Five months removed from open-heart surgery and a couple hours after one of the most humiliating losses of his career, an irate Andy Lopez pulled his gray SUV off the freeway and sat in silence.
The night was March 26 and Lopez had just watched his UA team lose to rival Arizona State 14-6 in Tempe. Leading 6-4 in the middle of the sixth inning, Lopez’s squad gave up 10 runs in the frame and made about every mental miscue possible.
Told repeatedly by his cardiologist that he was to avoid letting any acute anger linger, Lopez was at a loss to know how to handle a setback like this one.
Forty something miles from his house, the 60-year-old coach of the Arizona Wildcats, parked on the side of the road at the Picacho Peak exit, and wondered whether he would make it home alive.
“I drove home and my chest was pounding and I had pain under my armpits and I’m thinking, ‘am I going to die?’” Lopez said. “Like ‘am I going to make it home?’ For the first time in my life, I really didn’t know.
“That was the first day I thought, ‘gosh dang it, Andy, are you going to be able to do this?’”
The answer he eventually came up with was yes — but not the way he had led the previous 25 seasons as a Division I coach.
Known for his vehemence and fire on the practice field, Lopez had to find a new way to get things done. Gone were the days of challenging his hitters during batting practice and hounding a pitcher during a bullpen session.
A husband of 30-plus years and a father of four, Lopez knew there could be no more pounding in his chest after exhausting losses or frustrating practices.
“Do I want to see my girls get married? Do I want to see my boys grow into their career? Do I want to hug a grandchild? Who doesn’t?” Lopez said. “I never thought about dying before. I thought about throwing batting practice and getting my workout in and getting on the phone and recruiting.”
He continued: “I want to live as long as I can. Is coaching college baseball good for it? My cardiologist says I’m OK. He’s given me some guidelines and I’ve tried to live with them. I want to feel good again. I want to throw batting practice.”
And he swears he will.
Following a 22-33 season with the Wildcats, Lopez will spend the summer continuing to get to full strength following his October surgery that forced him to miss the entirety of fall practice.
He’s positive this year was an aberration — it was the first time as a Division I head coach that one of his teams finished more than 10 games below .500 — and 2015 will be different.
“He’s definitely been a little different this season,” sophomore shortstop Kevin Newman said during the season. “He’s been more patient and quiet about things because I think he has to be.”
The Star recently sat down with Lopez to talk about a variety of topics:
On next season: “I want a full year. And if we’re not better it’s time for someone else to take the job and be the Arizona coach and get them to Omaha. I have no problem with that. I’ve said it since the day I got here: ‘It’s Arizona. We should be good.’ If I can’t get us better, you know what, I’ve had a great run, I’m not going to fight it. I told (athletic director) Greg Byrne after I came back; ‘I’ll never be a burden to this university.’ No way. I want to put a good product out there with good people. For the most part in the 13 years I’ve been here, it’s mostly been that. Not this year. I’ll get it fixed or I’ll be out of here. I’m not a guy that they are going to have to chase off.”
On how he’ll remember the 2014 season: “I think you remember it from the standpoint that you don’t want to repeat it. I’ve never gone through it before and I never want to again. After our fourth game, which we won, I looked at my staff and I said ‘these guys are going to struggle this year. This team is going to struggle. This is going to be a rough one. I don’t know how rough, but it’s going to be rough.’ I remember thinking to myself too many days driving home, the intensity is lacking, we’re really loose in our defensive work. We weren’t really together. There were things that really scared me. I didn’t see the intangibles.”
On a junior class that struggled with production and leadership: “I want to take full responsibility for that. You can’t get thrown out of the weight room because you don’t have good work ethic. You can’t come to a game and have people wonder if you’re even here or not. Those things can’t happen and they’re my fault. Do I love this junior class? Yeah, they won a national championship as freshmen. Am I disappointed that I could not convey to them the importance of being really good leaders and showing the freshmen how to do it and be in a program like this? Yeah. But we have to move on. For some reason, I couldn’t get across to them what I’ve been able to get across to other teams. I’ve coached a lot of years and I haven’t had a year like this.”
On rebuilding: “If someone took a fine-tooth comb to my career, they’d go ‘he took a high school program that didn’t exist and four years later they were at Dodger Stadium playing for the city championship. Hey, he went to Dominguez Hills and they weren’t even .500 and four years later they were in a Division II World Series. He went to Pepperdine and four years later they won a national championship. He went to Florida and they were a little bit down and they weren’t going very well and in his second and fourth year, they were in Omaha. He came here and in his third year, he was in Omaha. I guess he rebuilds some programs.’ I’m not sitting around and saying ‘oh my God, what do we do?’ But we need to do what we need to do. We made a couple of mistakes in recruiting and now we have to recover.”