost too frequently. Leggett used to slide headfirst. Begrudgingly he quit after a skiing accident in Colorado 13 years ago required neck surgery and a horse collar he hated almost worse than losing.
By his own account, Leggett hurtled himself into everything, even as a kid. The sons of a coach at the University of Vermont had perks. The Leggetts lived across the street from the school’s athletic facilities, and Dad had the keys.
“Teams were picked before we’d get off the bus from school,” he said in an interview a few years ago. “We played every day.”
With two brothers, he never lacked for playmates — or opponents.
“Everything was two-on-one,” though frequently necessitating imagination and creativity. A fallow patch of grass along the Maine coast became Fenway Park during summer visits to their grandparents’ home. They fashioned a game of Whiffle ball, naming their teams for creatures of the sea, playing until dusk and keeping a detailed log of their statistics.
At 11 he joined the town Little League, “an aggressive little catcher” by his own description, and played baseball every summer until he was nearly 30.
For a while, he thought basketball might be his sport. He attended a camp at the U.S. Military Academy when Bob Knight was the coach, and as a high school senior he led Vermont in scoring. By then football seemed to have his attention. “I loved the contact,” he said.
A tailback, defensive back and kicker, he played on two Vermont state champions at South Burlington High. The baseball team also won a pair of state titles with Jack at shortstop. He was captain of all three teams. “I wanted to go to college and play three sports,” he said. “But I just couldn’t fit it in.”
Instead, he attended the University of Maine because Vermont had dropped its baseball program and played baseball and football, a two-time all-conference second baseman and a three-time, all-conference cornerback.
After playing in the College World Series, Jack was urged to attend a tryout in Montreal for the Expos.
“I just knew I could play,” he said. “I quickly learned professional baseball was a business.
“It crushed me,” he said. “All the way home, I fought back tears. “I decided that if that’s the way it was, I’d coach.”
An injury his freshman year had left him with a season of eligibility remaining in football, so Leggett returned to Maine in the fall of 1976 and played for first-year coach Jack Bicknell. Leggett had set a school record the previous year with a 52-yard field goal. “He told me he thought I could kick in the NFL.”
Deciding first to follow through with a promise to himself, after graduation he bought a Harley and rode to Colorado with three friends to ski.
“I loved it so much out there I decided I wanted to go to graduate school at the University of Colorado and coach football.” But when Coach Bill Mallory didn’t have any openings for graduate assistant, Leggett returned to South Burlington and began prepare to audition for the NFL.
One day an assistant athletic director at Vermont tracked him down and asked if he would coach the club baseball team, promising that they would consider returning to varsity status. The job paid $600.
“I always thought of myself as a football coach back then,” but at age 23 he became a baseball coach.
“It was the perfect opportunity for me to get my feet wet,” he said. “The other thing was a dream. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t. “But I knew I wanted to coach.”
His eyes say enough when asked, but Leggett insisted this week he hasn’t lost the edge despite erosions of time. Sleep never comes easy, and Leggett said his mind grinds 24-7, thinking about the game, his team, his players and how to maintain the level of success Clemson expects in baseball.