Gary Gilmore's storied career is coming to a close at Coastal Carolina

Gary Gilmore is retiring at the end of the 2024 season. Coastal Carolina Athletics

After nearly three decades, more than 1,100 wins, a case full of conference championship trophies and one all-time legendary Men's College World Series title run, head baseball coach Gary Gilmore's tenure at Coastal Carolina is nearing its end.

The 66-year-old can't imagine his life had it not been draped in teal. No one who has ever paid even the slightest amount of attention to the school on South Carolina's Grand Strand dares to picture where Chanticleer baseball -- heck, the entire university -- would be had Gilmore never graced the skipper's end of the dugout in Conway.

That's why now, Gilmore can't stop thinking about an early morning 27 years ago, when he was "SO done" at Coastal.

It was early summer 1997, four years before the coach led the Chants to their first NCAA baseball tournament appearance. Now, they have made 18 postseason visits in the past 22 completed seasons. That morning in '97 was nearly two decades before Coastal seized its perpetual place in Omaha's history and hearts with its 2016 MCWS dogpile victory over baseball blue-blood Arizona.

In 1997, Gilmore wasn't yet 40 years old, having just finished a torturous second season at the helm. Coastal finished well below the .500 mark, ranked seventh in the Big South Conference and failed to earn a spot in the conference tournament. But that is also the same league where his teams went on to clinch 13 championships, be it the regular season, tournament or in eight instances, both. The Chants have added another three rings with the possibility of one more, in the Sun Belt, their conference home since that series title. On that fed up morning in '97, Gilmore owned just 57 wins as Coastal Carolina's head coach. Entering his final home game at Spring Brooks Stadium, he has 1,112.

"Yes, sir, that day, I was done," Gilmore confessed from Conway last week, having just left a special commencement held for Chanticleer athletes who missed the school's main graduation ceremony, including a handful of his players. "Back in '97 the stress was killing me. So, I was on my way to turn in an elementary school P.E. contract. I was getting out of coaching and going to teach physical education. I could get weekends off, summers off, and the money was the same. Seemed like a helluva deal to me."

Contract in hand, he was driving up a road that is familiar to anyone who has ever vacationed in Myrtle Beach, U.S. Route 501, surrounded on all sides by outlet malls, golf courses and billboards for Ripley's Believe or Not (see the two-headed lamb!). Gilmore drove past the campus of Coastal Carolina University, barely four years into its name upgrade, replacing its former Gamecocks little brotherish moniker, USC Coastal Carolina College. His ballpark was a glorified aluminum high school stadium. His office was in a FEMA trailer that was chunked into the sand behind the backstop. The batting cage was more of a batting hut, hung from chain-link fences and pine trees like casting nets hung out to dry by some fishermen. He was making $32,000 a year, an $11,000 pay cut from his previous job as baseball coach at NCAA Division II USC Aiken.

But he took a chance on his alma mater because back in the day it took a chance on him, a high school outfielder from Virginia moonshine country who had already spent time playing at East Tennessee State and Ferrum College. He patrolled center field for the Chants in 1979-80 and posted a .353 career batting average.

"I know that when I got there in 1995, the only person who really believed that we could build a program that could compete with South Carolina and Clemson, a team that could get to Omaha, was me. I felt like the lone believer," Gilmore said. "That day in 1997, I was done believing. I was tired, man."

But a funny thing happened on the way to organizing duck, duck, goose and parachute games. His vehicle turned off 501, steered its way down behind the abandoned Waccamaw Pottery outlet and pulled into a parking lot next to the Medieval Times. That's where his church had relocated, to a just vacated country music theater.

"My pastor and I were buddies, and I thought, 'You know what? I'm just going to stop in and chat with him before I go do this,' and two and a half hours later, I tore that contract up right there in his office," Gilmore said. "I said, 'OK, you're right. I've just gotta keep grinding.' And then I went back to work."

Gilmore, at most just a handful of weeks away from his last game as CCU's head coach, laughed.

"It's hard to think about how different my life would be if that day I had turned right out of that church and went to be a P.E. teacher instead of turning left and going back to that FEMA trailer."

Hard? Try impossible. And that's not only when thinking about Gilmore's life or career. Consider the hundreds of players whose lives changed because he stayed and coached them in Conway. In the notoriously tight world of college baseball, he was the rarest of individuals, a man who managed to make practically zero enemies. Just call or grab a random sampling of those who make their living in the game, you will hear unanimous praise for the blue-collar coach who had so many opportunities to grab bigger paychecks at Power 5 programs, but instead chose to stay put in the northeast corner of South Carolina.

"The supposed feud between South Carolina and Coastal and me and Gary, I remember we went up there for a super regional and he joked that he was bringing boxing gloves so we could duke it out at the press conference," Ray Tanner, South Carolina head coach for 16 years and athletic director since 2012, recalled when Gilmore announced his retirement plans in May 2023. "But he's a great guy. He's a true baseball man. What he has done at Coastal has given hope to any school or program who might think, 'Can we actually get to Omaha and win it all?' He's proved you can."

"Gary stayed at his school because he loves it, even though he could have gone to so many other places, because that's just him. He's loyal," said Elliott Avent, the 27-year head coach at NC State and long one of Gilmore's closest friends in the sport. "If I called him right now and said, 'Gary, I need you.' He'd be in his truck on I-95 to Raleigh without even asking what I needed."

Added Scott Jackson, former longtime UNC assistant coach and now head coach at Liberty, one of Coastal's biggest rivals, during the same weekend that the Chants swept the Flames in a three-game early March series: "I think the biggest compliment I can give Gary is that he's the guy who either beats you or makes beating him so difficult that it drives you crazy, but yet you still love the guy."

Since his 29th season at Coastal started in February, rounding up such testimonies has been the easiest polling job of 2024. Every single opponent and series, both home and away, has been one giant appreciation tour. Want to meet the heroes of the 2016 national title team? They're in the grandstands for every home game, hosting parties to honor their coach at beach houses afterward.

"Too many hugs and handshakes to count," Gilmore said, choking up. "And even though I told everyone not to give me anything, they keep giving me presents. I told [my wife] Cathy we were going to need to add an extra room to the house to hold it all."

He received a grill that can be bolted onto the side of his new pontoon boat so he can cook the fish he just caught for his four grandkids. Last weekend at Southern Miss, site of so many epic showdowns over the years, the Golden Eagles gave him a cowboy hat. "You know, something to ride off into the sunset with." A kid of the 1970s, Gilmore grew up emulating the way Pete Rose played baseball. It's why he has always worn jersey number 14. When Illinois played at Coastal in February, Illini head coach Danny Hartlieb gave Gilmore a signed photo of Rose walking up the tunnel for his last game as a player in 1986. So before the Chants' final home game against No. 4 Clemson on Tuesday, Coastal's players are insisting Gilmore reenact the moment for a photo of his own, to be framed next to the one of Rose.

But the present that opened up Gilmore's tear ducts came from Duke coach Chris Pollard -- a signed copy of country duo Brooks & Dunn's 2003 No. 1 smash "Red Dirt Road." It was former longtime pitching coach Drew Thomas, now at UCF, who convinced the Coastal ballpark press box to start playing that song whenever Gilmore made a walk out to home plate to exchange lineups. Now it's as much a part of the Chanticleers baseball experience as hot dogs and peanuts.

"It's where I drank my first beer
It's where I found Jesus
Where I wrecked my first car
I tore it all to pieces
I learned the path to Heaven
Is full of sinners and believers
Learned that happiness on Earth
Ain't just for high achievers, I learned
I've come to know there's life at both ends
Of that red dirt road"

"That's me, man," Gilmore said of the tune. "When they started doing that, I'd have to get myself together because I'd immediately start crying. Why? Because I grew up on a literal red dirt road in the hills of Virginia. I actually wrecked my car on that dirt road. I learned how to be a man on that road. I learned how to work there."

He was raised in Franklin County, Virginia, a series of tobacco-stained foothill villages. His father, Richard, was an office supply salesman, a Korean War veteran who traveled the Roanoke region convincing small businesses and schools to buy his paper, typewriters and file cabinets. He'd often take Gary with him and they would talk nonstop baseball. So it was no surprise when Gary became a three-sport star at Franklin High School, a pitcher with a 0.78 ERA, a slugger with a .313 batting average and an All-Metro quarterback who ran the bone-crushing veer offense. Every Saturday morning, Richard would pull Gary and his bruise-covered body out of bed, help him stretch his sore muscles and then put him to work.

"All I have ever known is how to grind because that's how we did it," Gilmore said. "That's how Dad did it to build his business. That's how Mom did it to make sure we were taken care of. And that's how I did it because I watched how they did it. No matter how hard it might be, I don't do a thing in my life that I didn't learn how to handle on that red dirt road."

These final days at Coastal, Gilmore is handling a lot. Gilmore has battled cancer in his pancreas and liver since 2020. That fight played a huge part in his decision to retire, an announcement he made one year ago. Last fall, doctors also discovered stage four prostate cancer, which led to surgery.

Between a Tuesday win against UNC Greensboro and Coastal's final home series against Georgia State, Gilmore flew to Houston for an aggressive round of chemotherapy treatment, which itself is bracketed by multiple weekly physical therapy treatments.

"Is it a lot? Yeah, man, it's a lot. But it's what we've been dealt and no one is given more than they can handle. And it helps when you know you aren't handling it alone," Gilmore said. "I wish everyone could experience what I have this year. The people taking the time to tell you how much they love you. Former players, other teams, coaches I've known my whole life hugging me when we pass each other at the airport headed to games, people I just met. You need help in a fight, and I know I have so much help."

But right now, Gilmore is way more worried about baseball than cancer. The Chanticleers need to recapture their midseason magic if they want to fulfill the "Omaha!" dream one more time, the declaration his teams have broken every pregame huddle with as long as anyone can remember. For the better part of the season, Coastal was steadily ranked in D1Baseball's top 25, but an eight-game losing streak from late April to early May bounced the Chants from the list. But three wins over the past week have helped their case.

The team wants to keep playing as long as it can because that means one step closer to Omaha, but also because the players know that every postseason win means one more extended date added to their coach's farewell tour. As for the coach himself, he just wants to make it through that home finale Tuesday night.

"I don't know how I'm going to react. I really don't," Gilmore said. "The last game in this ballpark we built from the sand up. The fact that it's Clemson. Taking that picture. Knowing we will really need to win that game. I'm definitely going to cry. It's just a matter of when it happens first."

How about when they play "Red Dirt Road"?

"Dang right."