Ashland’s Norm DeBriyn transformed Arkansas into national power
The former Razorbacks baseball coach’s teams appeared in four College World Series, finishing runner-up in 1979 and third in 1985.
DULUTH — When Ashland’s Norm DeBriyn was first offered the head baseball coach position at the University of Arkansas in 1969, he was just 29 years old and he wasn’t the first choice.
To be fair, however, the Razorbacks job wasn’t the most desirable spot in college baseball.
“In the fall of 1969, the baseball coach left, long story short, I was able to apply,” DeBriyn said. “I didn’t get it, but the guy that got the job ended up taking it for one day and decided he didn’t want it. They weren’t doing anything with the program at all, so that’s how I ended up getting the Arkansas baseball job.”
At the time, Razorbacks baseball wasn’t competing in the Southwest Conference. Other Arkansas teams like football, basketball and track and field were a part of the SWC, but baseball remained independent.
After four years and an NCAA tournament big under their belt, the Razorbacks were admitted to the SWC.
“We entered the Southwest Conference in 1974 and I remember I thought we’d be OK, but we couldn’t compete,” DeBriyn said. “We weren’t on that level for two years, we were like 9-15. Then in 1976 we were 12-12 and I knew we were competing pretty well.”
By 1979, Arkansas was the College World Series runner-up and DeBriyn guided his team to three more appearances in Omaha, including a third-place finish in 1985. Over 33 years coaching the Razorbacks, DeBriyn’s teams made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, three conference championships, seven conference coach of the year awards and had a 1,161-650-6 record, making him the winningest coach in program history.
He is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Athletic Hall of Fame, the University of Arkansas Athletic Hall of Honor, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame. He was also named a Southeastern Conference Baseball Legend and received the ABCA Lefty Gomez Award.
Adding to that list of honors, DeBriyn will be enshrined in the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame during the DECC Hall of Fame Dinner & Program May 4 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s Harbor Side Ballroom.
While DeBriyn’s success on the field is unquestionable, it’s his impact on his players’ lives that sets him apart, according to Bill Bakewell, a pitcher on the 1979 team.
“Coach DeBriyn was a great baseball coach, but he’s an even better person,” Bakewell said. “He’s grown to be like a father to me and the greatest thing that came out of that 79 team was all the friendships. Coach DeBriyn went pheasant and duck hunting with four of the guys off of that team for 20 years after that. The friendships mean more than the accomplishments.”
The Razorbacks fell 2-1 to Cal State-Fullerton in the national championship game, something DeBriyn said “still stings” in 2023.
The Razorbacks weren’t a dominant team in 1979, but got on a roll as they headed into the postseason.
“We were kind of a dark horse, we were just glad to be there,” Bakewell said. “We played really, really well and I have to say I was most confident about that finals game when we had Steve Krueger pitching for us — he was an All-American and Cal-State Fullerton threw a guy that didn’t get out of the second inning two nights before. We were pretty confident, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
DeBriyn, now 81, grew up in Ashland and was a standout football, basketball player at DePadua High School, a small Catholic school that closed in 1967. After graduating, he played baseball and football at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh before injuries sidelined him his senior year.
After spending five years teaching and coaching at Hortonville High School in Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, DeBriyn left to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
After a few years in Colorado, left for Fayetteville, Ark., after receiving an offer to teach physical education at Arkansas in 1969. He asked about helping coach the baseball team, but before the end of the year he was the head coach.
After retiring from coaching in 2002, DeBriyn was a scout for the Colorado Rockies and worked with the Razorback Foundation, the fundraising arm for the Arkansas athletic department.
He also became a deacon at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville, where he is helping organize the construction of a new church and student center.
DeBriyn said he enjoys getting to meet some of the current students or members of the community.
“When I’m on the altar giving a homily and so forth, sometimes people will come up and say, ‘I thought I recognized you,’ or ‘I thought I’ve seen you before’ as they put it together,’’ DeBriyn said. “We do have a lot of students. The university now has 30,000 students and, gosh, back in the 80s it was like 15,000. It really has grown fast the last few years. Unbelievably, in fact.”
Bakewell said the DECC couldn’t have picked a better person to include in its Hall of Fame.
“Norm DeBriyn is as good a human being as you’ll ever meet,” he said. “He always puts everyone else before himself — you couldn’t be honoring a better person.”