Story by Mark Stillwell
If the truth be told, Bill Rowe wouldn’t have minded a few more years coaching the Missouri State baseball Bears.
After 19 seasons, his program was enjoying its longest run of sustained success when he answered the University’s call in 1982 to step aside from his diamond duties and spearhead the move of MSU athletics into NCAA Division I.
“Across our community, our fans and University administration,” Rowe recalls, “there was overwhelming interest in building on the success we had enjoyed in NAIA and Division II.”
“President Meyer and the board asked me to devote my full resources to administering the program and Division I move as director of athletics. They appreciated how much I enjoyed coaching but indicated the future direction of the program dictated a change for me.”
Rowe went on to oversee Missouri State’s athletic department through June 2009, and his lifetime of work has led the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame to name him a Missouri Sports Legend. It means a specially commissioned bust of Rowe, cast in bronze, will be featured on the Legends Walkway with the likes of Stan Musial, Len Dawson, Whitey Herzog, Ozzie Smith and George Brett.
The honor highlights the Hall’s Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, set for 11 a.m. May 18 at the University Plaza Convention Center in Springfield. (See ticket information below.)
A 1961 MSU graduate who had been on the campus continually since enrolling as a freshman in 1957, Rowe had effectively spent a quarter century preparing himself for the move, including establishing the Bears’ baseball program in 1964 and working as athletics business manager the same 19 years.
Rowe and Aldo Sebben, his predecessor as athletics director, among their other accomplishments together, had succeeded in making MSU the host for the inaugural four seasons of the NCAA Division II College World Series from 1968 to 1971.
Rowe’s Bears caught lightning in a bottle and captured back-to-back MIAA and NCAA regional championships and, in addition to hosting the Division II CWS four times, played in the event twice, finishing as national runner-up in 1969 and third in 1970.
Rowe recalls a bit of frustration the next few years. “We had good clubs and did well in the conference, but, if they picked four teams for NCAA play, we were fifth in the region. If they selected three, we ranked fourth,” he says.
The Bears put it all together in 1977 to return to NCAA play and reached the elite NCAA field five times in the next six seasons. MSU won regional championships to advance to the Division II CWS at Springfield, Ill. (1978) and Riverside, Calif. (1982). The Bears had a long string of all-America selections and professional signees and the first two former Bears to reach the major leagues in Mark Bailey and Scott Bailes. MSU had a 394-230-1 record under Rowe.
In an AD tenure that lasted from 1982 until his retirement in 2009 and matched Sebben’s as the longest in school history, Rowe validated his administration’s decision in a big way.
Missouri State dominated the Mid-Continent Conference for men’s sports and Gateway Conference for women’s sports the rest of the 1980’s and accepted an invitation in 1990-91 to join nation’s second-oldest athletics conference, the tradition-rich Missouri Valley Conference. “To be invited to join the Missouri Valley after less than a decade in Division I was a benchmark of how far our program had come,” Rowe adds.
Highlighted by NCAA tournament success under coaches Charlie Spoonhour and Steve Alford in men’s basketball, Cheryl Burnett and Katie Abrahamson-Henderson in women’s basketball, Jesse Branch in football, Linda Dollar and Melissa Stokes in volleyball, Keith Guttin in baseball, Holly Hesse in softball, Jon Leamy in men’s soccer and NCAA appearances in several other sports, Missouri State claimed MVC all-sports championships in 2000, 2002 and 2003.
The program was on solid footing financially, fan interest and support were exploding, and Rowe was instrumental in the building or renovating of the Forsythe Athletics Center, Plaster Field, Hammons Student Center, and, finally, Hammons Field and JQH Arena. Rowe’s long friendship with Springfield’s John Q. Hammons enabled the two to work together on many projects.
Rowe served on a variety of national committees and his regional and national influence and reputation earned him selection to a host of awards and five hall of fame inductions.
His selection as the 34th Missouri Sports Legend by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame adds yet another honor to a career as rich in accomplishment as any seen among his peers across the Division I landscape.
“We’ve been very fortunate all along the way,” Rowe concludes. “Lots of coaches, staff members, student-athletes and administrators have made tremendous contributions for many years. Our fans have been amazing and it’s been an extreme privilege to be able to serve our alma mater for 52 years.”
Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 18
Where: University Plaza Convention Center, Springfield
Honorees: Missouri State University baseball coach/athletic director Bill Rowe to be named a Missouri Sports Legend; Inductions of St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper George Toma, and Mansfield High School baseball coach Doug Jones
Diamond 9 awards: Marin Whorton Cooney (Ozark High School/Missouri Southern), Sophia Alexander Denning (Strafford High School/Drury); Bob Detherage (Hillcrest High School/Kansas City Royals); Bill Helfrecht (Glendale High School/Missouri State), Brent Maggard (Sparta High School/Crowder/Southern Arkansas), Kristen Marshall (Glendale High School/William Jewell), Troy McMain (Willard High School), Christian Overstreet (Nixa High School/Missouri State), and Tom Wilson (Bolivar High School/Detroit Tigers).
Tickets: Individual ticket is $40. Head table ticket is $100. A table of eight is $400 and includes an autographed print along with associate sponsor recognition in the printed program. Congratulatory ads and other sponsorships are available. Call the Hall of Fame at 417-889-3100.