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The legacy of Dusty Rhodes


Most people will tell you they want to go through life and make an impact. Dusty Rhodes has done that, and then some.


Having coached college, professional and international baseball for more than 40 years, Rhodes earned his place in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Because of his vision and determination, the baseball program at the University of North Florida has been one of the more successful programs in the nation.


Rhodes, who retires at the end of the season, began his career as an assistant coach in the minor leagues and at the college level. After coaching Palm Beach Junior College and being an assistant coach at the University of Florida, Rhodes began looking for a head coaching position at a four-year institution. Tom Healy, the former athletic director at UNF, approached him about coaching at UNF. Rhodes said he instantly saw potential.


“I thought it was a gold mine,” he said. “I saw UNF as a place where you could do anything you want. The sky was the limit. There was plenty of opportunity to build up the baseball program and take it to Division I. That was the whole idea when I got here.”


That didn’t happen overnight. For one, the University lacked proper facilities, or much of any, for that matter.


“The first year I was here, it was hard to go out and get players here because we’d bring them out and show them what was then a cleared-out piece of field,” he said. “There were no lights, no dugouts, and there wasn’t a stadium, but we told them that there would be.”


Adam Herbert, then president of the University, recognized the potential and shared in Rhodes’ vision for the program and helped rally members of the Osprey Club and the community to pitch in and build the stadium.


“Herbert noticed what we had going on here and said he was going to do something to help us and bring more people here,” Rhodes said. “We ended up with a beautiful stadium in the end. At the time it was one of the best NAIA fields in the country. It was hard work, and I helped with construction, laying sod and planting grass for the outfield. But it worked out really good for us.”


With the facilities the team needed, Rhodes said the next challenge was recruiting. Knowing the institution’s priorities were academic before all else, Rhodes said he knew his recruits needed to be students first, then athletes.


“It was tough because I had to recruit good, talented guys and tell them there weren’t any scholarships,” he said. “But the state of Florida produces exceptional baseball players, so we went out and started looking for good student-athletes. And that is one of our trademarks. If you come here, you have to be a good student.”


With that approach, Rhodes said he was able to find players who were interested in getting a good education, and around the state he started to build a reputation for UNF as having a program built around student-athletes.


“I think he had a good feel for the big picture in knowing most of the kids who played baseball will not all play professional ball, but they will be professional in something else,” said Dr. Richard Gropper, former UNF athletic director who worked with Rhodes for 14 years. “He was trying to make these young men better people and prepare for what was after college and after baseball.”


Rhodes wasted little time building his program. In his second year as coach, he helped UNF reach the national championship game. Although UNF lost, it was the first of five national championship appearances for Rhodes and his players. In total, Rhodes has taken UNF to 16 postseason appearances, including five College World Series appearances, four district NAIA championships and six conference championships in NCAA Division II.


While the NAIA and NCAA Division II accolades were good, Rhodes said his goal was always to get UNF into Division I baseball to play the top teams in America and showcase the University’s talent.


“I had the opportunity to build a program and take it to Division I,” he said. “That was the whole idea when I got here, to build this facility, build up the area, use local players, build interest in UNF and take the program to Division I. It took 23 years, but we got there, and on the way I got a chance to watch this whole place grow.”


Not only has UNF made the transition into Division I, but since doing so, the baseball team also earned a winning record against the University of Miami, and last season beat Florida State University, UF and Miami in the same year.


“There aren’t a lot of teams in Florida, or the nation, that can say they did that,” Rhodes said. “Whenever you play teams like that and beat them, that tells you your program is there. It makes a big difference for us, not only because it helped us during the season, but it also helped our recruiting.”


Gropper admits that it’s rare to see a college coach with such a legacy, and one who can say he built a beautiful baseball facility from scratch; one who has been able to put a winning team on the field year in and year out.


“He’s had a positive impact on UNF in general, as well as the people and players he’s been around,” Gropper said. “He has a positive legacy under his belt, and he’s earned every last bit of it.”


Rhodes admits there might be baseball in his future after UNF, but as he coaches his final season for the Ospreys he can look back on a distinguished career and a legacy of success, and he hopes that tradition will stay alive.


“All the years we spent building this program means something,” Rhodes said. “This is my University. I want them to do well.”