Sooner For Life

BY REGGIE WILLITS

This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

I worked my way up to being the first base coach for the New York Yankees.

As a baseball lifer, I can’t tell you what a privilege it was to wear the pinstripes and work for such a first-class organization.

I’ll always be grateful to Coach Boone for offering me a position on his staff, and as much as I enjoyed my time with the Yankees, it wasn’t home.

When I left for Spring Training in February, I wouldn’t return home to my family until October.

That 162-game MLB schedule is a grind, and that’s not counting the playoffs, which we were fortunate enough to make each of the four years I was in New York.

What really caused me to stop and reflect on my coaching career was during Covid in 2020. MLB more or less had us in a bubble that prevented us from seeing our families.

I saw my kids twice in a span of 6 ½ months. That’s not the kind of life I wanted for myself as a father and husband.

In 2022, I made the decision to put my family first and my career second, and it’s been the best thing to ever happen to me.

I was going back to the place where it all started for me in Norman, Oklahoma.

Living out my dream

I remember being in the second grade when my teacher asked me what I wanted to do someday for a career.

Without hesitation, I said I wanted to be a major league baseball player.

At that age, people kind of chuckle and think that’ll never happen because the odds of making it to the professional level are so slim, but that was my dream.

After starting my collegiate career at Seminole State College and transferring to OU where I had two great seasons, my big-league dreams were realized in April of 2006.

I played for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from 2006 to 2011 and had the time of my life doing so.

Not every person is fortunate enough to live out their dreams, so I had endless gratitude to the Angels for giving me that opportunity.

Unfortunately, my career came to a halt in 2011.

I hurt my ankle and achilles and was never quite the same after. It was clear my playing days were finished, so now what the heck was I going to do?

That was a question that began to weigh on me.

During my playing days, I bought some land for a cattle ranch in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma.

With no other plan in place, I tried my hand at ranching to see where life would take me from there.

One day, kind of out of the blue, the local high school superintendent showed up to my house and asked me a question about a profession I never saw myself doing in a million years.

Coaching.

My second calling

When I was approached about coaching high school baseball, my immediate response was, you’ve got to be kidding, right?

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to see how this could be a tremendous gift for my family and me.

When the superintendent told me they’d be willing to find my wife a job at the school, I was pretty much all-in at that point.

Her and I would be working at the same place, and my kids would be going to the same school as well.

In my playing days, these are the times I used to fantasize about when I was traveling all over the country spending countless nights in hotels missing my family.

I took the job so I could spend more time with them, but I was also committed to the school and the baseball program.

I coached the team for two-and-a-half years, and I beam with immense pride to say we won two state tournaments in my tenure.

It was the pleasure of my life to teach these young men about life and share my faith with them in the hopes that they would move on and graduate to become dedicated husbands and fathers and stewards in their community.

When I was forced to retire from playing baseball, I was terrified I’d never find something I felt so passionately about again, but I had found my second calling in coaching.

I remember being in the second grade when my teacher asked me what I wanted to do someday for a career. Without hesitation, I said I wanted to be a major league baseball player. At that age, people kind of chuckle and think that’ll never happen because the odds of making it to the professional level are so slim, but that was my dream.

Learning from the best

After the 2021 MLB season with the Yankees, the opportunity to come home and be with my family was made possible by Joe Castiglione, Greg Tipton, and Coach Skip Johnson.

When they offered me a position to come back to my alma mater to help coach the Sooners, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face if I tried.

I consider myself the luckiest person on earth because I’m able to do what I love, which is coach baseball at a high level.

And better yet, I’m surrounded by great people who are the best at what they do.

Our preparation in regard to the information we have and getting our players ready to face top–tier opponents is second to none, and that’s a testament to our head coach.

Whether it’s me or the rest of the coaches, Skip’s always willing to hear our thoughts and ideas that we bring to the table, and trust me, I’ve been in the game long enough to know it’s not like that everywhere.

Skip talks all the time about servant leadership. What can we do, day in and day out, to serve these players and put them in positions to be successful?

And it’s not something Skip just talks about; it’s the way he lives his life and the freedom and trust he puts in the rest of us coaches to help take OU baseball to the very top.

Working for a coach like that and a program with such high integrity and wanting to do right by the players is not something I take for granted.

OU baseball made me a better player, and now all these years later, OU baseball has undoubtedly made me a better coach.

OU is family

Since the first day I stepped on campus as a student-athlete, OU has always taken care of me.

More than ever, this was evident when they offered to help me finish my degree when I was coaching high school baseball and ranching.

I had quite a few credit hours that didn’t transfer when I got to OU from Seminole, so that left me about 16 hours short of graduating during my senior year.

While I had my sights set on MLB at the time, I always promised my mom I’d come back and finish.

When I was coaching high school baseball and taking care of my ranch, that’s when I started to kick the tires on finishing my degree.

I was in the process of figuring out how I was going to manage that when OU stepped in.

They awarded me the Sooners For Life scholarship, which allowed me to finish my degree online with my busy schedule and officially become a college graduate.

I wanted to graduate for myself, as well as the promise I made to my mom, but even more so, I was determined to set an example for my three boys.

It was important for me to show them that if you start something, you finish it. No matter how long it takes or how tough things get, if you keep fighting and have the right mentality, there isn’t anything you can’t accomplish in this life.

My son, Jaxon, is on the team at OU with me.

Being able to help coach him and watch him grow and develop the same passion for the game that I have is another blessing that wouldn’t have been possible without my degree.

Anyone that knows me best knows that there’s nothing more important in my life than family, and I couldn’t be prouder to work for a university in OU that feels the exact same way.

OU has proven that no matter where you go or how many years pass, you’ll always have a place to call home in Norman.

Once you’re a Sooner, you’re a Sooner for life.