CEDAR RAPIDS — This is Jan Weisberg’s program. He poured the cement floors, so to speak, put up all the wooden beams, pounded every nail, shingled the roof.
Weisberg took over as head baseball coach at Birmingham-Southern College in 2007. He’d spent a season as head coach at Division III Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2006, but was familiar with BSC as a longtime assistant at the University of Kentucky.
The Wildcats made a swing every other year or so to play Birmingham-Southern and Alabama neighbors Samford and the Alabama-Birmingham.
“They were an NAIA school but really good. Won a national championship at the NAIA level,” Weisberg said. “Their pitching coach, Daron Schoenrock, came and joined our staff at Kentucky. He is now the head coach at the University of Memphis.
“Through him, I really got to know (former BSC) Coach (Brian) Shoop ... They actually came into our place and beat us one year. Since I’d played them, I kind of knew the facilities, the talent, the tradition, and that we could do something special there.”
But here was the problem. Birmingham-Southern had gone from NAIA to NCAA Division I and the Big South Conference, an almost unheard of leap.
Ultimately it came to the determination that NCAA Division III was where it should participate. Shoop left for UAB, and Weisberg was the guy hired to help the school transition to a lower, non-scholarship level.
“It was the right move,” Weisberg said. “We are a 1,400-student school. It is a much better fit. But the way it was handled, the previous president (of the school), two presidents ago, it was not done well. So there was serious bitterness. Every player left. I had nobody.”
That’s right, nobody. Not one player, no 2007 season, as a matter of fact.
“We didn’t have a team that first year, so we recruited 28 freshmen for 2008,” Weisberg said. “And even though we didn’t have any scholarship players, we couldn’t go to the tournament because of the whole reclassification period. That group, I just told them ‘This is what we can be.’ Kind of gave them the vision of what this thing could be. I told them ‘Your charge is to put us in position so that we can go to the World Series, even though you guys can’t.’ They really bought in. Their junior years, we went 34-5. They set the table. That’s kind of how our transition started.”
And here are the Panthers now, playing for a D-III national title. They qualified for their first World Series by knocking off Coe in a super regional a little over a week ago.
That’s irony, huh? Beating a Cedar Rapids school to earn the right to come to Cedar Rapids.
BSC has won all three of its games at Veterans Memorial Stadium and will face off with Chapman (Calif.) in a best-of-3 series that will determine the national champ. Chapman beat UMass-Boston, 8-4, Monday afternoon to also get in.
Also nicknamed the Panthers, Chapman (41-12) lost to UMass-Boston in its second game here Saturday, having to beat the Beacons twice in less than 24 hours to earn their spot.
Birmingham-Southern is 42-13, with a roster built primarily of kids from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Weisberg has won over 400 games at the school.
“This is kind of what we’ve been working for,” Weisberg said. “We’ve made regionals six out of the last eight years, been to the final day four times. We finally got here. We kind of told our guys this is for all those guys who didn’t quite get here. It has been special, it has been fun. The guys are playing really well. We are excited to be in the championship.”