By Trey Williams
Ken Campbell was elected to the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2020, although his formal induction was delayed two years because of COVID-19.
But Campbell had already long known that the waiting was the hardest part.
A former baseball player at Science Hill and East Tennessee State, Campbell had coached 15 years at Eau Gallie High School (Melbourne, Florida) and 10 at ETSU (1990-99) when he left Johnson City to become the head coach at Walters State Community College in Morristown.
The move to junior college from an NCAA Division I school at the age of 57, even one as underfunded as ETSU was at the time, turned out to be as brilliant as it was odd.
Campbell went 650-162-1 (2000-2013) at Walters State and won the national championship in 2006 while going 61-8. He was the NJCAA Coach of the Year that year.
Campbell’s Senators went to five World Series in 14 seasons, including his final year in 2013. He said he might’ve coached another year had the ’13 team not gotten him back to Grand Junction for the first time since ’08.
So even though his pupils never adjusted to limelight, Campbell – “an ole Keystone boy who grew up on Main Street, just right over from the football stadium” – felt right at home when he returned to Colorado for his ceremonial recognition May 27-28.
“I will cherish this for the rest of my life,” Campbell said. “To be recognized like this, you have to have great players and great coaches. And I was fortunate to have both. I was a head coach for 39 years at three different levels — high school, JUCO and Division I – and I can honestly say that the 14 years I coached at Walters State were more fun and enjoyable than any other time.”
Walters State entered this year’s JUCO World Series as the top seed and won three games en route to a third-place finish. So Walters State manager Dave Shelton, who’d spent 11 years as Campbell’s assistant before succeeding him, was in Grand Junction May 27 for Campbell’s induction.
“I’ve always thought he was a Hall of Famer,” said Shelton, a Unicoi County alumnus who played baseball for Charlie Baxter and basketball for current Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner. “A big part of this whole gig is making the right decisions on who to hire as your assistant coaches. I think Ken made a pretty good decision when he hired (Carson-Newman pitching coach) Joey Seaver, obviously one of the best pitching coaches in the country – to get him to come coach at a junior college. And I was pretty fortunate that he hired me when he had an opportunity. And Ken didn’t micromanage his players and coaches.”
Shelton took the Senators to an unprecedented fourth straight World Series this year.
“I tell ya, ole David Shelton has really turned into an excellent coach,” Campbell said. “He’s a great recruiter. His organizational skills are fantastic and he’s one of the best young coaches going right now. And it’s just gonna be a matter of time before he wins the whole thing out there. He’s so close every year.
“You gotta have a little luck out there too, because all 10 teams can beat you and it’s just tough to win that thing. But he will win it, I promise you.”
Campbell might have learned some of that while playing for John Broyles at Science Hill. He started at third base and second base as a junior and senior when the ‘Toppers finished third in the state in back to back seasons.
“John Broyles, you know, he more or less made each player on the team feel like it was his team,” Campbell said. “Everybody that played for him felt like they owned part of that team. I think I might’ve got that part from John Broyles.
“You really wanted to play for him. I guess what made him so good is that he pretty much just left you alone and let you play your game.”
Campbell was hitting .371 entering the state tournament his senior season after hitting .300 prior to the state tournament as a junior. Teammates included Graham Spurrier, Tony Bowman, Leroy Berry, Mike Rutherford, Lonnie Lowe, Jerry Keller, Lester Benfield, Bill Hyatt and catcher Larry Bain, who led the Big Seven in batting with a .471 average in 1960. Bain finished the ’60 season hitting .500.
“Just to make it to those state tournaments made us very, very happy,” Campbell said. “We kind of set the stage for Steve Spurrier and those guys ended up winning it like two or three years after that.”
Indeed, the Hilltoppers won state titles in 1962 and ’63. Campbell played with Steve’s brother Graham at Science Hill and ETSU.
“I tell ya, Graham was good baseball player,” Campbell said. “He was a right-handed batter but his power was to right-center field. He used to hit line-drives out to right-center.”
Memphis Christian Brothers’ Wayne Atkins no-hit Science Hill in an 8-0 victory in the Hilltoppers’ state tournament opener in 1961, which was delayed two days due to rain. Science Hill won the second game 6-3 against Bradley Central. Campbell, batting second in the lineup and playing third base, was 1-for-3 with a run, an RBI and a stolen base.
Science Hill was eliminated with a 10-3 loss to Hillsboro the following day. Campbell was on base when Charlie “Moose” Morris hit a three-run home run for the Hilltoppers.
“Moose could hit the ball real well,” Campbell said. “He ended up signing with the Cardinals and played over at Cardinal Park.”
A number of former ‘Toppers through the years have agreed with Campbell’s “player’s coach” assessment of Broyles. Many joke that the hardest he ever worked them was on his farm (where Target shopping center is now located).
“Coach Broyles would pay us to put up hay,” Campbell said. “And I was just a poor Keystone boy. He wanted to help (the players) – and I’m sure he appreciated the help.
“It wasn’t easy work cutting that tobacco and stalking it and putting it up in the barn and all that. And picking corn and putting it in the barn and — he used to work our tails off.”
Campbell chuckled recalling the mild-mannered Broyles being ejected in a game against Tennessee High.
“It was a real important conference game and one of the umpires didn’t show up,” Campbell said. “They ended up having to pick a guy out of the stands. He’s a red-headed guy and he was really screwing over us the whole ballgame. I remember they called Bill Hyatt out on a high ball or something. It seems like I was on third base.
“And Mr. Broyles, I’ve never seen him get that mad. He really was mad, but still, he shouldn’t have got kicked out.”
Playing for Jim Mooney at ETSU, Campbells says, was also a pleasure. Mooney was a left-handed pitcher in the majors, one with an excellent pickoff move.
“Jim Mooney pitched for the Gashouse Gang,” Campbell said. “He pitched with Dizzy Dean. Of course, you know, when we’d have batting practice – he’d throw batting practice and we’d be on first base and he’d try to pick us off. He had a real good pickoff move. He was just a great man to play for.”
Campbell coached future MLB players Tim Wakefield and Jeff Tam at Eau Gallie, where he also coached football 12 years.
“I was put in the Hall of Fame down there the same day that Wakefield was,” Campbell said. “And Prince Fielder was a senior that year. He was there that day and they had a home run derby, and I saw Fielder win that home run derby. …
“My first year coaching down in Florida, two of the people that were on the other teams in our conference was ole Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants – he was playing for Melbourne – and then Clint Hurdle, the manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was playing for Merritt Island High School.”
Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies when Walters State won the World Series in 2006. Campbell’s Senators attended a Rockies game.
“After we won the national championship we stopped off the next day,” Campbell said, “and I was able to talk to him a little bit. He used to come into my office down in Florida and we’d just sit and talk about camps and stuff like that.”
Campbell began playing Little League baseball for his dad with 9-12-year-olds when he was six or seven years old. The field was a stone’s throw from his home.
“You could tell he grew up near ballfields,” the late Seaver said when Campbell retired. “It was in his blood. At beginning of every season he’d say our goal is to win a national championship.”
Mooney coached youth league baseball too, as did Broyles and ETSU basketball coach Madison Brooks.
“I remember we were playing in the Eastern Conference finals up there – I think it was at Eastern Kentucky – and our first-string catcher got hurt and there was something wrong with the second-string catcher. And Jim Mooney, he remembered me catching in Little League. I played everything in Little League – pitched, caught, shortstop and all that.
“But he remembered me catching in Little League. And he asked me if I could catch that final game, that championship game and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll catch it. No problem.’ And we had this guy Johnny Taylor from Elizabethton who was an excellent pitcher. I mean, he was one of the best around and I caught him and we ended up winning that game.”
Campbell had his moments at ETSU. Science Hill alum Todd Anderson got the victory when his Buccaneers won at nationally ranked Auburn in ’94. Freshman Reid Casey pitched a gem when the Bucs beat Tennessee in ’99.
“Our pregame meals were buttermilk biscuits from Hardees,” Anderson said. “For what he had (budget wise), I think he did a heck of a job at ETSU.”
But the thin air of Grand Junction was where Campbell’s career reached its apex.
“Winning a national championship is the ultimate,” Campbell said. “It is a coach’s dream, and I was able to live it. You know, I ended up being in four Hall of Fames and certainly that’s special. Just all the hard work and the dedication and the commitment and doing things the right way finally paid off. God has blessed me, that’s for sure.”