A Leopard, a leader

Editor’s note: This is the eighth and final story in a series highlighting Hernando High’s 2013 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

Players win, coaches lose.
Tim Sims

Tim Sims has often leaned on that mantra – one of his many – when asked about his accomplishments through 19 seasons as baseball headman at Hernando High.

Turns out it’s more than just a clever attempt at deflecting attention. It’s actually rooted in his mindset during his own playing days.

“I didn’t like coaches,” Sims said. “I respected them. But I felt like, let the players play. That was my philosophy.”

Back then he never considered coaching. The irony, of course, is that few in the history of Hernando County have done it better.

Sims was among eighth inductees to the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame in October, a worthy selection based on the over 300 victories his teams have accumulated on the diamond.

“You look at all the athletes you saw (at the induction), I’m appreciative first and foremost to the Hall of Fame committee,” Sims said. “It was a fun night and I’m very thankful to the committee and it has a special place inside of me that’ll always be there.”

The Leopards come-from-behind 6-4 victory at Springstead Tuesday night, improving their record to 6-0, pushed Sims’ career mark to 320-211. But that’s only half his story.

“I have tons of respect for the man, not even for the fact he’s won over 300 games,” Central athletic director/head baseball coach Al Sorrentino said. “It’s just the fact he does things the right way.

“We’re in the business of teaching kids life lessons and he’s always been about that. Fortunately for him, he’s able to coach the heck out of a baseball team, so he’s been able to win a few games, too.”

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Only one other baseball coach in county history has ever surpassed 300 victories. That would be Tom Varn, who had three stints coaching the Leopards spanning the late ’40s through the early ’70s.

Varn’s exact win total has been difficult to determine, though it’s believed to be somewhere in the 350-400 range.

Though Varn guided Hernando to its lone state championship in baseball, in 1967, even his run didn’t feature as many Elite Eight appearances as Sims’ six – including the past four seasons in a row.

The Leopards have also claimed seven district titles during Sims’ tenure.

“That’s all about the players,” Sims said.

Sims can relate to the young men he now mentors because he once walked in their shoes. As impressive as his coaching resume reads, he was one of the better players to come through the program.

Born in Ocilla, Ga., Sims became a Brooksville resident when his family moved from Tallahassee in 1967.

His father, Joe, worked in insurance, though a year later he and his brother Mike would start up what would grow into the Sims Furniture Galleries chain in the downtown area.

Tim Sims received his first taste of baseball as a batboy, after his father was persuaded by Hernando Youth League founder Ernie Wever to coach a team sponsored by the local Rotary club.

He eventually started playing in HYL at age 8. As an 11- and 12-year-old, he played for his father, who had built a friendly rivalry at the time with a young youth coach by the name of Ernie Chatman.

Eventually Chatman would become Sims’ coach, both at Hernando and in HYL, and predecessor.

Sims was Hernando’s starting shortstop as well as a pitcher for three seasons. He also played basketball as a sophomore and senior, though baseball is where he made his mark.

As a senior in 1982, he hit .475 and went 10-2 on the mound, earning district Player of the Year and All-State honors from the Florida Athletic Coaches Association.

He additionally was the Tom Fisher Award recipient, presented to the school’s top multi-sport participant for combined athletic and academic achievement.

That baseball season the Leopards went 30-5 and were ranked first in the state, having knocked off previously top-ranked teams Tampa Catholic and Tallahassee-Leon on the road.

“Tim was a coach on the field,” Chatman said. “He was a leader then and you knew then that this guy would make a good coach if he decided to be one.

“He did a lot of things on the field. People remember him as a shortstop, but for us he was our number one pitcher his junior and senior year. He lost some ballgames but all of them were one-run ballgames. That goes unnoticed for him. He was a little bit of a bulldog. He threw fairly hard with a good breaking ball.

“He was just a natural as far as being a shortstop. He had good agility. He was able to make off-balance throws. He made routine plays. He was always ready to play.”

Sims’ memories of attending Hernando start with the principal, Ed Poore, who had been the principal for his particular class from first grade on up.

“There was accountability, there was leadership and there was honesty,” Sims said. “And those three things tell you about Ed Poore and how things went back then.”

Meanwhile Sims was garnering partial offers to play baseball at Florida, Florida State and Duke, though the first two wanted him as a pitcher.

Still, Sims opted to sign with Seminole Community College, now Seminole State College of Florida.

Sims and three friends, John Ed Haull, David Looper and Eddie Looper, tried out at Valencia Community College in Orlando, though only two were given offers. Seminole, which had an established pipeline with Hernando, extended offers to all four.

For the next two years the quartet played together for the Raiders in Sanford.

“That was a learning experience,” Sims said. “That’s where basically every player gets to in life where they realize talent only gets you so far. You better learn to outwork people and get smarter and stronger.”

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The Montreal Expos selected Sims in the eighth round (196th overall) of the 1984 January Amateur Draft. They offered him $10,000, but instead he decided to join his best friend Eddie Looper in signing with the University of Alabama.

“I had busted my butt for two years to survive and I wanted to play in the SEC,” Sims said.

After hitting .304 as a junior and .280 as a senior, he graduated and signed as a free agent with the San Jose Bees, an unaffiliated Class-A minor league team at the time.

He played 24 games for the Bees, living on the campus of San Jose State University.

“I wouldn’t have missed it. It was a blast. The speed of the game increased even more over college,” Sims said. “It was a grind, but I wouldn’t trade it.”

Following his release, he attended a few tryouts, including one with the Boise Hawks. They chose another player instead of him, and inadvertently changed the course of prep baseball history in Hernando County.

“Halfway up the (Florida) Turnpike I threw all my stuff over the guardrail and said, ‘I’m done,'” said Sims of his reaction after the Boise tryout.

Just one problem: the competitive juices still flowed. So he turned to coaching.

At first he was an assistant and then head coach for the intramural team at Pasco-Hernando Community College, phoning coaches who had previously recruited him to set up games.

That lasted for four years, from 1988-91, and in the meantime he helped out with Chatman’s summer program at Hernando, before serving as a full varsity assistant in 1992-93.

When Chatman stepped down, Sims grabbed the reins in 1994. A team that featured current Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Bronson Arroyo won back-to-back district titles Sims’ first two years, advancing to a regional final in 1995.

He would remain head coach through the 2006 season, and the Leopards would capture district crowns again in 2000 and 2004, getting back to the Elite Eight in the latter.

A store manager within the family furniture business, Sims’ hectic schedule forced him to resign and hand over the team to longtime assistant Donnie Whitehead in 2007-08.

When Whitehead accepted an assistant coaching position at St. Johns River State College, Sims returned to the dugout for the 2009 campaign.

That team went 7-20, though as Sims pointed out the Leopards lost 13 one-run games. Over the next four seasons, they went a combined 89-32, with three district titles, four regional appearances and a trip to the Final Four in 2012.

Despite losing every 2013 regular starter to graduation, Hernando had gotten off to an unbeaten start this year heading into Thursday’s game against Citrus.

Prior to the season, Sims’ contemporaries warned not to underestimate his club.

Count current Nature Coast head coach Mike Ellison as someone who holds Sims in high regard. Ellison, who has been a head coach previously at Hernando, Hernando Christian Academy and Central, experienced Sims’ style up close when his grandson, J.T. Simpson, recently played for the Leopards.

“I’ve known him since he was in high school,” Ellison said of Sims. “He was a great kid and I think he’s a great man.

“His devotion to the kids (makes him a successful coach). He always says to me, ‘Pappy, it’s about the kids.'”

Chatman, a FACA Hall of Famer and the current Nature Coast softball coach, also admires the work of his former pupil.

“I appreciate the passion he has for the game,” Chatman said. “He enjoys what he’s doing. He’s one that really meshes well with the players and they respect him and play hard for him, and what else can you ask for?”

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Now that he’s back in the saddle, and has a realistic shot in the next few years to become the county’s first coach to reach 400 wins, just how long will Sims stick around?

He raised two daughters, Sarah Elizabeth and Anna Katherine, with his wife of 25 years, Cindy. At 49, he has a 3-year-old grandson, Lakai.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Sims said. “Right now it’s something so much a part of your life and it’s relaxing. I use it as a stress-reliever.”

In addition to the high school, Sims remains strongly connected to HYL, where he helped the Majors (ages 17-19) win a World Series in 1983.

Currently he’s the league’s director for Majors and Pre-Majors (ages 13-15) baseball, and has been involved at the state level in the past.

So Sims is still very much ingrained in the local landscape. According to Hernando’s athletic director and softball coach, Kevin Bittinger, Sims won’t be leaving anytime soon.

“You look at a guy like Tim Sims, you can’t measure his importance to Hernando High School, not only to the school but the athletic programs and the baseball program,” Bittinger said.

“He’s just such a class act. Everything he does, he does it with such character. Those kids are not just learning to play baseball in his program; they’re learning to become young men.

“When you’ve got a guy like Tim Sims, I tell him I hope he sticks around to coach my boys in baseball, because I’m not letting him go anywhere,” added Bittinger, whose sons are still in elementary school. “He’s a staple in the community, and you don’t see that very often.”

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By the numbers: Tim Sims (through 02-26)

Year Record

1994 23-8*

1995 25-7*

1996 21-7

1997 19-10

1998 13-15

1999 17-12

2000 20-13*

2001 13-15

2002 14-14

2003 11-18

2004 15-15*

2005 15-10

2006 12-14

2007 Did not coach

2008 Did not coach

2009 7-20

2010 21-10*

2011 26-6*#

2012 18-11

2013 24-6*

2014 6-0

Totals 320-211

* Denotes district championship

# Denotes Final Four appearance

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