Ron Fraser, the longtime Miami baseball coach who won two national championships in Omaha and whose innovative marketing ideas helped spark a surge in the college game's popularity died Sunday morning at age 79.
Family spokesman Tony Segreto said Fraser, known as "the wizard of college baseball," had battled Alzheimer's disease for many years.
Fraser led Miami to national titles in 1982 and 1985, taking the Hurricanes to the College World Series 12 times over his 30 years at the school. He retired in 1992 with 1,271 wins, never having a losing season in his three decades overseeing the program.
His legacy, however, may be what he did to promote the game. From raffling car batteries to bikini nights to even offering nine-course gourmet meals on the infield of the team's stadium, Fraser had ideas that even he called "crazy." His unusual ways proved successful as the Hurricanes not only became a winner on the field, but one of the best-known brands in college baseball.
"I was more interested in getting the people in the stands because I knew we'd never be really successful unless we made money."
Fraser also played a key role in getting baseball on national television. And now, the College World Series, the entire NCAA Tournament, is a mainstay on TV as are hundreds of regular-season games annually.
Fraser was named NCAA coach of the year three times and coached numerous national teams, including the 1992 Olympic team. "Coach Fraser is the most influential person in my career and the man who put college baseball on the map," current Miami coach Jim Morris said last year. "He is like a father to me."
Fraser was born and raised in Nutley, New Jersey, then attended Florida State, where he's a member of the Seminoles' Hall of Fame. His induction there really had very little to do with his athletic achievements in Tallahassee.
"Florida State University is proud to honor a former athlete who more recently has become a distinguished opponent," read the text of his induction into that Hall of Fame in 1981. "A brilliant promoter and coach, he has advanced collegiate baseball at the University of Miami, across Florida and across the nation." That's how well thought of Fraser was: The Seminoles put an arch rival in their Hall of Fame.
Fraser took over at Miami in 1963 with a $2,200 salary, a converted shower for an office and a cow pasture for a field. College baseball was not a revenue generating sport, even for successful programs, so Fraser got creative.
Giveaways, parachutists, whatever he could think of, it all was part of Fraser's plan to entice more people to come see his team. "My whole thing was to entertain the people. People said it was the winning, but I was trying to entertain the people so they would come back," Fraser said around the time his coaching career ended. "I did a lot of crazy things and it worked."
Attendance at Miami grew over a seven-year span from 33,000 a season to 90,000. In 1981, the Hurricanes set a record with 163,261 fans, over 3,200 per game. Attendance dipped below 100,000 only once for the remainder of Fraser's tenure.
After eight straight winning seasons to start off his tenure at Miami, the Hurricanes finally broke through with the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1971. Miami made its first trip to the College World Series in 1974.
In 1982, the Hurricanes swept through five games at Rosenblatt Stadium, clinching the school's first national title with a 9-3 win over Wichita State. Fraser's finest moment may have come at that College World Series. A few Hurricanes stuck fingers in their ears, the signal for the hidden-ball trick, known to this day as "The Grand Illusion."
Miami was leading 4-3 in the sixth inning of a winner's bracket game and Wichita State's Phil Stephenson was on first base. With his team down by a run, Stephenson was going to try to steal. Everyone in the stadium knew this, especially since he already had swiped 86 bases that season.
So the play was called. Skip Bertman, Fraser's associate coach at the time who went on to become a great head coach at LSU, gave the signal. Mike Kasprzak was the Miami pitcher and made a few throws over to first to get Stephenson's attention.
Then came the moment. Kasprzak made another "throw" to first, one where Hurricanes' first baseman Steve Lusby dove for the supposedly errant ball and, as the story goes, swore to further sell his displeasure. Several Hurricanes started chasing the "ball" along the right-field line and others in the dugout pointed up the line excitedly, getting in on the act.
And what an act it was. "He would teach the bat girls to scramble as if they were getting out of the way of it," Florida State coach Mike Martin said Sunday. "They were sitting on a chair. He also had the bullpen and had a guy call it, 'There's the ball! Get out of the way!' It was theatrics at its best."
Kasprzak tossed the ball (he had it the whole time) to second base, a stunned Stephenson was tagged out trying to advance, Miami won the game and went on to capture the championship. "We've had better teams," Fraser said in the din of that championship celebration. "But never one with this much heart."
Three seasons later, the Hurricanes won their second championship, beating Texas twice in three days for the 1985 crown. That team finished with a school record 64 wins.
"On the field and off, Ron Fraser showed how one man can make a difference," acting Miami Athletic Director Blake James said. "The University of Miami, south Florida and college baseball are all better because of him."
One of his best teams would see Fraser out. The Hurricanes went 55-10 in 1992, winning their first two games in Omaha before being eliminated, ending his tenure. "It's the dream of all coaches to have the opportunity to leave when things are going well," Fraser said.
Fraser was involved with many community and charity organizations after his retirement. He had three children and five grandchildren.