JACKSONVILLE — Jim Case grew up around the steel mills on Birmingham's west side and went to Ensley High School, where he fell in love with baseball.
He was a catcher for the Yellow Jackets, a fine player who earned a scholarship to Louisiana Tech.
Case thought he knew a lot about baseball, but it wasn't until he went to Mississippi State as a graduate assistant to legendary head coach Ron Polk that he really found out what baseball, and coaching, were like.
“My eyes were opened about college baseball,” Case remembered, showing his respect for Polk, who would become his friend and mentor.
Two decades later, Case is coaching his 14th Jacksonville State baseball team. Over that span, the Gamecocks have a record of 192-99 against Ohio Valley Conference opponents.
Six of Case’s teams have won either the OVC regular-season crown (2005 and 2008) or the postseason tournament (2004, 2006, 2010 and 2014). Four squads finished runner-up in the conference tourney (2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011).
JSU has such a sparkling record of succeeding in the conference playoffs that Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards once wrote, “Maybe the OVC should rename its annual postseason tournament the Jim Case Invitational.”
But you can’t win ’em all. This year's team is young and sits at 12-8 overall and 5-4 in the conference.
“I've been pleased that most of the time we play really hard, but sometimes our youth shows up,” Case said.
Four freshmen have started this season, but the leadership of veteran Ryan Sebra has shown through.
Case likes Sebra, and Sebra likes Case.
“He calls me Skipper,” the coach said with a grin.
Sebra's dad Bob played six years in the majors. He had stops with the Phillies, Expos, Brewers, Rangers, Astros and Reds.
“My dad told me not to call my manager 'Coach,' so I call him Skip,” Sebra said.
Sebra, of Daytona Beach, Fla., played junior college ball in Jacksonville, Fla., and he and Case have gotten along well from the get-go.
“Whatever trait he has, you can't teach,” Sebra said. “He knows how to get after people. He knows how to pat ’em on the back. He knows how to win.”
Jim Case and his wife Jan came to Jacksonville before the 2002 season to meet with University President Bill Meehan, faculty members and athletic department officials. Case was offered the baseball head coaching job and accepted.
Education has always been important to the Case family. Jan Case has a doctorate in statistics from Mississippi State and teaches math at JSU. Jim Case got his has bachelor's degree at UAB, his master's at Louisiana Tech and an educational specialists degree at Mississippi State.
Their daughter Catherine is working on her doctorate at the University of Florida, while younger daughter Elizabeth works on her doctorate at Georgia State.
“I think both of them kind of want to do what their mother does,” Case said.
Jan and Jim Case grew up together in west Birmingham.
“I was 12, he was 13 and we were sweethearts at Wylam Baptist Church,” she said. “That's a great way to grow together as a couple.”
Her husband is “very dedicated to his work as a coach,” she said. “When you play for him it's pretty much a lifetime arrangement.”
The Gamecocks play at 1,500-seat Rudy Abbott Field, named for the man who put baseball on the map at JSU by winning 1,003 games and Division II national championships in 1990 and 1991.
Abbott is a fan of Case’s, especially with how Case guided JSU through last year’s OVC tournament. The Gamecocks lost the opener in the double-elimination tournament but then won six straight games to take the championship.
“Coach Jim Case pulled off the impossible last year that should make every Gamecock baseball alumnus proud,” Abbott said. “He and the Gamecocks lost a game early in the OVC tourney, the bounced back to win two nine-inning games three days in a row to win the championship and advance to the NCAA regional playoffs.
“I would say that is one of the highlights in Gamecock baseball history. … We had great things happen and the person holding all that together was Coach Jim Case. I could not be more proud of what Coach and the Gamecocks did those three days.”
Ron Polk, Case's mentor and friend, had this to say: “Great coach, great person, great friend, family man. He's a treasure at Jacksonville State; I know they're proud to have him.”
And Jim Case is a family man.
“I grew up in a houseful of people,” he said, “three brothers and three sisters. This (baseball) program is part of my extended family. As long as they know we try to do this for them, and that we care, that's good.”
Case has requirements, goals and wishes for his players.
“Go to class, study hard, play hard,” is his message.
He is happy at JSU and said, “You want to find a place where you fit, and this is where I fit.”
Case, 55 years old, sees himself coaching another five years or more.
“It takes a lot of energy, a lot of passion,” he said.
Case said he doesn't really have hobbies, but several times a year he and Jan open their house to friends for fellowship, dinner and Blue Grass music.
Getting back to that young team he has this spring, has he given up on making the playoffs?
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” he said.
Maybe it's time for the Gamecocks to make another run.