Eric Burkle takes baseball reins at West Liberty
Five-time West Virginia Conference Baseball Coach of the Year and West Liberty Hall of Famer Robert “Bo” McConnaughy has announced his retirement after 30 seasons at the Hilltopper helm.
Athletic director Jim Watson announced that Hilltopper assistant Eric Burkle would take over as head coach.
“Coach McConnaughy is not only a great baseball man, he’s a great West Liberty man,” Watson said. “I want to thank him for his many years of dedicated service with the baseball program and congratulate him on an outstanding coaching career.
“Coach Burkle is obviously very familiar with the program and our student-athletes and is highly respected by coaches throughout the conference. We anticipate a very smooth transition and are very excited to have Coach Burkle leading us into the future.”
McConnaughy, who ranked among the nation’s active coaching leaders with nearly 600 career victories, will continue with the university in his long-time role as director of the intramural program while also serving as classified staff liaison out of Human Resources.
“This wasn’t an easy decision by any means,” said McConnaughy after officially concluding the longest coaching career in school history. “Except for the years when I was playing pro ball, I’ve been associated with West Liberty athletics in some fashion ever since coming here as a student in the fall of 1966. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made a living doing something I loved. It never seemed like a job to me.”
During McConnaughy’s time at the helm, West Liberty won seven WVIAC Northern Division championships and five league titles. His Hilltoppers played in five NAIA Area 7 tournaments and his 1990 team was only the third West Virginia squad to earn a trip to the NAIA World Series. He also led West Liberty to its first NCAA Division II regional bid in 1998.
McConnaughy coached 54 first-team All-WVIAC performers, four WVIAC Pitchers of the Year, two WVIAC Players of the Year and a pair of All-Americans. Five of his players were drafted by major league organizations with several others signing free-agent contracts.
The Wheeling native starred in baseball and basketball as a West Liberty student-athlete. A first-team All-WVIAC shortstop on the diamond, he also ranks among the school’s basketball scoring leaders with 1,542 career points and still holds the Hilltoppers’ single-game assist record with 19. McConnaughy was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1970 and spent four years in pro ball before returning to the Ohio Valley.
In addition to his baseball coaching duties at West Liberty, the versatile mentor also served as an assistant coach in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football and track and did double-duty for seven years as head women’s basketball coach from 1984-91. He was inducted into the WLU Hall of Fame in 1988 and is also a member of the OVAC Hall of Fame. Bo and his wife, Kim, reside in West Liberty. They have two sons, Justin and Jeremy, and two granddaughters, Cecilia and Willow Jean.
“The best part for me was watching our student-athletes’ growth and development from the time they arrived on campus as freshmen to going out and leading productive and rewarding lives with families of their own,” McConnaughy said. “I’ve formed really close relationships with many of my former players over the years and those relationships are something I’ll always treasure.”
The 42-year-old Burkle is a graduate of Wheeling Park High School who played his college ball at Fairmont State before having his career cut short due to injury.
A former athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Wheeling Catholic Elementary, Burkle caught McConnaughy’s eye while serving as an assistant coach to Jim Wodusky on back-to-back state championship baseball teams at Wheeling Central in 2007 and 2008. Burkle joined McConnaughy’s staff in the fall of 2008.
“I want to thank Jim Watson and Bo and everybody who supported me and believed in me enough to give me this opportunity,” Burkle said. “Bo has been a terrific mentor to me over the past five years. He’s prepared me in every aspect of coaching at this level, not just the coaching side but the business and personal side, as well. Bo has always looked out for me as a coach and a person and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Burkle also plans to draw on what he’s learned from his years on the diamond as he accepts the challenge of his first head coaching assignment.
“I’ve been fortunate to play for and work with many great coaches and have tried to draw a little bit from each of them,” Burkle said. “I learned about organization from guys like Mark Delbrugge and Ron Whiting. I learned discipline from Gary Zelinski and the importance of hard work from Jimbo (Wodusky).
“Just as important, though, were the kids I grew up with in South Wheeling and guys like Ray Bauer. We played a doubleheader every day in the summer at the Ritchie School yard. That’s where I learned to love the game and the importance of playing – and coaching – with passion.”
Burkle and his wife, Amy, live in Bethlehem. They have two daughters, Amy, a junior at West Liberty; and Sydney, a 6th-Grader at The Linsly School.