When Ryan Wheeler enrolled at Penn State, he wanted to learn how to design golf courses.
He said he wanted to continue to play baseball as long as possible, but the ultimate goal was to then get into the golf course construction business. When he retired from playing after just one season in the minor leagues, it was time for that plan to take its course.
Wheeler lasted one month before he returned to the dugout, as a full-time coach. He just couldn’t escape the game.
“It was something that was in my blood,” Wheeler said. “It was something that I knew I wanted to do.”
Now, 17 years later, he doesn’t know what his future holds.
The third year Temple coach is in the same position as several other coaches at the university. With their programs cut there is a level of uncertainty on what’s next. At Monday’s Board of Trustees meeting, President Theobald made a “final reccomendation” to uphold the cuts of the baseball team.
Wheeler, 42, thought the direction of the program was going in a positive direction.
“I watch us practice now and I don’t have to say much,” Wheeler said. “These guys know what to do. I felt like the quality of our players was improving. I certainly felt like I had tremendous support from the alumni and had really engaged them and gotten them involved.”
“I felt like we were doing a lot of great things which is why the decision on [Dec. 6] came as a surprise,” Wheeler added.
Wheeler remembers being a kid, throwing baseballs at a wall in his backyard to improve his skills. After attending Souderton High School, Wheeler played at Penn State – where he was coached by Temple baseball alumnus Joe Hinderlang
When Hindelang heard the news of Wheeler’s hiring at Temple from former Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw, he was elated.
“Bill, you have no idea who you hired,” Hindelang said in a January interview. “This kid is the greatest.”
While in Happy Valley, Wheeler started at shortstop for three seasons and still has his name in the record books. His 109 career drawn walks are second all-time in Penn State history and he still is in the Top 10 in career stolen bases.
Upon graduating, Wheeler was selected in the 31st round of the 1994 draft by the California Angels. After playing for a short time in the minor leagues in Boise, Idaho – an Angels Single-A affiliate – Wheeler retired from his playing career at the age of 24.
That’s when the career on the golf course was set to begin, but he was lured away from his job in Williamsburg, Va., before he could even get settled in. A couple of friends, who were coaching at William & Mary, offered him a job as an unpaid assistant.
It wasn’t an easy adjustment for the long-time player.
“I learned at William & Mary that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” Wheeler said. “You’re young and you think you’re ready to just handle everything. It was a great learning experience for me to learn how things operate in coaching. It’s much different than being a player.”
Wheeler would spend nine years at William & Mary before joining the staff at the University of Pennsylvania for one season in 2006. From there, he joined Mark McQueen’s staff at Richmond University.
That’s when Wheeler’s coaching career took off.
“Coach McQueen really gave me a lot of freedom to experiment with my own ideas and implement them,” Wheeler said. “I got to implement my ideas and test them out. That was tremendous.”
Equipped with experience and coaching skills, Wheeler used those five seasons at Richmond to prepare for a head coaching job.
That job would come in the form of Temple when former coach Rob Valli resigned in June of 2011.
The decision to come to Philadelphia was a no-brainer for Wheeler, he said.
“It was a chance to come back home,” Wheeler said. “I knew the program from growing up and the tradition that it had. It was an opportunity to come back and take a program that was struggling and turn it into a success.”
Now just three years later, Wheeler will be without a job come May when the season ends.
With three young kids at home – two boys and one girl – moving to a different city isn’t as easy as it was before. Wheeler said he is lucky to have a family that is willing to do so, however.
For this baseball lifer, he just wants to keep doing what he knows and loves: coaching baseball.
“As we move closer to playing now and being on the field, I just recognize how special that is,” Wheeler said. “I think a month or two ago I said, I could be OK walking away and not being on the field. Now, getting ready to start the season and play this weekend – knowing this could be the last – it makes it seems all the more special.”
“I hope it doesn’t end,” Wheeler added. “I hope that I can continue coaching, but right now it’s just too early to tell what the future holds.”
Jeff Neiburg can be reached at email@example.com.