By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal
Jim Wells made Northwestern State baseball synonymous with winning, then did the same thing at Alabama.
Wells set the foundation for the Demons’ unbridled success in the 1990s, leading a long-downtrodden Northwestern program to three Southland Conference championships in his five seasons at the helm of the program from 1990-94 before ushering in similar results over the next 15 years with the Crimson Tide.
The Bossier City native, a pre-law major at NSU who was a student manager for the baseball team, came from Jesuit High (now Loyola College Prep). After graduating, he decided not to go to law school, began coaching youth league and junior high school baseball in Shreveport-Bossier, then became head coach at Loyola and was immediately successful. He left to join Skip Bertman’s LSU coaching staff and spent three years with the Tigers, contributing to a pair of College World Series appearances before getting hired in Natchitoches.
Wells’ gaudy winning percentage and postseason triumphs on the collegiate level have led him to a place in the American Baseball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame Class of 2024, which was announced Wednesday. The 10-member class will be inducted officially on Jan. 5, 2024, at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas.
The ABCA honor is the second such nod to Wells’ standout coaching credentials, joining his 2005 N-Club Hall of Fame induction at his alma mater.
“I don’t really think about the different Hall of Fames and those type of things,” Wells said. “It makes me think back to my time at Northwestern and coaching high school and junior high. It brings back good memories of times of when I did that for a living, to the good times at Alabama and Northwestern of course. I just feel blessed I got (the NSU) job. It was such a great place. I have a cabin there now and still come to Natchitoches from time to time.”
Wells returned to his alma mater in 1990 and sparked a 17-win improvement, taking the Demons from a 21-28-1 mark to a 38-13 record and a fifth-place finish in the Southland Conference. NSU set a state record by winning its first 20 games under Wells, who took over a program that hadn’t been over .500 in 13 years.
A year later, the Demons put together the first of Wells’ three 40-win seasons in Natchitoches, going 40-21 and claiming the first of the program’s nine Southland Conference regular-season titles while earning NSU’s first berth in the NCAA Regionals.
Two seasons later, the Demons notched the first of two straight SLC titles, going 40-14. The 1994 season proved to be Wells’ best – and last — in a Demon uniform as NSU won a school-record 45 games, captured their second straight league title and defeated Illinois State, 8-2, for the first NCAA Tournament victory in program history. A three-time Southland Conference Coach of the Year and the LSWA All-Louisiana Coach of the Year in 1994, Wells’ No. 17 is one of NSU baseball’s five retired numbers.
Wells compiled a 192-89 record in his five seasons as the Demon skipper. His .683 winning percentage is the best in program history and his 192 wins place him fourth on NSU’s all-time list.
Following the 1994 season, Wells went to a struggling Alabama program that he immediately turned into a championship contender. He coached the Crimson Tide for 15 seasons, reaching the 1997 College World Series championship game where LSU prevailed. Wells took the Tide to two more CWS appearances, a pair of SEC regular-season titles, six SEC Tournament crowns and earned two SEC Coach of the Year honors (1996, 2002). He retired as Alabama’s all-time leader in wins (625) and produced a .656 winning percentage (625-322) in Tuscaloosa.
In 1997, Baseball America named Wells its National Coach of the Year after a 56-14 season and the trip to the title game in Omaha.
Wells’ impact on both the NSU and Alabama program helped make Northwestern State a cradle of SEC coaches as Wells’ successors Dave Van Horn (Arkansas), John Cohen (Kentucky, Mississippi State) and Mitch Gaspard (Alabama) all helmed SEC programs following head coaching stints at NSU. Future SEC and national championship coach Mike Bianco started his career as an assistant for Wells in 1991-92.
“It was an honor to share the dugout with Coach Wells,” Gaspard, now associate head coach at Louisiana Tech, tweeted Wednesday. “One of the best to ever do it at Alabama and NSU.”
Wells is joined in the 2024 ABCA Hall of Fame class by current Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, West Virginia State’s Cal Bailey, Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall, Nova (Florida) High School’s Pat McQuaid, Miami’s Jim Morris, The College of Wooster’s Tim Pettorini, Wisconsin-Whitewater’s John Vodenlich, Chelsea (Michigan) High School’s Wayne Welton and LSU-Eunice’s Jeff Willis.
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