Greg Hansen's Top 100 of 2012 Greg Hansen: A champ in and out of dugout

2012-12-30T00:00:00Z 2013-07-19T21:24:45Z Greg Hansen's Top 100 of 2012 Greg Hansen: A champ in and out of dugoutGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 30, 2012 12:00 am  • 

On a hot June afternoon outside the Omaha Hilton, Andy Lopez and Jeremy Foley stood on Cass Street and embraced one another.

It was another unexpected parting of ways, another goodbye.

The No. 1 Florida Gators had been eliminated from the College World Series, and Foley, the Gators' athletic director, was preparing for a flight to Gainesville.

Eleven years earlier he had summoned Lopez, then his baseball coach, for a season's-end conference.

Before he left home that day, June 4, 2001, Lopez told his wife, Linda, "this meeting may not go well."

That was an odd thing to say for a man who had taken the Gators to unprecedented heights: two College World Series and five NCAA regionals in seven seasons.

Foley asked Lopez to resign. Lopez resisted. "You'll have to fire me," he said. And so Foley did.

When he returned to his suburban Gainesville home that day, Lopez was greeted by his wife and her parents, visiting from Los Angeles. Linda asked how the meeting with Foley had gone.

"I've got great news and really bad news," Lopez remembers telling his family. "The bad news is, I got fired."

Taken aback, Linda Lopez asked for the good news.

"The good news is, I got fired," Lopez said.

At 47, Andy Lopez, a California boy, wanted to go home, go west.

"Honest to God, I wasn't crushed," he says now. "I knew it would be a good thing for us. If you can ever be excited after getting fired, we were excited. I was never bitter at Jeremy Foley. In Omaha, I gave him a hug and told him how much I appreciated the seven years he took care of my family."

Funny how life changes. This time, in downtown Omaha, June 19, 2012, Lopez watched as Foley walked away.

Six days later, Lopez would coach Arizona to the national championship.

After the Wildcats completed their singular 10-0 run through the postseason, sweeping two-time defending College World Series champion South Carolina 5-1 and 4-1, UA athletic director Greg Byrne stood on the infield at TD Ameritrade Park and tried to speak above the happy din.

"Andy's a genuinely good man," said Byrne. "He cares about people and treats everyone well, from the man cleaning up the ballpark to the guy sitting in box seats. I wish I could take credit for hiring him."

Lopez is No. 1 in the Star's list of Southern Arizona's Top 100 sports figures of 2012 for many of the reasons his team won the national championship.

"We liked one another, we played hard, and we were well-prepared," said World Series MVP Robert Refsnyder. "I can't imagine playing for a better coach or a better person than Lopes."

Lopes?

Around the UA baseball program, "Lopes" is a term of endearment. It's not that his players are on a first-name basis with a man 40 years older, it's that "Lopes" and "coach" have become one and the same.

He has restored the glory days to Arizona baseball, connecting with Pop McKale, Frank Sancet and Jerry Kindall, the ranking legends of Arizona baseball.

Lopez was fired at Florida for what Foley considered a breach of loyalty: In the summer of 2000, at the request of his former UCLA teammate Dan Guerrero, Lopez visited the baseball facility at Cal-Irvine, at which Guerrero, the athletic director, was attempting to hire a coach.

Even though Lopez had rebuffed interest from Texas, North Carolina and Hawaii during his Gator days, and even though cash-strapped Cal-Irvine had no chance to realistically hire a sitting SEC coach, Foley was actively unhappy.

"He never could comprehend why I got on that plane," Lopez recollects. "He never forgot it."

The mystery of Lopez's sudden departure from Florida was such that when Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan was in Tucson for a Dec. 15 game against Arizona, he invited Lopez to the team's shoot-around and, later to its hotel.

Donovan asked, 11 years later, "what happened?"

Lopez just smiled. He is in a better place now. His uber-comfy facility, Hi Corbett Field, smashed UA attendance records in 2012. And his national reputation has been restored.

"It worked out," he says with a smile. "My wife loves it here. My kids love it here. I'm happy on and off the field here."

In Omaha, a long-ago adversary, Florida State Hall of Fame coach Mike Martin, eliminated by the Wildcats 4-3 and 10-3, put the World Series in perspective.

"Andy's an honest, wonderful Christian man, and I treasure his friendship," Martin told reporters. "I don't treasure the two butt-whippings we took, but you gotta credit him."

After Lopez completed what, on paper, appears to be a significantly strong recruiting season and finished six weeks of fall training camp, he took his first few days off since Omaha.

He sat at home, with Linda, and for the first time watched all five games of the World Series, one each day over five days.

"I shake my head when I watch those games now," he says. "Do you realize we were never behind? We never trailed. We're not curing cancer here, but, holy smokes, how do you beat that?"

In 2012, in Tucson, you can't.

Lopez top local sports figure after guiding Cats to national title

The list

Greg Hansen's Top 100 sports figures in Southern Arizona for 2012.

Pages B6-B7

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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