When Wayne King arrived in Joliet in 1986, he was not sure he had made the right decision.
And now, as the Ohio native retires after 33 years as the baseball coach at Joliet Junior College – the final 24 doubling as the athletic director – he has no intention of leaving.
“I was assisting in the baseball program at Ohio University and was recruiting a kid from Michigan whose father knew Tom Horne,” King recalled.
That was in 1986, when Horne was the Wolves’ football coach and athletic director.
“I came here never having seen the place,” King continued. “We were living in Athens, Ohio, a quiet town, very beautiful and laid-back. In Joliet, there’s more hustle and bustle. My wife [Janine] is an emergency room nurse. The emergency room here compared to there is night and day.
“After I arrived on campus, I called my wife and said I may have made a mistake. The field here was awful, I was in a small office, it was Aug. 20, and I was still trying to recruit kids. But we didn’t do bad that first year.”
Nor any spring thereafter. Years ago, King spearheaded the drive to transform the JJC diamond into one of the best – Wayne L. King Jr. Field. And, the recent addition of the state-of-the-art Event Center on campus has put the Wolves’ facilities on par with any.
Under King, the JJC baseball team won NJCAA Division III national championships in 1994, 2008 and 2012, finished second in 1995, 2007 and 2015 and was third in 1997 and 2006. The Wolves made 12 World Series appearances, claimed 16 Region IV tournament titles and won seven North Central Community College Conference titles.
“It was an eye-opener coming here,” King said. “I knew baseball in Ohio, and there were no two-year schools there. I was totally unfamiliar with how this worked, having kids for two years, or maybe only one.”
As a Division III school, JJC is nonscholarship.
“We’re not always getting top-notch kids, we’re getting kids that maybe were overlooked or have not matured yet,” King said. “They matured here. And every year, we have had five, six, seven, eight, nine kids go on to four-year schools. We had 17 sophomores last year, and 16 went to four-year schools.”
“We get players who are overlooked or are down in the recruiting process for one reason or another,” said Gregg Braun, King’s associate head coach who will be filling his mentor’s shoes.
“We’ve had players here who did not even make their high school teams. Wayne has the ability to pull that little bit out of a player that he has inside. But as much success as we have had on the field, the ultimate goal is to see the boys come back to see us as men, as husbands and fathers. That’s all Wayne. That’s why I want to follow everything he created.”
“It really blows me away when kids come back and remind me of something I told them ‘X’ number of years ago that they still remember,” King said.
Braun says he has a “confidence and excitement taking over the program.” That comes from spending the past 11 years with King. “I’ve gotten to see what Wayne does in good situations and bad situations,” he said.
Providence Catholic coach Mark Smith, whose teams won a record three straight Class 4A state championships a few years back, pitched for King in 1989 and ’90 and coached for him in 1992, ’93 and then from 1995 through 2006.
“All I know about coaching baseball is because I was under Wayne’s mentorship,” Smith said. “He without a doubt was the smartest baseball person I ever met.”
“He’s done quite well at Providence,” King said, smiling. “I must have taught the kid too well.”
“Wayne is intense,” Smith said. “He is demanding. But he wanted to get the best out of his players. And to me, he also was a father figure and will always be a friend.”
Mark Gotts, a JJC All-American in 1994 and 1995, said, “Wayne was a different breed of coach. He was the best coach I ever had. But he wasn’t like a regular coach. He had a way of getting his point across. I had the most enjoyable time playing for him. I wish my son could play for him.”
Jason Hafner, a teammate of Gotts on the 1994 championship team, said, “One of the biggest mentors I ever had was Wayne King, and I still speak to him 25 years later about winning the national championship. He created an atmosphere in which the players could play and excel both on and off the field.”
Early in his career at JJC, King became familiar with some of the Joliet area’s coaching legends.
“I started hearing about Gordie [Gillespie] and Irish [O’Reilly] right away,” he said. “I met Gordie when we played the St. Francis JVs. He was so nice and courteous. So was Tony Delgado [Gillespie’s longtime assistant]. They were very good to me. You could see the mystique of Gordie right off.”
“I was with Wayne enough years that there was a time, before I got the Providence job, I thought we were going to be the next Gordie and Delgado,” Smith said.
King said he fears he sometimes “was not the best father or dad [to the Kings’ children, Stacey and Kelsey]” because of the job demands. In addition to being baseball coach and athletic director, he also was involved in coaching football for a while. In fact, he was the head football coach in 1997.
“We weren’t just baseball,” King said. “For a nonscholarship school, we attracted some good coaches in other sports, and I felt available to them.”
Although King is relinquishing his spacious corner office on the second floor of the Event Center, at age 60, the time to move on to the next phase of life has arrived.