Kroner: Dozen has been dandy for Parkland's Clutts
CHAMPAIGN — At an age when many folks are looking forward to a little R and R — recliners and retirement — 52-year-old Chuck Clutts undertook a demanding new challenge.
He accepted the position of softball head coach at Parkland College.
And now, in the year he'll turn 65, Clutts has been on the job for 12 years. The last 11 have produced at least 30 wins, including a school-record total of 60 in 2003.
Overall, his Parkland College teams have won more than 500 games, and he's not yet ready to step away from the sport.
This is not what he envisioned for himself as a teenager.
"I had a dream," he said, "that I'd be a pro bowler."
Clutts' background isn't a traditional one for coaches. He isn't a former teacher who helped out with school teams, though he served as a softball coach at Centennial for seven seasons.
The Dixon native was originally relocated to this area in 1976 to serve as manager at the Urbana Walgreens. Clutts had started with the company in Sterling and was moved to Joliet and Springfield.
When the company wanted him to uproot again and head to Iowa, Clutts said "no thanks" and accepted sales positions with Hines and then Sunshine Biscuit.
"My territory was central Illinois, down to St. Louis," he said.
When his son Ryan's Little League team needed coaches, Clutts figured, "why not?" It was a sport he understood.
"I'd played softball all my life," he said.
Therein lies his entrance into the coaching of organized sports. Clutts can thank his daughter, Michelle (Clutts) Petty, for him winding up with the Cobras.
"She called one day and said, 'Do you want to apply for the Parkland job?' " Clutts said. "She'd seen an ad in The News-Gazette. It was one of those things that sounded like it would be fun to do. I didn't realize all the recruiting that went into it."
Recruiting is an aspect that some college coaches consider a necessary evil. They recognize the importance but wish it didn't have to consume so much time.
One reason Clutts is still energized is that he enjoys the evaluations and the meet-and-greets.
"Recruiting is my second favorite part," he said. "My favorite part is game day. I like meeting the parents, players and watching the games. If it's decent weather and we're not playing, I'm out every night."
That was never more evident than Monday, a rainy, overcast, breezy day when every area game except Heritage vs. Shiloh was postponed.
Want to guess where Clutts was sitting at 4:30 p.m. that day when the first pitch was delivered at Hume?
"In high school, I take who is given to me," Clutts said. "In college, I get to pick my people. I take who I want."
Parkland athletic director Rod Lovett — the school's former baseball head coach — gave Clutts a piece of advice after his hiring.
"Rod said, 'If you're successful, they (high school players) will seek you out,' " Clutts said.
The first year, when he was hired late and had little time to recruit, Clutts brought in one player, Sara Perry from Monticello.
That team finished with a 27-32 record but played in the Region 24 championship game.
During his junior college coaching tenure, Clutts' teams have averaged nearly 44 wins per season. Attracting talent is not the problem.
"We get 80 to 100 (online) applications a year," Clutts said.
Clutts' reputation is one reason he's able to attract high-caliber players to Parkland College. Wisconsin native Melanie Bisek played a year at Muscatine (Iowa) Community College before transferring to Parkland for the 2005-06 season.
She found Clutts to be open and trustworthy.
"A lot of coaches, when they're recruiting, say they won't change anything, but then they try to change something as soon as they start coaching you," Bisek said. "He was very honest in everything he said. He's one of the best coaches out there."
In her one season at Muscatine, Bisek helped the school reach the national tournament. One of the other qualifiers was Parkland.
"They (Cobras) looked very classy," Bisek said. "No one was fighting or bickering."
Before she confirmed her transfer, she made a visit to Champaign and liked what she saw.
"I love the fact that when he recruits, he leaves the room and has you talk with his current players," Bisek said. "That shows how confident he is. He knows the good things (said by the players) will outweigh the negative."
She made the switch the following year and joined a Parkland program with a number of sophomore returnees.
"I told Coach, I never felt more welcome on a team than when I was there," Bisek said.
His background at Centennial reinforced Clutts' opinion that he could be successful with a recruiting base centered around central Illinois.
"There are good ballplayers in this area," he said, "but kids in central Illinois are so overlooked. The whole time we were at Centennial, we saw two college coaches. One was from Parkland. The other was from Eastern Illinois."
When he interviewed with Lovett to replace Marcus Green, Clutts told the AD, "I want to recruit within 2 1/2 hours of here,"
Though he has taken a handful of out-of-state players, such as Bisek, an infielder, most have grown up locally. Clutts' national runner-up team (2002) featured such former area standouts as Christie Wantland (Fisher), Jennifer Vandervort (Clinton), Krista Kloth (Centennial) and Candace Welch (Clinton).
Most recently, the last four Decatur Herald & Review Players of the Year have played at Parkland: Sarah Gray (2008, 2009), Taylor Hull (2010) and Raeshel Braden (2011).
Other coaches have started to recognize the quality of softball players throughout the greater central Illinois area. In 2005, Clutts thought he had a commitment from Flora pitcher Lacey Briscoe until she received a scholarship offer from a four-year school, Austin Peay.
More recently, Ridgeview's Lauren Kellar was an outfielder who was looking to start her career in the same manner as her baseball-playing brother Michael (who went to Lake Land) and she had Parkland near the top of her list until Illinois State signed her in 2009.
Clutts holds no ill will.
"If a four-year school takes them away, I know I'm on the right track," he said.
Before he gets a player on campus, Clutts goes through a two-part recruiting process. The first is obvious. It's a player evaluation.
"In junior college ball, they have to be ready after the fall season," he said. "We do not have time to teach."
When he's on the recruiting trail, Clutts arrives early.
"The warmups are very important," he said. "You might be recruiting a center fielder and she might not get a ball hit to her (during the game). I look for hustle and the fundamentals."
After he decides if he's interested in recruiting the player, Clutts delves further.
"We research the parents," he said. "We don't want problems. I put it out plainly, there is no interference. Complaining about playing time does not go."
A few years ago, he backed off a potential recruit with talent.
"I totally stopped (the recruitment)," he said. "No way was I going to put up with that parent."
Clutts can't afford to be wrong on his recruits. Though the NJCAA allows 24 scholarships a year for softball, the limit at Parkland is 11.
By using partial scholarships, Clutts is able to provide financial aid annually for more than a dozen players though he said, "I never go lower than half (a scholarship)."
When his recruits make the grade in the classroom as well as on the playing field, that's a bonus. Incoming recruit Jordan Wheeler, an All-Area pitcher from Blue Ridge, will be on a Presidential Scholarship — not an athletic one — because she ranks in the top 10 percent of her graduating class.
Wheeler won't count against the 11 scholarships Clutts will divvy up next year.
Bisek said a strength of Clutts is his motivational ability.
"I didn't play every inning of every game, but when I got in he made me feel like I was the best girl at that position," Bisek said.
She recalled some games being won because the coach bucked the traditional odds.
"He is one of the coaches who will take chances in the moment," Bisek said. "To have great games you have to take great risks. He's willing to take risks, and that's why he has been so successful.
"He's not afraid to change things up."
With seven trips to the national tournament in the past decade, the results of Clutts' recruiting are obvious. The frustrating part is that he has to turn athletes away.
"There are area players who want to play at Parkland, but we don't have room on the roster," said Clutts, who has also been the equipment manager at Parkland since 2004.
Except for pitchers and catchers, Clutts focuses his recruiting attention on all-around players regardless of position.
"My first baseman now (Elizabeth Sprague) didn't play first until I brought her in," Clutts said.
A third baseman and shortstop at Dunlap, Sprague is not only hitting well (.379 average), but is also fielding well.
"She has one error in 383 attempts," Clutts said. "I love watching people learn and develop their skills."
Clutts has a timetable in mind for retiring as a coach, but he prefers to keep it vague.
"I don't have another 12 years," he said. "Maybe another four or five, but it might be a little longer or a little shorter."
The Cobras will return eight players from this year's team, and an impressive 10-player class soon will be headed to campus. Besides Wheeler, the recruits include St. Joseph-Ogden teammates Abby Immke and Shelby Franzen, along with Salt Fork's Hunter Marsh and St. Teresa's Erin Hettinger.
However many years remain, Clutts promises to follow the advice he gives his players.
"You've got to have fun with it," he said. "You can't take it too seriously."
Bisek has heard that line before.
"He teaches you to have fun while you're playing," she said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.
By the numbers
A look at coach Chuck Clutts’ 12 years as Parkland softball coach:
Career softball record: 530-186-2
Most wins in a season: 60
Players who’ve moved on: 33
NJCAA All-Americans: 14
Regional title-game appearances: 11
MWAC All-Academic teams: 8
National tourney appearances: 8
Total conference champions: 6
Unbeaten conference champions: 2
NJCAA runner-up teams: 1