Cliff Gustafson, the University of Texas baseball coach, who wins more frequently than any other college coach in the sport, is a simple man. He chews and spits, eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich every day, drives a 1972 Ford pickup and, when he really wants to kick up his heels, plays dominoes.
He's a man who hates travel, which is why 38 of Texas' 48 regular-season games were at home this spring and why he says he would manage in the big leagues only if they put a team in Austin. Even then he'd just work the home games. He hates change, which is why he got so mad the other day when somebody threw out the green coffee cup he'd been using for 19 years after the handle broke off. "Dumb," he fumed. He's forthright, which is why, for example, he says he thinks he's substantially overpaid at $38,000 a year.
And he's practical, which is why his 12-acre spread 10 miles southwest of Austin is also home for 20 guinea hens and roosters, whose only purpose in life is to eat rattlesnakes. And at mealtime, Gustafson drinks his iced tea from a huge Lipton Tea jar.
"Do you always fill it clear up?" a visitor asks.
"Certainly," he replies. "Who would ever want a half-filled jar? If I didn't want to drink a quart and a half of tea, don't you think I'd have myself a smaller jar?" Besides, he says a jar just fits his hand better than a glass. See how simple life can be for a practical man?
Indeed, this tells you a lot about the 51-year-old Gustafson, whose Longhorns ended their regular season last week with a 44-4 record. His winning percentage of .830 (713 wins, 146 losses) in 15 years at Texas ranks far ahead of that of the runner-up, Arizona State's Jim Brock (.775). (USC's Rod DeDeaux easily has the most wins, with 1,078 in 35 years of coaching, but his winning percentage is "only" .736.) Says Brock, "Gustafson is a good guy and he wins, and usually those two things are mutually exclusive."
Brock is correct, because Gustafson is down home, straight ahead and indescribably decent. When he wants to have fun, he goes home, picks up his guitar and sings country songs—including one he wrote himself—to his wife, Janie. In fact, all he ever wanted to do and, more important, all he ever wants to do, is coach the Texas baseball team.
Since Gustafson arrived in Austin, the Longhorns have won the Southwest Conference championship 13 times, have been to the College World Series in Omaha nine times and won the national title in 1975. Asked if he feels he should have won it more often than that, Gustafson drills his questioner with his no-nonsense eyes and says, "Did you ever think maybe we shouldn't have even won it once?" Texas' bid for another national championship begins with the conference tournament in College Station next week.
The Longhorns are one of the favorites to win the College World Series, of course, though not as big a favorite as Gustafson is around Austin. In describing him, nobody can come up with a single fault, except his son, Deron, who says, "Well, he's not real tall." (He's 5'9".) Gustafson's prize graduate, Dodger Pitcher Burt Hooton, says, "I've always wanted to be just like Gus, but so far the only similarity is we're both bald." So much for negatives. Howard Richards, a member of the Texas Board of Regents, says, "I wish we could clone Cliff and let him coach every sport." Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds adds, "If you took the best parts of all coaches, you'd get a Gus."
Longhorn Shortstop Spike Owen, a can't-miss major league prospect, was asked if Gustafson had ever done anything to help his game. "Naw, not really," says Owen. "All I can think of is that I used to take two or three little crow hops before I'd throw. He got that out of me in a week. My foot work deep in the hole was terrible, and he fixed that. He changed my throwing from over the top to three-quarters. He changed my grip on the bat entirely. Then he changed my stance. So he hasn't changed me much." Pitcher Calvin Schiraldi says, "All Coach Gus is, is a genius."
This explains how it is that Texas doesn't so much play good baseball as good Gusball, a gambling, run-a-bunch style in which nobody worries about hits. Eleven times this year the Horns have had more runs than hits. In 1981 Baylor got Gussed but good when the Horns scored seven runs on one hit in the last inning to win 13-6.
Like all good coaches and managers, Gustafson is crafty and cunning and, yes, sometimes wrong. For example, in the 1973 College World Series, with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, he ordered his pitcher to walk USC's Ed Putnam and pitch to the next hitter. That's how Gustafson became probably the only skipper to deliberately create an opportunity to face Fred Lynn—who homered as Texas lost.
Mostly though, Texas wins by going its own sweet way. For example, perhaps no team on any level takes more pitches. Further, Gustafson doesn't just coach, he teaches. Says Arkansas Coach Norm Debryn: "Gus really believes that repetition is the mother of skill." No wonder that 25 Longhorns have played pro ball after learning at Gustafson's knee. Besides Hooten, the list includes Cub Catcher Keith Moreland and Infielder David Chalk, once an All-Star for the Angels.
Gentle as Gustafson may be, nobody has ever accused him of not having enough gravel in his gut. A year ago, a high school catcher from California, Jeff Hearron, had promised to come to Texas. But he subsequently wavered and said he might go instead to Arizona State. Gustafson called Hearron, who said, "I'm going to pray over my decision." Snapped Gustafson, "So am I, only I'm going to pray that the Lord will forgive you for being a liar." Hearron is now the Texas catcher.
One of Gustafson's favorite sayings is "Don't let yourself down. Remember, to thine own self be true."
And the players respond to that?
"I doubt it," he says.
This simple, straightforward attitude was imbued in Gustafson when he was growing up in south Texas, the son of a sharecropper who fought the drought and the weevils and two cantankerous mules while attempting to scratch out a living growing cotton. His father died at 38, and young Cliff went to work in the fields. "I don't know that cotton-pickin' can teach a fella a whole lot," says Gustafson, "except that when there's work to do, do it." Later he nibbled at the fringes of a pro career, but instead accepted a job as baseball coach at South San Antonio High, where his 13-year record was 344-85-5, including seven state championships and, as a finale, a winning streak in 1966-67 of 45 straight. When Darrel Royal, then the Texas athletic director, called Gustafson about the Texas job, Gustafson was embarrassed to be making such a lofty sum as $11,500 at South San, so he told Royal he was earning only $10,500. Royal offered him the same amount to come to Texas.
The overriding point is that Gustafson wins not because he loves baseball but because he cherishes it, nurtures it and holds it close to his heart. "The only bad thing," he says, "is that the agony of defeat sure lasts a lot longer than the ecstasy of victory. It shouldn't be that way."
The other night Gustafson was singing songs to Janie and reflecting on the joys of baseball. "It's the atmosphere of the game," he says. "It's that free feeling you get out in the ball yard catching and throwing. In what other game do you get so many chances to visit with your opponent? What's better in life than standing around the batting cage ribbing each other? And what other sport has a statistic as well known or understood as a batting average? You ask any player what he's hitting and he'll say, 'Oh, I don't know. Something like .267.' All baseball is, really, is entertainment for the fans and recreational activity for the players. Of course, nobody believes me when I say that." Believe him.