Pete Dunn is more than just a baseball coach, although being a baseball coach is all he ever really wanted to do.
Over the last 33 years, Dunn has guided the Stetson baseball program to great successes on the field. The numbers speak for themselves:
• He has led Stetson to 1,167 victories, which ranks eighth on the list of active coaches.
• His Stetson teams have averaged 36.5 wins a year over his 32 seasons.
• He has taken the Hatters to 16 NCAA Regional Tournament appearances.
• He has helped Stetson to eight Atlantic Sun Conference titles and has been named league coach of the year a record six times.
• He has sent 72 players on to play professional baseball. Five of those players were drafted in the first four rounds of the MLB Amateur Draft, and seven went on to reach the Major Leagues.
But, more than the wins, conference titles, and all of the other accolades that come along with guiding a successful program, Dunn is still excited about his profession because he enjoys having an impact on the lives of the young men who play for him. He enjoys being a teacher – whether he is teaching a player how to bunt properly, or teaching a life lesson.
“I like teaching. That’s what coaches are, teachers,” Dunn said. “I have my teaching certificate and taught in the public schools prior to coming back to Stetson to coach, so I’m a teacher by trade. I think it’s rewarding to take these young men and not only mold them into good players who are team oriented but, more importantly, teach them life skills which will make them better people.”
But he didn’t start out with a goal to coach. He was a player, a catcher, with the same goals every other player has growing up – professional baseball. He got a chance to do that after playing for two seasons at Brevard Community College and then two more seasons at Stetson for the coach who turned into one of his mentors, Jim Ward.
He was drafted by and signed with the Kansas City Royals after college and spent two seasons living his dream by playing professional baseball. It was during those two seasons he made the decision to pursue a career as a coach.
“I tell people that I was too one dimensional to do anything else,” Dunn said. “I wasn’t going to design rockets or be a jet pilot. I was a baseball player, a baseball rat. I didn’t play any other sports.
“I was fortunate that I was able to help my parents finance my education by playing ball. I wasn’t a great student, but baseball helped fund my undergraduate degree as well as graduate school. My pro career was short-lived so, as it turned out, everything fell into place.”
But, by falling into place, Dunn did do something he had never done previously – leave the state of Florida. With the exception of a summer spent playing baseball in Michigan, he had never spent time away from his home state. And that one summer away from home was quite a learning experience.
“In the summer of 1967 I had just finished my freshman year at Brevard Junior College,” Dunn said. “My roommate, Tom Walker, who ended up pitching in the big leagues for a number of years, was high school buddies with Steve Garvey. Steve was playing football and baseball at Michigan State. The three of us signed to play for Adray Appliance in the Detroit Free Press summer league.
“That turned out to be the summer of the Detroit riots. The three of us lived in Dearborn and had day jobs working for the Chrysler Corporation in the city. Instead of building automobiles, we worked in the tank plant manufacturing armored tanks for the Vietnam war. For more than a week, we couldn’t go into the city to work or play ball because of the rioting. You talk about eye-opener. I had only been away from home for two semesters and, the next things I know, I’m in the middle of what turned out to be a historic event. It was a life-altering experience for me.”
After two years of playing professionally, Dunn was offered a chance to get into college coaching as a graduate assistant for a young head coach at Georgia Southern. He took the position working for future Hall of Fame coach Ron Polk, and helped the Eagles earn a trip to Omaha for the College World Series in 1973.
“Coach Polk is a great baseball mind and one thing he does is let all of his assistants have defined roles and let them really run with them,” Dunn said. “My first year at Georgia Southern I was the pitching coach. I was probably the worst pitching coach in the nation, even for a team that was pretty good. Being a catcher, I had a working knowledge, so I was the pitching coach.”
Dunn stayed on the Georgia Southern staff for two years, earning a Master’s degree. By the time he finished his education, Dunn was anxious to return home to his home state of Florida.
“When I got out of grad school, my first teaching and coaching job was at Apopka High School,” Dunn said. “Although I was hoping to get a college or junior college job, there were no positions available at the time. I ended up staying at Apopka for three years. It was a great opportunity to cut my teeth as a head coach.”
After those three seasons, Dunn returned to Stetson to work for his mentor, Coach Jim Ward. In 1977, Ward was entering his ninth season at Stetson. During his tenure, his teams had won 63 percent of their games and had made a successful transition to Division I. During those three years, the Hatters posted a 93-56 record and had the Stetson program rolling.
“I came back to Stetson as an assistant to build my resume. I thought Coach Ward, who had done such a great job, would be here for the rest of his life,” Dunn said. “I knew that I wanted to coach, and I wanted to coach on the college level.”
He just didn’t know that opportunity was going to stare him in the face after just three years as an assistant.
“It doesn’t seem like it was 33 years ago that Coach Ward called from Cincinnati while on a recruiting trip and told me that he had an interview at Eastern Kentucky,” Dunn said. “I didn’t think anything about it because I thought that, even though he was an EKU alumn, he’d stay in Florida to coach.”
“A few days later he called to tell me he was going to take the EKU job and told me that Coach (Glenn) Wilkes wanted to talk to me the next day.”
In addition to being a legendary basketball coach, Wilkes was also the athletics director at Stetson. Dunn’s life changed forever that next day when Wilkes offered him the chance, at the age of 30, to take over the Stetson program as head coach.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. It didn’t start with me, however, because Coach Ward had built a great program before I took over,” Dunn said. “I did not take a bad program and make it successful. I was very fortunate and inherited a very solid program.”
His good fortune, and hard work, allowed him to become the 34th coach in NCAA history to reach 1,000 career wins. He is one of only four active coaches to have reached the 1,000-win plateau at their alma mater.
In the years since first getting the chance to lead the baseball program at his alma mater, there have been many personal and professional accomplishments. There have also been opportunities to take his coaching talents elsewhere.
“I have had several opportunities to leave,” Dunn said. “It was exciting and nice to be courted other schools, especially by an SEC school. But, it all goes back to the fact that I think this is one of the best spots in the nation to be. Stetson has great geography, great facilities and a very supportive administration.
“For me, the reward has been to be able to be as successful as we have, for as long as we have, at the school that I played at and graduated from. There are not a whole lot of guys who have done that.”
While Dunn has dedicated his career to Stetson baseball, he did take an opportunity in 1998 to coach another team. That summer he reunited with Polk and served as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team. He said that was a very rewarding experience for him, even though he had to spend the summer away from his wife, Debbie, and children.
“It was quite an experience,” Dunn said. “Obviously, to be back with Coach Polk was exciting because it had been a number of years since I had coached with him. Most of all, however, it was the opportunity to represent the USA here and abroad.”
USA Baseball had just opened it’s training complex in Arizona that year, so most of the time Dunn worked with the team was spent there. The team did travel some, however.
“We went to Nicaragua for a couple of weeks to play in the Tournament of the Americas qualifying tournament,” Dunn said. “We then travelled to New York and played some exhibition games around the city for five days before going over to Italy for the World Championships.”
Now that his two youngest children, Taylor (18) and Emily (16), are older, Dunn said he might consider another opportunity to coach against international competition. He has even flirted with the idea of coaching a national team other than Team USA.
“Debbie and I have talked about it,” Dunn said. “Now that the kids are going to be in college, perhaps the window might open again.”
Even since his Team USA experience, Dunn has worked with international players, although the players were not quite at the same competitive level. He was asked by close friend Tim Foli to assist with a clinic the Major League Players Alumni Association was holding in Cocoa Beach. The players attending the clinic were all from the Soviet Union.
“It was quite an experience because these guys barely knew which end of the bat to hold,” Dunn said. “They were athletes though. I can’t speak Russian and they couldn’t speak English, but they were sponges. When you showed them something, whether it was bunting or base running, they would do it. They didn’t always do it correctly, but they did it with great enthusiasm.”
One of the few regrets he has as a coach was that he was never able to coach his God-son, Chipper Jones. In high school, even though it was apparent that Jones would be a high draft choice, he signed to play collegiately with the University of Miami. Dunn said it was one of the few times he ever got frustrated with Jones.
“Despite my disappointment that he committed to Miami, I knew deep down it was the right thing for him to do,” Dunn said. “He was a projected first rounder who was being recruited by not only Miami, but also Florida State, Texas and Arizona State, and many other college powers.
“I did throw the Godfather card at him as well as his mom and dad several times, but couldn’t sway him away from Miami. It would have been a lot of fun to coach him.”
It all became a moot point when Chipper was selected first overall by the Atlanta Braves in the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft and signed shortly thereafter.
Even without having the opportunity to coach Jones, Dunn said he has enjoyed every minute of his tenure at Stetson.
“It has been a great ride,” Dunn said. “There have been a lot of changes, but that is life. I say this in all sincerity, I have been very, very blessed and fortunate that I have been able to surround myself with awfully good people.”
Dunn’s vision and hard work helped Stetson build a stadium which quickly garnered acclaim as one of the nation’s finest collegiate facilities. Melching Field at Conrad Park, a $4.5 million stadium jointly built by Stetson University and the City of DeLand, opened on Feb. 12, 1999. The facility will once again host the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament this spring, the ninth time the event will be in DeLand in the facilities’ 14 years in existence.
“It is not just the university, it is the entire community,” Dunn said of his continued passion for the game. “When we brought the stadium before the citizens of DeLand and told them this was what we wanted to do, the city put in 2.5 million and their land and we put in 1.5 million.
“There were very few people who voiced opposition to the project. It was supported because the baseball program was good and it was something the community had bought into. It is a great baseball community.”
The challenges that come with coaching have also changed over the years, but Dunn said he still relishes the opportunities he has to have an impact on young players.
“One of the things that’s remained constant is that the guys who play on this level still love the game,” Dunn said. “Most of them want to play at the next level, but obviously most don’t get that opportunity. The nice thing is that the players we get here at Stetson are academically oriented, which means their parents have pushed them to be good students as well as good baseball players. You have to be disciplined in order to be a good enough student to get into Stetson and do well.
“I think we get a higher-caliber kid. I’ve always believed we have higher-caliber kids here at Stetson because of the academics.”
Entering his 33rd year as head coach, and his 36th year overall at Stetson, Dunn said he is asked often about how much longer he wants to coach. He has a passion outside of baseball, but his commitment to the Hatters’ baseball program prevents him from spending as much time as he would like on his boat.
“I love to fish,” Dunn said. “I have always said that baseball is my profession and fishing is my passion. One of these days I look forward to my only worry being where I am I going to fish today.
“My kids are still in high school. Taylor will be at Stetson next year playing football and Emily will be a senior. I don’t feel like I am ready to retire. I still enjoy it and feel young enough. I have been very fortunate to have had good health.”
Dunn’s long and distinguished career as a coach has opened the door to a number of awards and tributes. He was inducted into the Stetson University Sports Hall of Fame in January 1992. He also received the 1996 Volusian Sportsperson of the Year award presented by the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
In honor of his 1,000th win, the City of DeLand proclaimed February 9, 2007 (opening day) as “Pete Dunn Day.” Later in that same year he was inducted, along with his God-son Chipper Jones, into the Central Florida Sports Hall of Fame.
Dunn is actively involved in a variety of community service activities. He is a regular speaker at many regional and national coaching clinics. At the baseball coaches’ convention in 1997, Dunn was awarded a 25-year service award by the American Baseball Coaches’ Association.
He authored a chapter on catching in The Baseball Drill Book. The book was commissioned by the ABCA, edited by former Fresno State head coach Bob Bennett, and released in January, 2004. He also recently authored another chapter in a new ABCA book on the subject of “Evaluating Practice Sessions”.
Dunn and his wife, Debbie, have four children -- Rayni, Marc, Taylor and Emily -- and two grandsons, Micah and Jonah.