Thurston, Bill (1996)
William E. "Bill” Thurston is head baseball coach at Amherst College, one of America’s most prestigious private, undergraduate liberal arts institutions.
An internationally-recognized authority who has coached his teams to more than 500 wins, Thurston still feels the tug of his Maine roots.
“Even though my college playing days and coaching career have been outside the State, |I still consider myself a true Mainer, and a farm boy at that,” said Thurston.
Thurston grew up in Norway where he started his baseball career as an outstanding player under coach Edward Woodbrey, brother of Vic Woodbrey (HoF ‘89) and father of Mark Woodbrey who played for Thurston at Amherst.
A tour-year letterman in baseball and football at Norway High School 1949-1953, also won three letters in basketball and was a member of the 1952 Western Maine baseball champions. He went on to the University of Michigan where he was the Wolverines’ top pitcher in 1955 and 1956. During those two seasons, Thurston also led the team in hitting.
After his junior season, Thurston signed a professional contract with the Detroit Tigers.
Over the next three years, he played in the Tigers organization at Augusta, Ga. in the Sally League, of Syracuse, N.Y.
in the Eastern League, Durham, N.C. in the Carolina League and with Lancaster, Pa. in the Eastern League.
Bill completed his undergraduate degree at Michigan in 1958 and earned a master’s degree four years later. Thurston's first coaching jobs were at Garden City (Mich.) High school and Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich.
His appointment at Amherst came in 1965 and since then the Lord Jeffs have won 65 percent of their games. Thurston has been named New England Coach of the Year three times, Amherst has won five ECAC championships and since 1980, has been ranked No. 1 in Division four times, second twice and third four times.
During Thurston’s tenure, 19 players have signed professional contracts, two Nave pitched in the Major Leagues and 12 serve in administrative capacities in professional baseball.
Mainers who have played for Thurston at Amherst include Woodbrey (HoF Don Douglas (HoF ‘91), Barry Roderick (HoF ‘87), Kyle O’Brien, Art Boothby, Jim Philbrick, Craig Furbush, lan Kopp, and Hoddy Nichols.
When Woodbrey, an All-American who played in the San Francisco Giants’ organization, was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, Thurston spoke on his behalf.
in addition to coaching at Amherst, Thurston has served as head coach of the Australian National Team, pitching coach of the USA National Team and has coached teams and conducted clinics in Canada, China, Holland, Italy, Panama and Romania.
Thurston has served as NCAA Baseball Rules Editor since 1985 and is the author of a book, “An Instructional Manual for Pitchers and Pitching Coaches”, written in 1994.
An entertaining story-teller, Thurston has been speaker at the National ABCA convention seven times and is a featured clinician at six to eight regional clinics each year.
From Amherst College
Coach Thurston’s Playbook
By Kevin Graber
"I'm on the wrong side of 70," Bill Thurston says, "but I don't feel it."
Theirs was a typical small New England dairy farm—12, maybe 15 head of cattle, a few acres of corn and string beans, an old pickup truck and some horses for plowing. As a boy, Bill Thurston milked cows, picked beans and hoed corn alongside his father, Chester, whose ancestors had migrated from England in 1635. At the end of each day, with the horses fed and the last fence post dug, father and son would stand and survey their patch of post-World War II Americana.
That Bill Thurston would emerge as one of the most influential figures in contemporary baseball history seems unlikely, if not extraordinary. But this farm boy from Norway, Maine, has done more than just guide the Amherst baseball team to more than 780 victories over more than four decades (good for 14th all-time, according to the NCAA record book). Thurston has directly affected the way the game is played, taught, staffed, researched, officiated and equipped at both the national and global levels—in a way that sets him apart from nearly anyone else since the demise of the flannel uniform. Thurston, now in his 43rd season at Amherst (while I’m in my third as one of his assistant coaches) is more than just a small-college baseball coach with a cache of wins. He’s a pioneering clinician, author, biomechanist, rules aficionado, safety advocate and international baseball ambassador, his fingerprints affixed on nearly every facet of the modern game, from rules to bat manufacturing to pitching mechanics.
As a boy, Thurston spent his idle hours peppering makeshift targets with rocks, snowballs and crabapples—whatever he could get his hands on. When that wasn’t enough, he batted beat-up balls off a homemade tee in the barn and recruited pals to help construct a backstop, home plate and pitcher’s mound on his parents’ cow pasture.
“If we didn’t take 200 swings a day, it must’ve been raining,” he says.
He played his first organized game at 13 and went on to star in baseball, basketball and football at tiny Norway High. By his senior year, he had sprouted to 6 feet, 2 inches and was already playing in a college summer league. He secured a baseball scholarship at the University of Michigan, where he batted .476 in conference play as a junior, nearly leading the Big 10 in hitting and emerging as one of the Wolverines’ top pitchers. He signed with the Detroit Tigers as a gap-hitting outfielder in 1956, spending the next several years in remote minor league outposts. But a future in Detroit never panned out. And so, with a master’s degree from Michigan in administration of physical education and athletics, Thurston taught and coached in Michigan public schools until he heard that Amherst was seeking a baseball coach. For his interview at the college, Thurston brought along a self-authored 50-page playbook to impress upon then-president Calvin Plimpton ’39 that he was a true scholar of the game. Thus began a coaching tenure that would outlast The Beatles, disco, the Cold War and the turn of a millennium.
Thurston replaced Paul Eckley, who coached 29 seasons at Amherst. Eckley, whom The Amherst Student called “the dean of American baseball coaches,” was one of the first inductees into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. But his program had fallen on lean times, with wins hard to come by. “Paul was a grand old man of baseball, and we loved him,” says Dave Martula ’66, who played three seasons under Eckley and one under Thurston. “But he was old-style, a grandfather. Then here comes this new guy who’s slim, trim and athletic, who knows his stuff, can play better ball than we can. I think he developed a competitive edge in all of us.”
The 1966 season, Thurston’s first, brought a 6-8 record. His first four clubs combined for a disappointing 34-53-3 mark. “It was tough,” Thurston says. “I’m not known for my patience.”
By 1970, with a trio of recruiting classes under Thurston’s belt, the program had begun to turn the corner. Out of high school, Dave Cichon ’70 had his pick of Division I schools but chose Amherst. Barry Roderick ’71, a future pro player, followed suit, as did Bobby Jones ’71 and Rich Bedard ’71, both future professional draft picks. By 1980, the Jeffs were churning out ECAC championships with regularity. The 1980 team boasted no fewer than nine players who ended up in professional baseball, including future major leaguers Rich Thompson ’80 and John Cerutti ’82. In all, 23 of Thurston’s players have signed professional contracts; at least 16 others work in administrative capacities throughout Major League Baseball.
Thurston can be a bear to play for, as he readily admits. “He pushed you harder than you thought you could be pushed,” recalls Neal Huntington ’91, general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (see “The personal touch,” page 36). “But he brought more out of me than I knew I had in there.” And victories have piled high. The Jeffs have cracked the 20-win plateau 19 times since 1973, securing five ECAC titles, a pair of NESCAC crowns and six NCAA Tournament berths. Thurston has earned four New England Coach of the Year honors.