Former Surry coach Vernon inducted into Surry County Hall of Fame
During a coaching career that spans nearly 50 years, Roy Vernon has touched the lives of countless kids and young men in the game of baseball. And while Vernon was recently inducted into the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame for his involvement in youth league, high school and college baseball, the mark he left on Surry Community College baseball will never be forgotten.
Together with former SCC head baseball coach Mark Tucker, now the college’s athletic director, Vernon helped take a program from scratch to the College World Series in just three years. Along the way, the Knights built themselves into one of the top junior college programs in the nation under Tucker and Vernon.
"For a small school in Dobson, North Carolina to go from starting a program in 1996 to less than 10 years later ranked fourth in the country and winning 55 games, that’s pretty impressive,” Tucker said. "It certainly wasn’t Mark Tucker that did it. It took a lot of people and he was a very important part of that. Coach Vernon was so important to the college and its baseball program for many years.”
Tucker remembers vividly the summer of 1995 when Surry Community College decided to field a baseball program. After the college contacted Tucker about being the head coach, the then-25-year-old immediately jumped in as he was already behind the 8-ball in terms of recruiting.
Vernon, who had coached a Babe Ruth League team in previous years with Tucker, approached his young apprentice and asked if he had anybody to help him. That began a tandem that would take Surry Community College baseball to unthinkable heights over the next 14 years.
The Knights went a very respectable 13-21 during Surry’s first season in 1996. With more time to recruit, SCC brought in a good class of freshmen the following year, landing Chad Durham, who would go on to become a 14th round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox. The new blood showed on the diamond as the Knights improved to 27-20 in year two.
"We felt like we started to turn the corner with that first recruiting class, which had a lot to do with Roy. The kids really had an attachment to him and really gravitated to him,” Tucker said. "His primary focus throughout his whole time with Surry was as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. He just had such a way with kids that they just really trusted him and just really got along with him. He did such a great job of teaching them and making the game enjoyable for each kid. And I feel like throughout our whole tenure, we took a lot of pride in each kid having a good experience. We had the same philosophy and were just always on the same page.”
Things really took off in year three as Surry went to the College World Series in 1999 at the Division III level. The Knights finished fifth in the CWS in Batavia, N.Y.
"It was a good experience. It was great recognition for the school and we had a good time,” Tucker said. "We went to Division I in 2000 and stayed there until 2008. We were one game away from making it back to the College World Series in 2004.”
Together, Vernon and Tucker coached eight All-Americans at Surry Community College and 19 players that went on to play professional baseball. Three of them made it to the AAA level. Those are some pretty lofty accomplishments, especially when you consider Tucker was barely older than many of his players when he took over the program at age 25.
"The funny thing about that was I had a kid play for me that year that was 22. There wasn’t much age difference between me and the kids,” Tucker said. "The umpires used to come over before the game started and they didn’t know me. Even at the home games, they would ask, ‘Who is the head coach?’ I would say, ‘That is me’ and they would laugh at me. A lot of times I would just send them to Roy. It was kind of a running joke because of the age I was then, but Roy was always the calming influence, the wise veteran.”
It was that wisdom and presence of Vernon that remained a constant for the Knights and something that Tucker was always thankful to have to lean on. Vernon served as a mentor to the younger coach, a role he still plays to Tucker now, several years after they coached their last game together.
"There was never a situation in my coaching career where I felt like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this figured out. I don’t need to call on Roy.’ I always felt like there was something I could learn from Roy. He was very patient with me,” Tucker said. "It was a great relationship we had and it was very productive, but it was a lot of me leaning on him for advice because of his experience. Even now, there are no important decisions I have made without talking to Roy first about what to do or not do. He has meant a lot to me personally and professionally, and he played so much of a role in our success at Surry Community College.”
Today, Vernon still coaches, serving as an assistant coach for neighboring Surry Central High School. He also served as an associate scout for the Cincinnati Reds for the past 20 years. Through it all, the Surry County Hall of Fame inductee never sought to be a head coach.
"That just really was never Roy’s intention. He didn’t want to be the head coach,” Tucker said. "Roy just wanted to help kids get better and be a positive influence on them, whether they were six years old or 20 and in college. He wanted to not only help a young man be better in baseball, but better in life. Those are the kind of things you try to impart on kids as a coach, and he has always done a great job of that.”
Vernon reflects on his time at Surry
Vernon said his recent induction into the Surry County Hall of Fame was a surprise more than anything. While he was pleased and humbled by the honor, he said it wasn’t something he expected or ever set as a goal.
"I really don’t feel worthy, but it’s a good thing and I am glad it happened,” Vernon said. "Coaching is just something I like to do. I like seeing how much they improve and how quickly they improve. Sometimes we would get players at the college that played football, basketball and baseball in high school and never played just one. When they got to college and just played baseball, they would really take off with it because that is what they were doing all the time. It was amazing to see the improvement in a lot of the kids we had.”
Vernon can quickly tell you Surry Community College had eight All-Americans and 19 players drafted during his years coaching there. But he is just as proud of the fact that the baseball program also produced four Academic All-Americans, names that he rattles off without a second’s hesitation.
"Matt Scott, Jeremy Branch, Jared Moser and Chase Swisher, and they were all from Surry County schools,” Vernon said.
There are so many fond memories of Surry it’s hard for Vernon to narrow them down. The trip to the College World Series in 1998 definitely stands out though.
"That’s just something a lot of coaches never get to do. We had some pretty amazing teams,” Vernon said. "We were at the top of the conference for several years in a row. That was rewarding to know that we were playing so well, and of course, the year we were 55-9 was an amazing season. I think that was more wins than any college team in the U.S. that year.”
Another memory that stands out was one particular Region X Conference game at Surry in which the Knights hosted Pitt Community College in 2008. Pitt featured a standout infielder, Lonnie Chisenhall, who now plays for the Cleveland Indians, while Surry had left-handed pitcher, Aaron King, on the mound that also currently plays pro baseball.
"I think there were 41 scouts there for that game and a scouting director,” Vernon said. "It’s pretty amazing to think that many scouts were in Dobson at one time.”
Vernon said several other SCC assistants were also vital in the Knights' success during those years.
"I really enjoyed working with Wayne Edmonds, Mark Hauser and Chuck Martin at Surry," Vernon said. "I valued their friendship during the time we coached together and even to this day."
In all those years of coaching, you would think at some point Vernon would have been picked up by someone as a head coach. But it was something he just never had the ambition to do. He said he was more than content to help Tucker coach the team and help develop players. It made for a perfect fit in Dobson.
"Sometimes it’s easier for players to relate to an assistant than a head coach, and I just felt like I could work with them better if I wasn’t the one responsible for putting the lineup out,” Vernon said. "Mark and I would always work together with the lineups and stuff. We would always talk about it, but he is the head coach and they make the final decisions. If you don’t have to make those, sometimes it is a little easier to relate to the players. It worked out great with us. It was the perfect fit.”
And while Tucker maintains that Vernon would have been a fantastic head coach if he ever pursued that goal, Vernon said Tucker would most likely be coaching at a high level right now if not for his own love of Dobson.
"Mark had a family and he had a good job at Surry Community College, and coaching jobs at four-year schools don’t pay all that great. If Mark had decided to pursue coaching, there is no doubt in my mind he would be at a D-I school if he wanted it,” Vernon said. "He didn’t because he didn’t want to move his family around and take less pay to work his way up, but there’s no doubt in my mind he could be a big D-I coach.”
Combined, the passion Vernon and Tucker had for baseball, Dobson and Surry Community College will certainly go down as one of the best coaching tandems in school history, if not one of the best in Surry County history.
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