NEW ALBANY — Famous manager Leo Durocher didn't earn a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame for what he said, but he did earn quite a bit of notoriety for four simple words that he made famous decades ago. It was Durocher who coined the phrase, "nice guys finish last."
Obviously, he never met Don Unruh.
The New Albany High School athletic director has coached middle school basketball, women's college basketball, boys' soccer and varsity basketball. He is finishing up his 20th year as athletic director, and for one year he served as New Albany's interim principal.
But no matter what his role was, one thing remained a constant. Don Unruh is just a really good guy.
"He is one of the nicest, fairest people I have ever known," said John Breeding, former volleyball coach and ticket manager at New Albany High School. "He tried to make sure every sport had what it needed. When I think of Donnie ... I just remember how fair and concerned he was about all sports."
Despite New Albany's rich athletic tradition, and being the oldest public school in the state, Unruh is only the school's fourth athletic director. Alex Thom, Stan Sajko and Gary Austin, three legends in their own right, preceded Unruh. Now, at age 62, Unruh will soon join the ranks of former. He plans to retire June 30.
Unruh said he's ready to spend more time with his 2-year-old twin grandsons and family. Being a school's athletic director means spending most weekends, and several nights during the week, inside a gym or at an athletic field. It's very time consuming supervising 20 varsity sports.
"They [family] would come over and it just seemed like I was missing more," he said.
He said without the support of his wife Denise and his family there is no way he could have done the job for the last 20 years.
New Albany High School has always been a big part of his life. He grew up on Shelby Place and could see the old Annex building from his front porch. It was Thom, who lived across the street from him, who would come home and give Unruh and his neighborhood buddies old baseballs and bats. He had no idea then that years later he would follow in Thom's footsteps.
"It seemed to me at the time the greatest job ever," he said. "I always respected Gary Austin [who he replaced], and when he retired I didn't know when it might come back open so I took it. I have no regrets. I have enjoyed it."
Unruh was the varsity boys' basketball coach and English teacher before stepping into the athletic director's role. His 1996 team lost in the state championship game in overtime to Ben Davis on a 30-footer at the buzzer.
"I don't think I will ever get over that," he said.
He came back the next year in 1997, the final year of the single-class tourney, and guided the Bulldogs to the semistate final where they lost to Bloomington North.
Unruh definitely paid his coaching dues. He was a middle school basketball coach at Springs Valley for four years, served as varsity coach at Hancock County, Ky., for four years, was the women's coach at IU Southeast for one year before becoming Jim Miller's varsity assistant at New Albany. He took over as head coach following Miller's retirement in 1995-96. He said those years working under Miller, the hall of fame coach, was a great experience.
"He knew basketball more than anyone I had ever been around," he said. "We had some great teams and a great run. Gyms were full, we were on pay-per-view, the Jeff-New Albany rivalry was at its peak and there were so many Division I players during that time."
He also experienced another history-making stretch in New Albany basketball history firsthand — the Romeo Langford years. Soldout gyms, people lining up four hours prior to the gym opening for a game, big-time college coaches visiting the school to meet with Romeo and watch practice.
"It was really unbelievable. You would look in the gym and Coach [John] Calipari would be in there and Roy Williams was here a few days after winning the national championship. It was just an exciting time," Unruh said. "And he [Romeo] was such a good kid and ambassador for New Albany High School."
Two teams, the 1999 girls and 2016 boys won basketball state championships during Unruh's stint as athletic director.
There is no doubt the school has been a big part of Unruh's life. He could see it growing up, graduated from there in 1974, and has worked at the school since 1987. Walking away won't be easy. He credits athletic department secretary Marlene Stephens for her work the past 15 years, Breeding and Jim King, who handled ticket manager duties, and school principals that he has worked under for their support.
He understood the school's tradition when he assumed the role as athletic director and knew what it meant to the community to have successful teams. He said he will miss it, but knows it's time to move on.
"I've enjoyed it," he said. "I will miss the coaches and the kids. All the other athletic directors all support each other ... we all go through the same things and I will miss talking to them. Knowing the tradition here is an important part of the job. I hope whoever is hired [next athletic director] understands that. I hope we have added to that tradition during my time."
He has definitely added to the athletic tradition at the school and proved one thing to be wrong, that nice guys sometimes finish first.