A Legend in the Dugout

Nolan Ryan’s volunteer stint as a pitching coach helped lead the Frogs to the 1994 Southwest Conference championship.

Nolan Ryan spent the first few years of his retirement from baseball watching sons Reid and Reese play for TCU as a volunteer coach.

A Legend in the Dugout

Nolan Ryan’s volunteer stint as a pitching coach helped lead the Frogs to the 1994 Southwest Conference championship.


The story of how Nolan Ryan became a volunteer assistant baseball coach for TCU 30 years ago — like everything else the right-handed ace did during his Hall of Fame baseball career — has grown into legend.

Ryan was at the peak of his popularity in 1994, his first year of retirement after 27 seasons in Major League Baseball. The native Texan spent the final five seasons of his career with the Texas Rangers, collecting his 5,000th career strikeout and throwing the final two of his seven career no-hitters; he was also the national poster boy for Advil and the regional face of Whataburger.

With no more hitters to strike out, Ryan prioritized watching sons Reid ’95 and Reese ’99 play baseball. Reid, who went on to serve as a Trustee, was then pitching for TCU, and Reese soon would be.

Ryan was so beloved that he couldn’t watch his sons play without being asked for an autograph or a handshake. Reid Ryan said that on the weekend of April 8, 1994, his father was too popular for the old TCU diamond. Texas was in town for a three-game series, and the crowds swelled to the point that Ryan needed a place of refuge to watch the games.

Nolan Ryan created an individual plan for each TCU pitcher he coached as a volunteer from 1994 to 1997, including son Reese.

Coach Lance Brown ’64 had a place in mind — the Frogs’ dugout.

Brown and Ryan had become friends years before, when Brown, who was an All-America pitcher for TCU in 1963, would throw batting practice for Ryan’s Houston Astros and Rangers teams.

“He was getting hounded,” Reid Ryan said. “So he sits in the dugout in street clothes.”

The celebrity sighting didn’t go over well with Longhorns coach Cliff Gustafson, especially after TCU swept Texas back to Austin. Gustafson filed a complaint with the Southwest Conference, saying that TCU had violated a rule against having nonuniformed personnel in the dugout.

TCU responded by explaining, uh, yeah, Ryan was a volunteer assistant coach.

“Jokingly, I just said, ‘I know you’re out of work, and I want to try to help you out a little,’ ” Brown recalled.

Brown was content to let Ryan watch games from the bench, but Ryan said he wasn’t going to sit by idly.

“That lasted for about a day, and Dad just couldn’t help himself,” Reese Ryan said. “So he jumped in with both feet.”

Ryan wasn’t just his sons’ No. 1 cheerleader from the bench. He was the pitching coach from 1994 to 1997, a duty he found more difficult than he had expected. The role required digging into each pitcher’s mechanics and breaking some bad habits.

Brown said Ryan crafted an individual plan for each pitcher and never talked about how he had done things during his career. Brown also said Ryan was a key factor in the ’94 team winning the Southwest Conference regular season title.

“He would know what they lacked and what they needed to do to get over that,” Brown said. “I know very few people that design programs for individuals, and he did.”

Nolan Ryan was in his first year of retirement from Major League Baseball when he started as a volunteer assistant at TCU, almost by mistake.

Most listened to every word Ryan said. They were almost all Texas kids learning from a Texas legend.

“But there’s always one or two kids who think they have it figured out,” said Ryan, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. “They’re going to do it their way, and that’s a challenge that sometimes you can’t overcome.”

Ryan said he had never experienced the atmosphere of a college game. The ballparks were smaller, and screaming fans were closer to the field. In comparison, major league fans seated in massive ballparks were relatively docile.

When Ryan made a trip to the pitcher’s mound to calm Reese during a game at Texas A&M, fans started calling Nolan “Barney” because of his large, purple TCU jacket.

Another time, also at A&M, the ’94 team was eating a postgame meal when a student approached Ryan and asked for an autograph.

“He’s like, ‘Weren’t you the guy just yelling at me?’ ” Reid Ryan said.

“I found it interesting that fans were so enthusiastic and passionate about their team and about trying to intimidate the other team,” Ryan said.

Reid, Reese and sister Wendy Ryan Bivins ’99 saw their dad often during his professional baseball seasons, especially when he played for the Astros near their home in Alvin, Texas. He helped his sons fashion proper mechanics in the offseason and when they joined him during the season. But Reese Ryan said their mother, Ruth, served as the baseball support system in Little League while Ryan was traveling the country playing ball.

Each cherishes the shared time in the TCU dugout and on the diamond.

“It was definitely an awesome experience and probably something that I took for granted,” Reese Ryan said. “Twenty-five years later, I’m able to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, wow, that really was a pretty special time in our lives.’ ”