Birmingham to be Inducted Into Lea County Hall of Fame
Nov. 8, 2012
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - University of New Mexico head baseball coach Ray Birmingham still has many years of coaching left in him, but as of Tuesday, Nov. 13, he will be a member of two Hall of Fames.
He was inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame on Jan. 21, 2011, and next Tuesday he will be inducted into the Lea County Athletic Hall of Fame in Lovington, N.M.
"It's a pretty humbling experience," he said. "It's a big deal. It's my hometown. I miss my hometown."
Lea County is the most southeastern county in New Mexico and encompasses the cities of Eunice, Jal, Lovington, and Birmingham's hometown of Hobbs, where he began his collegiate coaching career at the University of the Southwest in 1988. While there he led the team to its first ever national ranking. After two years there he took over the newly formed program at New Mexico Junior College in Lovington and coached there for 18 years. After a losing record in his first season, he did not post a record worse than 33-21 during the rest of his time there. He amassed a record of 765-255-2 for a .750 winning percentage and the team's winning percentage failed to finish above .700 in only four seasons.
"He's an outstanding guy and an outstanding coach," said Jim Harris, the director of the Lea County Museum where the Hall of Fame is housed. "We're proud of him down here and we think he belongs in our Hall of Fame."
It's hard to argue against Birmingham's inclusion when you consider what he accomplished with the Thunderbirds. He was named Western Junior College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year seven times, Region 5 Coach of the Year in both 2005 and 2007, and he was honored as the NJCAA Division I Coach of the Year in 2005. The Thunderbirds were nationally ranked in 14 seasons, including five Top-10 appearances.
He led NMJC to six conference titles, two Region 5 Championships and two trips to the NJCAA Division I JUCO World Series, where the Thunderbirds were national champions in 2005 and runner-up in 2007.
Steve McCleery is the president of NMJC and was the athletic director there when Birmingham was hired as the first coach for the Thunderbirds. He was obviously very involved in the hiring process and clearly made a good decision. McCleery will be introducing Birmingham at the banquet on Tuesday and has great respect for the work he has done, not only at NMJC but also at UNM.
"Ray is probably the best hitting coach in America at the two-year or four-year level," he said. "You look at his teams statistically at (NMJC) and they were always in top-10 in the country and usually led the nation. He's a great hitting coach and his continued success at UNM has proved that."
Birmingham's 2001 NMJC squad set the NJCAA record for hitting with a .438 batting average and the Lobos led the nation in hitting with a .363 average in 2009.
Birmingham and fellow 2012 inductee Tom Black, a former national champion pole vaulter, will be the 17th and 18th members of the Hall of Fame, and they were chosen by the Lea County Museum board.
"We started our Hall of Fame five years ago," Harris said. "At that time we called for nominations from the general public. We were flooded. Lea County is a really athletic-minded community."
The museum kept the nominations and after seven inductions in the inaugural year in 2008, four in 2009, and three in 2010, the museum has selected two each of the past two years and will likely continue to do that from now on.
The 15-member board looks at the credentials of all the nominations and they are the ones that choose the inductees. Thirteen of the board members are from Lea County themselves, making the inductions that much more meaningful.
"We have a real significant number of nominations," Harris said. "There are about 150. Some are marginal nominations, but Lea County is a place with a lot of athletic heroes in so many different sports."
There certainly are, and Birmingham will be joining some truly select company. Perhaps the most famous member of the Hall of Fame is former UNM All-American safety and current Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was part of the inaugural class. Kathy Whitworth, who will be the guest speaker at Tuesday's induction ceremony, is also a member. She is the all-time leader in career wins on the LPGA tour with 88. Only two other golfers in history have more than 60.
"People may ask, `How can that little county down there have so many great athletes?'" Harris said. "Well, Brian Urlacher is from down here. Maybe it's the water."
Whatever the cause, Birmingham excelled at NMJC and has continued to excel with the Lobos. He has led UNM to back-to-back-to-back NCAA regionals appearances after the school went nearly 50 years since its last, and to that point only, postseason visit. He has coached 40 All-Americans and seen 140 of his players sign with Major League teams, including two that have won the World Series, and he is only 16 wins away from 1,000 career victories.
"Ray may be the greatest motivator of young baseball players that I have ever seen," McCleery said. "He's a great motivator from an old-school perspective, and he knows how to make that work in a new-school era. It's worked well for him in the past and is clearly working well for him at UNM.
"It's very appropriate to induct Ray into the Lea County Athletic Hall of Fame. I think he's very deserving. I think people in this area are very proud of his accomplishments as a coach."
Ever since he left Lea County to come to Albuquerque and coach the Lobos, Birmingham has had one goal in mind: take UNM to Omaha and the College World Series. He believes with all his heart the Lobos can get there and make the entire state of New Mexico proud. He's not alone in that regard.
"I think Ray will take UNM to Omaha," McCleery said.
Harris took it one step further.
"We know he's going to get a national championship up there for the Lobos."
Whether or not his dream comes true remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Ray Birmingham is a Hall of Fame coach. And a well-deserved one at that.