At age 75, baseball coach James “Skip” Wilson decided it was finally time to stop acting like a kid.
“[Baseball is] a little boy’s game,” Wilson said he told Director of Athletics Bill Bradshaw over the summer. “I should get the hell out of those little kid’s uniforms and start hanging out with bigger guys.”
That was Wilson’s way of telling Bradshaw that he was retiring.
Wilson publicly announced his retirement last week, thus ending a decorated 46-year career. In his nearly half-century as Owls skipper, Wilson led Temple to 10 conference championships, 14 NCAA Tournaments, and two College World Series appearances. His 1,034 wins are the most of any coach in Temple history, regardless of sport.
Wilson cited a series of hip replacements and injuries sustained from a fall at practice last March as reasons for his retirement. He noted a few isolated incidents of differences with players added to his decision.
“I’ve had problems with a player or two … and at my age I said to myself, ‘What do I need this for?'” Wilson said, adding he was not referring to any current players. “But there have always been the guys who are special to me.”
A Philadelphia native, Wilson was a three-sport star at St. John’s High School in Manayunk. His success in football, basketball and baseball awarded him the city’s Most Outstanding Athlete award. Wilson graduated in 1948.
Wilson then enrolled at Georgetown on a basketball scholarship. He left the school after his second year to play baseball in the Philadelphia Athletics farm system.
In 1951, Wilson quit professional baseball and enrolled at Temple. His studies were interrupted by a two-year service in the Army. Wilson graduated in 1958 and obtained his master’s degree in health and physical education from Temple in 1961. He put his teaching success to work, teaching for 34 years at Roxborough High School.
Wilson began his coaching career at Temple in 1958 as the freshman basketball coach under Hall of Fame coach Harry Litwack. He coached the team through the 1970-71 season. He became the baseball coach in 1960 after serving as an assistant for one season.
In the 1960s, Wilson guided the Owls to nine winning seasons, including NCAA Tournament appearances in 1962 and 1968. The program took flight in 1972, when the Owls won the Mid-Atlantic Conference and went on to place third at the College World Series. Between 1972 and 1984, Wilson coached the Owls to nine conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. The Owls reached their second College World Series in 1978.
Part of the team’s success should be credited to former assistant coach Don Flynn, Wilson said last week.
“Whenever I had Flynn as the pitching coach, we won, and we won big,” Wilson said.
Wilson was inducted into the Temple Athletics Hall of Fame in 1981. He is also enshrined in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Although the program only had one winning season after 1989, it had one last hurrah in 2001. The Owls dropped their first 14 games, but recovered to win the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship. The team also made the NCAA tournament, Wilson’s last.
On March 14, 2004, Wilson coached the Owls to his 1,000th win. Among Division I coaches, Wilson ranks 29th all-time. Only three coaches from Northern colleges are ahead of him.
“All my life I’ve had nothing but fun,” Wilson said. “And the reason I had fun is because I had great players.
Over 100 of Wilson’s players signed professional contracts. Five went on to play in the major leagues. Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Bobby Higginson is the only former Owl currently in the majors. Pete Filson, Joe Kerrigan, Jeff Manto and John Marzano also played in the majors.
“Skip was always big on trying to become a better person,” said Dan Brady, a junior third baseman on the Owls’ current roster.
“‘You have class. Respect us. Respect Temple,'” sophomore centerfielder Tom Dolan said, summing up Wilson’s philosophy.
“Baseball’s baseball. He taught it right.”
Wilson still plans to be a familiar face at Temple sporting events. A self-acclaimed sports fanatic, he said he plans to attend football and baseball games.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.