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April 7, 2011

A BASEBALL ODYSSEY - Bo Durkac has traveled all over the country playing baseball, he's written books and journals about the sport and now he's coaching it.

By: Jimmy Robertson

Bo Durkac, a former Tech third baseman back in the early 1990s, is now in his second season at Illinois State as the hitting coach, infield coach and recruiting coordinator.
Photo credit: Dennis Banks, Illinois State athletics

Surprisingly, Bo Durkac’s plan wasn’t to get into coaching once he graduated from Tech.

Baseball just sort of took him along for the ride.

Durkac, a former Tech third baseman, is now in his ninth season as a baseball assistant coach and his second season at Illinois State in Normal, Ill., where he serves as the hitting coach, infield coach and recruiting coordinator. His first gig as a coach came when he spent seven years as an assistant at Charlotte following seven years of toiling in the minor and independent leagues as a player.

When reality set in and he realized he didn’t have a future as a player, he needed to find something to do.

“I did a lot of writing, I guess, because of the boredom of all those bus trips and because I had a laptop,” Durkac said. “I thought about doing something with that. I had written journals for Baseball America and a couple of books [including 2001: A Baseball Odyssey] and some other stuff.

“I considered going back to school. I even considered law school. I had spent seven years playing baseball and didn’t have a lot to show for it. Then a friend of mine told me I should get into coaching. I got the job at Charlotte right at the time when college baseball was taking off. It offered me an income and kept me in baseball. It turned out to be the second-best decision of my life.”

His best decision came in 1993 when he decided to transfer from the University of North Carolina to Virginia Tech. The Kittanning, Pa., native went to North Carolina after receiving a small scholarship and because he wanted to play in the South, where the best baseball gets played.

After a year in Chapel Hill, one in which he started several games and hit .226, he was told his services were no longer desired.

“I could stay on scholarship, but there was no guarantee I would make the team,” he said. “Reading between the lines, North Carolina started recruiting more junior college players, and I knew my days were numbered. I thought it was best for my career to make a clean break.

“I narrowed it down to VCU and Tech. VCU had a third baseman who was a good player and he was only a junior. Tech had just had a third baseman get drafted, so I had a chance to get the job. Being from western Pennsylvania, I liked being in the country better than the city anyway.”

Chuck Hartman, the baseball coach at Tech at the time, took a completely different approach to hitting than what Durkac was used to from his year at UNC. Hartman took the hands-off approach, refusing to clog hitters’ heads with a bunch of ideas and letting them work on what felt comfortable to them.

Durkac flourished. He went from hitting .226 as a freshman at UNC to .423 as a sophomore at Tech – with less coaching. He led the Metro Conference in hitting and received the league’s Newcomer of the Year award.

For his Tech career, he hit .360. He helped guide the Hokies to a Metro Tournament championship and an NCAA regional appearance in 1994. His senior season in 1995, he and the Hokies swept Southern Miss in a three-game series to claim the top seed in the Metro tournament. He cites those occasions as two of his fonder memories.

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in liberal arts and sciences, Durkac played in the Arizona Diamondbacks system for two years but never made it above the Class A level. He then spent the next five years playing in various independent leagues and in a league in Taiwan – just pursuing his dream of making it to the major leagues.

“I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I loved chasing the dream. I loved having beers with the guys after games and talking baseball. To say it was like Bull Durham is not a stretch. A lot of guys viewed it [the minor leagues] as a means to an end, but I didn’t look at it that way. I embraced it.

“I played on a team [High Desert Mavericks] in 1997 that won the California League championship, and we played in front of 4,000-5,000 fans. They’d be shouting your name and asking for your autograph. That was pretty cool stuff.

“I just did the best I could and drank it all in. I worked hard and hoped to catch a few breaks, but it didn’t work out. That’s fine. I know now the only thing that kept me out was my ability.”

A good friend and one-time teammate at UNC, Mark Kingston, convinced Durkac to get into coaching after he gave up playing following the 2001 season. Durkac landed at Charlotte as the hitting coach. Kingston got the head job at Illinois State in 2009 and convinced Durkac to come to the Midwest as the lead assistant and recruiting coordinator. Single and with no children, Durkac decided to move to Normal, Ill.

“I was the second assistant at Charlotte, and if you want to be a head coach, you’ve got to be a recruiting coordinator,” Durkac said. “It was a tough decision because we had done a lot of good things at Charlotte.

“But I’ve enjoyed being here. We had a chance to build something. We expected it to be a two- or three-year process, but to go from where we were to one of the top programs in the Missouri Valley Conference is very gratifying.”

The Redbirds won the MVC regular-season title and the tournament title last season, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1976.

Durkac doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Illinois. He just plans on working hard, as he’s always done, and hopes that an athletics director takes notice.

“I’ll go out and do the best I can and hope the results speak to where an AD will consider me for a head job,” he said. “I don’t know when and I don’t know where, and I’m not going to get caught up in the arms’ race. I’ll just work hard and do what I can and hope the results speak for themselves.”