John Cunningham, who has been an employee at the University of San Diego since 1962, has earned his share. He is “J.C.” to USD colleagues and student-athletes. He’s “The Lid” to players from the first baseball team he coached in 1964. He has a car license plate with “JC 33″ on it for his initials and uniform number, but it has also drawn interest from California drivers with deep religious faith.
“People still call the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] to ask about it because they want it whenever I decide to give it up,” he said.
Don’t count on it anytime soon. Cunningham, 75, maintains his health by shooting his age on the golf course. He enjoys commuting from his Escondido home to the Linda Vista campus where he then transports Torero sports teams by bus to the airport or to nearby away games.
“I’ve been driving a bus longer than I’ve been coaching,” quipped Cunningham, who first drove buses during his two-year Army stint.
In both instances, though, it’s been quite a ride for Cunningham.
A native San Diegan, Cunningham attended St. Augustine High and was a basketball and baseball standout at the University of San Francisco (USF). Following his military service and a brief stint in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, USD Athletics Director Phil Woolpert, who had been Cunningham’s basketball coach at USF, hired Cunningham.
He was USD’s freshman basketball head coach, varsity assistant and intramurals director, but in 1964 he replaced Mike Morrow as baseball coach. Cunningham led the Toreros for 35 years (1964-98), won 843 games, had 16 winning seasons, reached the Division II NCAA Regionals four times and its College World Series in 1971 and 1978. He oversaw USD’s transition to Division I and, in 1985, the West Coast Conference. He was coach of the year three times, including twice in the WCC.
When he took over, the program didn’t have an on-campus field and players carpooled to practices and games until he found a bus to drive the team. Cunningham instilled discipline and organization, hence “The Lid” nickname.
“I asked John Baumgarten, who was our team captain in 1964, about the nickname years later and he said it was `because you put the lid on all the shenanigans. You established order.”
Cunningham recruited players who were committed to the important balance of being a strong student-athlete. He had another mantra that was equally important: “If you come here, you’ll get an opportunity to play, but once you did, it was up to you. I expected players to get better each year. You can have a one-year experience four times or you can have a four-year experience. There’s a difference.”
The Toreros eventually got their stadium to help with recruiting and travel. In 1988, the university celebrated the coach’s 25th year in charge by naming the facility Cunningham Stadium.
Cunningham coached hundreds of talented players and was assisted by valuable part-time assistants Jake Molina and former player Glenn Godwin for 14 of his 35 years. Forty-seven Toreros signed professional contracts. Eight — John Wathan, Kerry Dineen, Bill Pinkham, Jeff Grotewold, Mike Saipe, Brady Clark, Bart Miadich and Dan Giese — reached the major leagues.
His players made their mark on the field — several still hold school records in various categories — and some players, such as Steve Bogard, with intangible leadership qualities.
“He played on one of our poorest teams, record wise (1985), and I was ready to hang it up,” Cunningham recalled, “but players like Steve made me want to coach longer. He’d say, `Coach, we’re playing baseball; we get to play a great game. How is that a bad thing?’ He was right.”
Cunningham’s dedication to baseball — he coached in the California Collegiate League and served as the San Diego Padres’ official scorer — earned him enshrinement USD’s Chet and Marguerite Pagni Family Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 and the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1991. The San Diego Baseball Historical Society named him, along with Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn and others, as one of the 25 most influential people in San Diego baseball.
Cunningham said he cherishes the people he’s met and has worked with as he’s in his 51st year at the university. Most importantly, he has been a friend and mentor to not only Torero baseball players, but USD staff and administrators. On Saturday there will be a special pre-game dedication to honor him for his years of service with the naming of Cunningham Field.
“I wouldn’t be here as long as I have been had I not enjoyed working here, the atmosphere and the quality and concern of the people I’ve worked with, including administrators, players and maintenance people.”
The feeling is mutual for those who know “J.C.”
— Ryan T. Blystone