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Bill Kinneberg is a bright diamond for Utah baseball

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah athletics director Chris Hill refers to it as a quick interview, maybe the quickest of all time.

It was the fall of 2004 and the Utes needed a new head baseball coach. Hill made just one call to fill the vacancy. He contacted the guy who had led the program to a 30-22 record in 1996.

Bill Kinneberg, who had since assisted national championship caliber teams at his alma mater Arizona and rival Arizona State (as well as working in the minor leagues for the Chicago White Sox), accepted the offer.

And the rest — it can be said — is history. Utah baseball has reached great heights in Kinneberg’s second stint at the helm.

In 2009, the Utes won the Mountain West Conference tournament and reached the NCAA regionals for the first time since 1960.

This year, they’re headed back as outright Pac-12 champions — accomplishing the improbable top finish after four consecutive last-place finishes as members of the conference.

“Winning the Pac-12 championship is special and now we get a reward of going to regionals,” said Kinneberg, whose squad opens postseason play Friday at Mississippi. The double-elimination regional also features Boston College and Tulane.

After clinching the Pac-12’s automatic bid with victories over Washington last Saturday and Sunday, Kinneberg said it was his most rewarding weekend as a coach.

“It was pretty cool,” he acknowledged. “This is a highlight for me.”

That’s saying something considering Kinneberg’s lengthy resume. After his playing career as a pitcher at Arizona, where he helped the Wildcats reach the College World Series, Kinneberg went on to lead UTEP (1985), Wyoming (1990) and the Utes to school-record-setting seasons. He’s also served as pitching coach and then head coach for USA Baseball’s collegiate team.

“He’s a real baseball guy,” Hill said. “He’s been a lot of places and done some really good things.”

Kinneberg has touched a lot of lives along the way. His cellphone rang and was also loaded with text messages from across the country as soon as the Utes clinched the conference crown last weekend. Former players from Wyoming, Utah and Arizona were among those offering congratulations. About five minutes after the game, Kinneberg received a call from good friend and two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona.

“That was great,” said Kinneberg, who played with Francona at Arizona and has maintained a close relationship with the current Cleveland Indians manager who led Boston to titles in 2004 and 2007.

Congratulatory messages from others continue to pour in as the Utes prepare for postseason play.

“It’s still going,” Kinneberg said. “I’m sorry I haven’t answered everybody’s texts. But I will.”

Although Kinneberg is quick to credit his assistant coaches and players for Utah’s success, those around the program offer such praise to him.

Jay Brossman, an assistant coach who played for Kinneberg from 2005-07, is grateful for his relationship in both capacities. He returned to the Utes after five years in the Los Angeles Angels farm system.

“When I got to the end of my career I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and obviously I wanted to get into coaching,” Brossman said. “There’s no better man to get you into coaching than coach Kinneberg.”

Brossman said that Kinneberg is pretty near and dear to his heart for helping him with a lot of things — as a player and as a coach.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Brossman, who praised Kinneberg’s kindness and work ethic. “He cares more about people than any other coach I’ve been around and he cares about them off the field as much as on the field.”

Senior infielder Kody Davis has similar thoughts about the coach. He noted that Kinneberg has done a lot of great things for the game and added that it’s been an honor to be part of his program the past five years.

It began with the recruiting process.

“He was always reaching out and really letting me know that this would be a great fit for me, and he wasn’t wrong,” said Davis, who graduated from Juan Diego. “I couldn’t see myself playing anywhere else. So I thank him for that and everything he did to get me up here.”

As the veteran on the squad, Davis has seen bad times and good times when it comes to winning. He’s also seen Kinneberg evolve in that regard.

“He doesn’t step out of his normal routine too often. He’s usually an even-keel guy and we expect that about every day in practice,” Davis said. “But celebrating with him on the field is something we don’t get to see a whole lot. Throughout this whole year we kind of saw a little bit more of that personality in him.”

Davis explained that whenever the Utes would win a series, the guys on the bus would try to get a fist bump or something out of Kinneberg.

It finally started to happen.

“Every time we got one of those out of him the whole bus would go wild,” Davis said. “It was fun to see that from him.”

Seeing Kinneberg celebrate last Sunday at Smith’s Ballpark, Davis continued, was cool.

Brossman agrees.

“There’s no better man that I can think of that deserves this more,” he said, noting all the hours, days and years that Kinneberg has continued to grind through. “So he deserves every bit of it.”

There’s great joy throughout Ute-ville as the sluggers earned the school’s first Pac-12 men’s championship.

“There’s not enough good things that I could say about the guys on the team and about Bill,” Hill said. “Everybody in this (department) is just thrilled for them, everybody.”

Hill praised Kinneberg and the team for hanging in there despite losing a lot of one-run games over the last couple of years. He praised their toughness for going 9-1 in the third game of the Pac-12 series this season.

“It just took off like wildfire. The kids got confidence and our pitching was good,” Hill said. “I couldn’t possibly have told you we’d win the outright championship.”

While noting that rising in the Pac-12 is a hard hill to climb, Hill explained that getting into the middle of the league would have been a good outcome this year. The Utes, though, proved to be better than that — much better.

Kinneberg’s 21st season as a collegiate head coach has brought a lot of things to the forefront.

“I was thinking the other day that if you walked around the city and asked somebody if you know Bill Kinneberg and then (ask) if you like him you would probably take about four days before you ran into somebody that said they didn’t like him,” Hill said. “He’s about as good of a guy as there is. He gets the most out of his team and people are just thrilled for him here, just thrilled.”


Twitter: @DirkFacer