With a tough love that breeds a deep loyalty, UNLV baseball coach Tim Chambers is bringing the program around the bases
Tim Chambers demanded that someone open the cherrywood casket. He wanted one last look at his father. He asked the grieving widow, Mrs. Chambers, to open it. She refused. He asked the priest. In front of the mourners who’d gathered at the funeral home, Chambers threatened to fling it open himself. Finally, the place was cleared, the lid lifted. His father, Connie Chambers, lie in repose, a soft pack of Marlboro Lights and a square of chocolate cake on a napkin on his chest. Tim nodded. He sat next to his wife Kim, finally satisfied. Good riddance, Tim thought.
Good riddance to the man Tim says he had once hit in the head with a cast-iron skillet after Tim found his pregnant mother Rena on the kitchen floor — after she’d been kicked into submission by Connie. Good riddance to the deadbeat dad who favored the bar stool over his family, the man who never saw his son play in one of his many athletic events. The man who used an extension cord as a whip. The man who’d make Tim stand naked in the corner, hands on his ankles, for hours. Near the end of his life, the frail father cowered in the presence of his adult, athletic son; but Tim only ever struck in defense. The grating shrill of that voice would never again ring in Tim’s ears.
Or so he thought. It is the epic paradox of the son’s life, then, that the old man still lingers in Chambers’ mind 16 years after his death.
“I hope he’s up there, watching,” the 49-year-old UNLV baseball coach says with contempt. “I want him to be crying right now as he sees me. I don’t know if you go somewhere ‘after,’ but I hope so. I live my life to be everything he wasn’t.”
That everything includes an unabashed love for his wife Kim, his daughters McKenzie and Chase, and scores of “sons” who’ve played baseball for him at Bishop Gorman High School, the College of Southern Nevada and UNLV. His success will result in Chambers becoming the first active coach to be inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame at the end of the month.
“There are a whole bunch of people who can’t f---in’ believe that I’m doing what I’m doing right now,” says Chambers.
The hat trick
A simmering anger drives him, but Chambers is also animated by a host of desires and compulsions that keep the already-restless baseball coach relentlessly busy. An attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder has something to do with Chambers’s innate aggressiveness, and he’s open about treating his ADHD with Adderall because he wants others with the affliction to know that they can still lead rewarding lives. His intense phobias of mice, snakes, heights and airplanes (his players constantly soothe him in the last row) are legend. He only needs three hours of sleep, tops. He’s a clean freak of the highest order and can be found sweeping the aisles of his own stadium.
While honored by the call from the Hall of Fame, Chambers is far from finished. He can’t name anyone who has coached high school, junior college and university baseball in one town, much less won at each stop. Call it the Chambers Hat Trick. That legacy will be crowned, he predicts, when he takes the Rebels to the College World Series in Omaha, the penultimate stage of the NCAA Tournament. The first weekend, the regionals, is followed by the super regionals, and then eight teams go to Omaha. UNLV has played in eight regionals, but never advanced. In his fourth season, Chambers says he won’t be surprised if UNLV gets to Omaha this season. It has become a program of such national significance that it could host its first regional in late May, too.
Chambers isn’t the only one with high expectations. M Resort President Anthony Marnell III is so bullish about his former Bishop Gorman coach’s performance at UNLV that he’s overseen plans for the construction of a multi-million-dollar baseball facility to rival the complexes at the country’s premier colleges. Watching Chambers transform UNLV’s Wilson Stadium from a shoddy yard into a shiny jewel with $1 million in private donations and trade-outs over four years convinced Marnell that investing in Chambers would be a wise financial move for his family. Indeed, Before Chambers arrived, a right fielder could only view the batter from the knees up; dips and bumps littered the diamond, an atrocity in a game that demands an even playing field. A Bobcat excavator scraped it flat. Today, the Bermuda with rye over-seed is full and manicured. It’s the finest diamond in the city.
Central Michigan visited in mid-February and Chippewas coach Steve Jaska told his players, “This is the epitome of college baseball right here, boys.”
“That’s why I do it,” Chambers says. “I don’t do it for me, I do it for the kids.”
As long as he wants it
The new complex, with 11,000 total square feet on two levels, will feature separate plush clubhouses for coaches and players, 26 flat-screens, batting cages and a host of state-of-the-art luxuries just past the right-field foul line. As of this writing, a shovel could have already split the earth open over there, and Chambers also might have inked a new five-year contract extension. That would culminate a delicate three-way dance in which Marnell hasn’t been certain about UNLV’s commitment to Chambers, whose existing contract takes him through 2015, and UNLV hasn’t been certain about Chambers; at least one Big 12 Conference program has shown interest in him. Chambers isn’t entirely certain either. He doesn’t want to leave Las Vegas, but his priority is his family’s security.
When Neal Smatresk was the president of UNLV, he and several associates met with Chambers, Rebels athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and Marnell to discuss his proposal for a new complex. The 40-year-old Marnell oversaw the proceedings inside his spacious, elegant presidential office of the M Resort. Marnell told everyone that he was only pursuing this for one person.
“Because of that guy” — Marnell looked at Chambers — “and what he did for me.” His loyalty isn’t blind; he played for and matured under Chambers at Gorman. Marnell pressed Smatresk about Chambers. According to multiple attendees, Smatresk glanced at Chambers and said, “It’s his job for as long as he wants it.” For her part, Kunzer-Murphy raves about Chambers. She says UNLV is committed to making a long-term investment in him and that a contract extension is imminent.
Moreover, Kunzer-Murphy reacted just as strongly about the possibility of Las Vegas playing host to a regional. In mid-April, UNLV owned a stout Ratings Percentage Index of 16 and Baseball America, the bible of the college game, projected UNLV as one of 16 regional venues — although a five-game losing streak dropped the Rebels to 25-15 at press time.
“We’ll do whatever we can to host a (baseball) regional,” Kunzer-Murphy says. “(Wilson Stadium) is such a great park. We want to showcase that. What other place has four hotels across the street? I’m not buying that the NCAA ‘has to look at it.’ There’s nothing on their record books saying that they can’t come here. The time is now. This nonsense has to stop.”
Marnell believes it would be just as nonsensical to misconstrue his generous gift as leverage to get Chambers a sweet deal with UNLV. It’s a simple matter of Chambers, UNLV and Las Vegas deserving such an amenity, Marnell says. Marnell recalls being in an 0-for-30 slump at Gorman, certain he’d get benched. Instead, Chambers told him, You’re still my guy. You’ll get through this. You know what you’re doing. Have fun. That day Marnell collected three hits. He went to the University of Arizona and played three seasons in the San Diego Padres’ system, and he wishes he never played for anyone but Chambers.
“This isn’t just about baseball, it’s about life,” Marnell says. “Everything he says and does helps you. I’m a big believer in results. I’m happy he’s having success. He’s worked for it and he’s earned it. He has a phenomenal way of turning boys into men. Again, it’s not just about baseball. It’s life.”
Wes Hunt discovered that truth. He had lived with his mother in Texas, where he abused drugs. He moved in with his father in Las Vegas, played baseball at Shadow Ridge High School, but still hung out with the wrong crowd and kept doing drugs. Chambers gave him a scholarship to play at CSN. He continued smoking marijuana. Chambers took him by the collar and shook him.
“He isn’t afraid to get in your ass and tell you the truth. I thank the Lord for that every day,” says Hunt. Today, as Chambers’ student manager, his various duties include tending to the diamond year-round. He also records the coach’s insights in a diary. Before an April game, Chambers turned to Hunt in the dugout and said, Wesley, this is a national powerhouse. “Yeah, it’s gonna be,” answered Hunt. “No, right now,” Chambers said. “This team has some swagger. It’s this close. Once we get the new clubhouse, it’ll go nowhere but up.”
They’ll bleed for you
As a kid, Chambers wore his brown hair to his shoulders, stole bikes and got booted from school after school in Southern California. His mother moved him, his brother and sister to Utah. At Pleasant Grove High School, baseball coach Jon Hoover tamed the wild thing. Chambers figures he had been in 150 fights in his rudderless, largely fatherless youth. He has called Hoover “dad” for decades.
He was still combative when he took over the Gorman program; once, he spat a lip full of Copenhagen at the face of an umpire who dared to point a finger at his chest. “All young coaches want to change the world. He came out fired up. We laugh about (his ferocity) now,” says Kevin Higgins, a UNLV assistant coach who first met Chambers at Gorman in 1992 and went on to play one major-league season for San Diego.
That summer, Chambers heard famed manager Sparky Anderson speak at a convention in Anaheim. Call your kids names if you need to, and belittle them as much as you want, Anderson said, and they’ll win for you. But if you love them, they’ll bleed for you.
Those words still resonate with Chambers. Every day, the UNLV dugout looks as if a 30-year reunion of an Army platoon is taking place. Hugs are countless. Betray him and know eternal scorn, but Chambers is buoyed by the legions of former players who return for advice or to just say hello.
He left Gorman to start the program at what is now the College of Southern Nevada and vowed to make it a national player within five years. In his fourth season, in 2003, it won a Junior College World Series championship. In 2010, Chambers coached the precocious 17-year-old Bryce Harper, making a pit stop at CSN after his sophomore year at Las Vegas High School en route to the major league draft. The strategy worked to perfection, and Ron and Sheri Harper say it couldn’t have been accomplished without Chambers, who had known the Harpers for 10 years.
Still, that season was laced with conflict. Harper was a tempest, tossing his helmet and kicking water coolers. In Carson City, Chambers nearly benched the irascible Harper, which could have led to irreparable damage between Ron Harper and Chambers. Sheri Harper mediated, calming both sides.
The season that launched Bryce Harper to pro ball also springboarded Chambers to UNLV. He brought a dozen players from CSN, but that wasn’t a recipe for success. Many of them played above their station in Division-I ball, and the cliquish clubhouse became caustic. The Rebels were mediocre. Worse, a spinal disc issue threatened to sever Chambers’s sciatic nerve. A delicate surgery enabled him to get back on his feet last season, when UNLV went 37-20. This season, he is back to coaching third base full time as the de facto face of his team on his diamond during games.
Effort will not be negotiated
Chambers constantly fine-tunes the tension of his leash on the Rebels. He forbids facial hair, but slugger Pat Armstrong, a leader, grew a mustache. Teammates followed the trend. Somebody slapped signs around the park over winter break: FEAR THE ’STACHE. Chambers relented; he even sported a salt-and-pepper goatee for a while. But he outlaws jeans on the road, and players get a face full of Chambers if they turn their caps around backward. It’s about perception, he says. He doesn’t want anyone to think he’s coaching a bunch of miscreants. Everyone knows what Chambers expects of his players by the words on the inside of the scarlet I-beam above the stadium entrance: ENERGY AND EFFORT WILL NOT BE NEGOTIATED PERIOD.
The players resort to all sorts of rally tactics in the dugout. They wear their belts around their heads. They do a collective mime act in which ace pitcher Erick Fedde tosses an imaginary grenade and everyone ducks in unison. They get every Rebel to gather on the far right side of the bleachers — known as the Right Side Rally. The shenanigans can irk assistant coaches, but Chambers quietly tells them to chill, to let the players develop their own vibes.
Chambers earns their devotion. In the season opener, he whistled — upper front teeth hard on his lower lip — at right fielder Edgar Montes to scoot in five or six steps. A heartbeat later, a right-handed batter flailed a liner to Montes, who sprinted in to make a diving catch that he wouldn’t have made otherwise. “Gut feeling,” said Chambers. Montes and the rest of UNLV’s fielders glove-slapped Chambers on his backside as they stepped down into the dugout after the inning. “Just got to listen to him,” Montes said as he shook his