MIDDLETOWN – On the picturesque campus of St. Andrew’s School, with its stately stone and brick structures and tall trees, Bob Colburn has come to be just as familiar, immovable and admired.
He arrived as a science teacher and baseball coach during the 1960-61 school year, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Delaware. He retired as a teacher 11 years ago but has continued as baseball coach.
At age 78, Colburn remains as spry and energetic as ever. In a game Thursday at the aptly named Colburn Field, he pumped his fist and shouted “Attaboy!” the moment pitcher Colin Cool struck out a batter, was first to leap off the bench and celebrate catcher John MacArthur throwing out a runner trying to steal second base and barked at opposing coaches when Red Lion stole a base with a late eight-run lead.
The two broken ribs Colburn suffered two weeks ago when struck by a batting-practice line drive didn’t deter him.
But Colburn has decided that, after 55 seasons — he missed one while on sabbatical — this will be his last as St. Andrew’s head baseball coach.
“The time has come,” Colburn said.
Why now? Colburn and wife Dottie have three adult children and four grandchildren, including two living temporarily in Paris, France. They want to be more available for grandparent duties.
Colburn also feels St. Andrew’s, which is a boarding school, needs a coach who is at the school full-time. Not only did he teach there through the 2004-05 school year, he also lived in a house on campus until then. Last year, for instance, Colburn, who now lives in New Castle, felt he couldn’t be as supportive and available to a player whose mother was battling cancer.
“I just couldn’t help him enough,” he said. “I really feel like the head coach should be in the building, down here, living on campus. When new students, prospective students, come in, they should be able to go to the person who’s in charge of the program.”
In the future, they will, as Colburn is expected to be succeeded by assistant coach Mike Mastrocola, who teaches math at the school. But Colburn will still help out as an assistant coach.
Just as importantly, he’ll stay involved in the many aspects of high school baseball that have long been the most significant aspect of his coaching tenure in Delaware.
When Colburn became coach at St. Andrew’s in 1961, there was no state tournament, All-State team, Blue-Gold all-star game, Carpenter Cup tri-state all-star tournament, Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame, Delaware Baseball Coaches Association or Delaware representation on all-district teams.
All exist now largely through his influence. Colburn also operates the Delaware Baseball Coaches Association website, which is a wellspring of information.
The National High School Baseball Coaches Association recognized his impact when it inducted Colburn into its Hall of Fame in 2008. Of course, Colburn was also among the founders of that organization.
Colburn was in the inaugural induction class — and the only high school coach — when the Delaware Baseball Hall of Fame was initiated in 1994. He’ll be enshrined in the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame on May 24.
“Bob has been the go-to guy in Delaware baseball for a long time if you have a question or need to get something done,” said former William Penn coach Mel Gardner, who became Delaware’s second NHSBCA Hall-of-Famer in 2004. “He has been involved in everything and is always willing to help.”
‘Truly a marvel’
Watching Colburn coach his team Thursday, St. Andrew’s headmaster Tad Roach remarked, “His energy is inexhaustible. His generosity is unparalleled.”
Roach would know. He was hired as a teacher and soccer coach at St. Andrew’s in 1979, when Colburn was athletic director.
“He has never grown old because he’s lived with young kids who make him work and make him energetic and make him love what he does,” Roach said of Colburn. “So he’s been a delight for generations of St. Andrew’s kids. He’s truly a marvel.”
It’s clear that Colburn still enjoys a strong rapport with those students, who are more than 60 years his junior.
Senior center-fielder Donovan Simpson, a team captain, smiles the moment he hears Colburn’s name.
“It’s been great playing for him,” said Donovan, who’ll attend Columbia University this fall. “He’s a character. He’s been a mentor for me and I’ve been steadily improving since I got here, and he’s been there watching me do it and helping me do it.”
Simpson said that players laugh at Colburn’s jokes, even though they’re outdated. He has a knack for getting through in a calm, even-mannered way. Having joined Colburn for various Carpenter Cup and statewide baseball activities, he has seen, first-hand, the respect Colburn has earned.
“He has a lot of pull and knows what he’s talking about,” Simpson said.
And so it has been through 5½ decades.
“I think he has tremendous respect for the game and himself and he translates that to the kids,” said Fred Townsend, who played baseball for Colburn, graduating from St. Andrew’s in 1981, and now delights in seeing son Rick do the same.
“They need to treat the game the right way and kids respond to that. He’s a very caring guy but he’s also no-nonsense. Baseball provides so many different learning opportunities and he doesn’t miss many of them.”
High school baseball and the situation at St. Andrew’s, which has roughly 300 students, about half of them boys, in grades 9-12, has certainly changed during Colburn’s tenure. Until the 2000s, St. Andrew’s had no trouble fielding varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams and playing competitive baseball.
Other sports, such as lacrosse, and interests have surpassed baseball for teen boys. St. Andrew’s has a only varsity baseball team now and, often, it includes boys who didn’t play competitive baseball until high school, which was unheard of 20 years ago. Serious baseball players, however, who may want to play year-round, aren’t likely to attend St. Andrew’s because of its requirement to play other sports.
St. Andrew’s usually could not compete in the state tournament because its school year ended too early and players went home. But the Saints did go three times —in 1993, 2002 and 2003 — and Colburn was voted state coach of the year four times from 1981-2002 (the award debuted in 1978, along with the state coaches association). His teams have won 436 games — second only to Brandywine’s Larry Wheeler among Delaware baseball coaches — and eight Independent Conference titles.
“Some kids are playing year round now … which I really think is too much. Others aren’t playing enough or at all,” Colburn said of today’s odd baseball paradox. “Last year, we had five [student] applicants, but because they couldn’t play baseball outside school in the fall, they went elsewhere.
“It is weird. We used to get 42 kids out for baseball and we’d have three levels. Now we have 16 for one level. Last year we had kids at seven positions who were new to those positions and most of them were new to baseball. When Bill Brakeley came in here in 1983, we felt he wasn’t ready for varsity baseball. He ended being an All-State player [as a pitcher in 1984, 1985 and 1986, the last two as a first-team selection].’’
Brakeley then starred at the University of Delaware, was a fourth-round draft choice by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1989 and pitched in three minor-league seasons. Now 48, Brakeley values Colburn for having been a constant presence and “conduit of support” for him and his family after he suffered a heart attack in 2009 and when St. Andrew’s classmate and teammate Rob Jordan died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“He’s like no other coach I’ve ever had from the personal side,” Brakeley said.
Colburn graduated from Haverford College, where he played baseball, in 1959 and was teaching chemistry at the University of Delaware while studying for his master’s degree in the 1959-60 school year when he learned of an opening to teach science at St. Andrew’s. Turned out they needed a baseball coach, too. He had chances to leave, including for schools near his hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts.
“I had everything I wanted,” he said. “I was coaching baseball and football. I was teaching chemistry and physics. So why leave? Then I became athletic director. It’s been a good run. I’ve enjoyed it. I enjoy the kids. St. Andrew’s has treated me well.”
Colburn has returned the favor.
“His legacy,” Roach said, “has been that he’s connected St. Andrew’s so beautifully to the state of Delaware and he’s made such incredible contributions to athletics, especially on baseball, throughout the state.
“I think he loves his players and connects with them both as students and athletes and then has this amazing capacity to teach them lessons that go on into their adult life.’’
Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.
Delaware Sports Hall of Fame induction
May 24. 5:30 p.m. social; 6:45 p.m. dinner. Chase Center on the Riverfront. Tickets: $65. Email email@example.com or call 302-992-0550. 2016 inductees: Sid Cassidy; Dick Cephas; Bob Colburn; Rich Gannon; Nancy Keiper; Laron Profit; Mark Romanczuk; Jeff Taylor; Jana Withrow; and Wendy Zuharko.