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Mutka: Pumas’ Frank Wilkins anguishes over retirement

Gregg Popovich

Gregg Popovich

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Updated: July 26, 2013 6:35AM



Ever since Frank Wilkins announced his retirement after 13 years as St. Joseph’s softball coach he has been receiving phone calls from other schools trying to persuade him to make it a short break.

Get over it, folks. He’s serious about walking away. Really. At least for the time being.

Wilkins put SJC softball on the map with its first winning season in 2005 and has navigated on the Puma High-way ever since.

While making his daily commute to this pristine campus from his south Dyer home, he chalked up 317 victories, seven Great Lakes Valley tournaments and one College World Series appearance. Now it’s up to somebody else to run the Division II gauntlet.

“We built the program from (scratch) to one of the top college programs in the country,” said Wilkins, who admits the daily two-hour drive took its toll in wear and tear.

Expectations became so high that a 29-17 record in his final season was viewed as disappointing even with a stunning victory that snapped top-ranked Indianapolis’ 38-game winning streak.

“Yet it was the second best in school history,” he said.

It pales in significance next to a school record of 40 victories and fifth-place in the 2012 World Series.

Contemplating retirement leaves Wilkins somewhat conflicted. Someone who’s been involved in coaching for 30 years finds it hard to let go. It all began with Dyer Softball where he served as league president for two years and coached his daughter, Julie Wilkins Disney.

Now he’s contemplating a major adjustment in a lifestyle, which includes spoiling his grandchildren Emma, Grace and John.

“It’s going to be weird to have so much time on my hands,” he said. “I’ve always had something going on. I’m like 50-50 about this. I have a sadness in my heart because I’ve been doing it so long.”

Twelve-and-under all the way up to college, to be precise.

His route to the bucolic Rensselaer campus was preceded by StarPath Softball, one of the top traveling teams in the country. Wilkins guided them to 397 victories and four state championships.

StarPath made two appearances in the major national championships and peaked in 1996 with a 9-1 record in an international tournament held in Montreal.

All those accomplishments take a backseat to the CWS experience.

Wilkins puts it this way: “If I died and went to heaven, there wouldn’t be too many other people up there who have been involved.”

Asked which Pumas made the greatest impact, he rattled off these names: catcher Brittnie Boerema, pitcher Sara Somogyi and shortstop Amy Varner.

Boerema received All-American honors in her junior year, but put up better numbers in her senior season, leading the Pumas to the CWS with a .303 average and 30 RBI. She received all-regional honors twice. Catchers seldom win track meets, but she stole an eye-popping 17 bases.

Somogyi is linked with virtually every school pitching record, including 1,071 strikeouts, 64 victories and 87 complete games. She is also one of only two Division II pitchers to register 21 strikeouts in a seven-inning game.

The three-time all-conference selection now serves as pitching coach at Lewis University for George DiMatteo, the only longer tenured GLVC coach than Wilkins.

Pound-for-pound he believes no one played with more heart and desire than Varner, who shares the school record of 203 starts with Boerema. The 5-foot-5 bantam carried taking one for the team to extremes, setting the school record for being hit by pitches 24 times.

The four-year starter also ranks No. 1 in at-bats and runs scored. She is second to Boerema in hits (194).

So, can Wilkins truly be turning his back on a sport he loves so dearly? Maybe not. He leaves the door slightly ajar, but not in the immediate future.

“It’s tough for me to step back,” he admits.

Pop gets popped: Because Gregg Popovich has a reputation for being a grouch with the press he’ll never win any popularity contests.

One of his greatest post-game pleasures is exposing stupid questions and bruising reporters egos.

Remind you of anybody? Hint, his last name is Knight.

So, when the San Antonio coach made some debatable moves in games six and seven last week, second-guessers criticized the NBA’s longest tenured coach for yanking future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in the closing minutes of back-to-back losses to Miami.

His decisions may have cost the Spurs the championship, but I’m not going to join the cheap-shot artists in firing slings and arrows at a man who has guided the Spurs to 18 consecutive playoff appearances and four titles. Nor would I try to lord it over the 12th coach in NBA history to reach 900 victories.

The Merrillville native might privately be agonizing over those substitutions, but I came to praise him, not bury him.

What the Air Force Academy grad — he majored in Soviet Studies — has accomplished is remarkable. And to think he once considered a career with the CIA.

So, even though his wife has accused him of being ‘mean’ to the press I’m not going to rip ‘Pop’ for sticking with Manu Ginobili, who had eight turnovers in game six, while playmaker Parker languished on the bench in the final seconds of the overtime loss.

Besides, Popovich’s skin is thicker than mine.



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