Greenfield’s Bill Decker turning Harvard into a winner

  • Harvard baseball coach Bill Decker cheers on his team in a game against Alabama back in February in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Greenfield native has been the skipper in Cambridge for eight years. CONTRIBUTED/VASHA HUNT-HARVARD ATHLETICS

  • Greenfield native Bill Decker, who won an NCAA Division III national championship at Trinity College, has been the head baseball coach at Harvard since 2012. CONTRIBUTED/Gil Talbot-HARVARD ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2020 4:52:36 PM

Fresh off a trip to the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament, Bill Decker was optimistic entering the spring season.

The Harvard University head baseball coach and Greenfield native guided the Crimson to an Ivy League championship in 2019, racking up 27 wins and earning a spot in an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2005. An Ivy League Coach of the Year award followed, and while Harvard lost to Oklahoma State and UConn in the Big Dance, success was starting to become the norm in Cambridge.

But everything came to a halt back in March. Early in his eighth season as Harvard skipper, Decker and his club were in Florida for a batch of games against the likes of Stetson, Fairfield and Ohio State. Rumors were swirling about the coronavirus pandemic, and games were eventually canceled. The Crimson finished off a win over Stetson, quickly showered in the clubhouse and hopped a plane back to New England to reassess the situation.

“I got to my house about 2 o’clock the next morning,” Decker said.

There wasn’t much time to recover. Only a few hours later, Decker received word from his youngest daughter, a sophomore at Fordham, that her school was closing and he needed to pick her up in the Bronx immediately.

It was just the start of a very long week, which ultimately ended with college sports throughout the country canceling their spring seasons. Just six games into the 2020 slate, Harvard was done playing baseball.

“It was a fairly emotional thing for the team, and I’m sure everyone else,” offered Decker. “You feel bad for the seniors, specifically a couple of guys that were involved in the (MLB) draft situation. I preached to our guys that the world, everything will look a little different. There’ll be a different flavor to it next year.”

Eight years at Harvard have gone by quickly for Decker. After more than 20 years as the skipper at Trinity College, he made the difficult decision to leave after the 2012 season to take the Harvard job. He had more than his share of success at Trinity, winning the 2008 NCAA Division III national title, and likely could’ve settled down and spent the rest of his coaching days in Connecticut.

But when former Harvard coach Joe Walsh passed away in 2012, Decker said he received a call from the school in August of that year asking if he was interested in the vacant position. 

“I wasn’t going to leave just to leave,” explained Decker. “I didn’t want to move. We were living in Simsbury, Conn., my wife works less than 10 minutes from the house. It’s a great setup. But there was that, ‘Let’s take a look at this.’

“It was something I felt I had to try and do,” he continued. “You just kind of do it. I didn’t do it because it was Division I or Harvard. I’m always of the belief in life that you make a decision and you never look back. And there’s not one day since taking the job in the fall of 2012 that I question that decision.”

Harvard’s win total has steadily risen throughout Decker’s tenure. The club was 10-31 his first year, but the Crimson have gotten it above the .500 mark each of the past two years, culminating in the NCAA Tournament appearance.

“We’ve kind of climbed but baseball is baseball no matter where you are,” he began. “We had a good senior class last year and those kids developed over the course of their time with us. We had been knocking on the threshold, pretty competitive for a few years and I think it’s a compliment to the kids, just their consistency along the way. We had some magical moments as well, but you can’t really just point to one thing as the reason for your success. You need a lot of things to go your way.”

Decker, who now lives in Duxbury and commutes into the city for work, said working at Harvard has been a rewarding challenge. He’s no stranger to coaching at prestigious academic institutions, though this one’s at the top of the list.

“I think the biggest challenge right away was getting to know the school and dive in to try and understand the university’s DNA,” he said. “The ins and out, not just of Harvard, but within the Ivy League. Harvard has the largest Division I sports program in the country in terms of number of sports (42 varsity teams) so that’s a lot of moving parts. And the balancing aspect of it all. The demands of what take place in the classroom and beyond, these kids are resilient.”

Decker said the last few months have been draining, but he’s done his best to keep a positive outlook on the situation despite not being on a baseball diamond during the spring season for perhaps the first time in his entire life.

“I think the first month was really busy with a lot of calls, info gathering and passing it along to our current players,” he said. “But I’ve been trying to get outside and exercise as well. My yard looks better than it ever has before, I think.”

The recruiting dead period — during which in-person contact with recruits and off-campus recruiting is prohibited — was extended until June 30. Once that expires, expect a mad dash of coaches looking to see prospective recruits out and about on the summer slates.

“Hopefully in July we’ll be able to get out on the road,” Decker said. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like but it’s going to be different than in past years. When I do get on the road, it’ll probably be for a month without coming home. Hoping to avoid flights so just driving around the country, seeing what I can.”

With how busy the season got at the beginning of the spring, Decker is now ready to embrace a different kind of chaos as summer fast approaches. For a man closing in on a decade in the Ivy League, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

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