Ole Miss Great Don Kessinger’s No. 11 Retired: Former Players, Coach Bianco Honor the Legendary Player, Coach
OXFORD, Miss. – If there is one family name synonymous with Ole Miss Baseball, it is “Kessinger.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was brothers Kevin and Keith. Most recently it was Grae, the three-year starter out of the famous Oxford High class of 2016. But the story of the Kessinger legacy all began when a two-sport Arkansan came to Oxford in 1962. Don Kessinger played basketball and baseball at Ole Miss, garnering All-SEC and All-America honors in both sports.
On Thursday night, April 22, Ole Miss Baseball paid the ultimate tribute to Kessinger’s contributions to the program and university by retiring his major league jersey number (No. 11) at Swayze Field.
With a record that has stood nearly 60 years, Kessinger’s .400 career batting average as a Rebel remains No. 1 in the school’s record books. After 16 years as a Major Leaguer (11 with the Cubs) which included six All-Star Game appearances and two Gold Glove Awards, Kessinger returned to Oxford and became head coach of the Rebels in 1991, following the great Jake Gibbs.
Kessinger won 185 games during his six years at the helm and during the 1995 season led Ole Miss to its first NCAA Regional berth since 1977. Coach Kessinger, among his many other accolades, has been named an SEC Legend and is a member of the Chicago Cubs, Ole Miss Sports, Mississippi, Arkansas, Chicago and National High School Halls of Fame.
What a moment. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/EZW07Y3pAx
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) April 23, 2021
We recently had the opportunity to speak with some of Kessinger’s former players who described the impact he made on their lives.
A Players’ Coach
Former Rebel standout left fielder Kirk Purdom, who played under both Coach Gibbs and Coach Kessinger, offered his thoughts about his time playing for Kessinger.
“Things just got better every single year that DK was coach,” Purdom began. “He was certainly a player’s coach. You could go to him with anything. You started seeing some more talented players. We started getting some better recruiting classes every year when DK was there. He elevated the program a little bit, brought some new energy to the program. We started feeling more confidence that we could win in the SEC.”
Purdom tells a funny story about a time the Rebs played Southern Miss.
“We were down in Southern Miss, and man we never played good down at Southern Miss. I don’t know why, but we’d go down there, and of course they had a great ball club too. And we got beat, and we went back and showered in their basketball stadium. Mark Ford was our manager at the time. We get on the bus and everybody’s upset—coach ain’t too happy, either. We get on the bus, turn around, and start driving back to Oxford. We get probably 20 miles outside of town and somebody says, ‘Where’s Mule?’ (Mule was Mark Ford’s nickname.) We had left him at the stadium as he was cleaning up, so we turned around, went back and picked him up. He got on that bus, and he let us all have it,” Purdom said laughing.
When talking with Purdom, it is obvious what Coach Kessinger means to the former player.
“DK always had a positive attitude and a positive spirit. He helped me a lot. He’s just a good Christian man that loves his family, loves his former players, and loves Ole Miss. We’re just so excited to see number up on the wall with Jake (Gibbs), I think those two guys set the bar pretty high for Ole Miss Athletics.“
Kirk Purdom on Don Kessinger
There is no doubt Purdom’s career at Ole Miss was indelibly shaped by Coach Kessinger. “DK always said this: ‘Keep playing the game until it’s no longer fun, and when it’s no longer fun, quit playing the game.”
Kessinger’s loyalty to his players is something Purdom still recalls. “He never gave up on a player; he would support you no matter what the issue would be, whether it was academics, or going through a bad run on the field,” the former player noted. “It was three really fun years playing with DK. At the end of the day, we were all one big family,” he recalled fondly.
David Blevins, who joined professional baseball after his time at Ole Miss, also shared his thoughts with us on Coach Kessinger.
“I think from being recruited by him and playing for him, his humility is what really stood out,” Blevins began.
“You knew he was a former big league player and that gave him instant credibility when he would give you instruction, but he never let on how big of a deal he was during his playing days. I remember walking in to his office on my recruiting trip and seeing his White Sox jersey hanging on the wall —that was how I found out he was a player-manager in the bigs. And after being on the team that first year, it was like any other player-coach relationship and you’d almost forget about him being a former big leaguer,” Blevins said.
“Then I’ll never forget one day he picked up someone’s glove randomly at practice and started taking ground balls at shortstop. And instantly you were reminded by the way he moved on the field — even at over 50 years old — that he was a former All-Star who had played for 16 years at a level that most of us could only dream of.”
David Blevins on Coach Kessinger
Former World Series champion and Rebel All-American center fielder David Dellucci talked about Coach Kessinger during the television broadcast on ESPNU where Kessinger’s number was retired. “He was a great human and a father figure and a mentor to us,” Dellucci said.
Dellucci, who describes the Kessinger family as “the Mannings of baseball,” talked about what Coach taught him.
“I learned how to play the game the right way,” he said. “He coached at the college level the same way he managed at the big league level. He expected you to respect the game and each other and be a man. He’s a phenomenal human being. Not only was he a great athlete, he was just the kindest, most loving person to his family, and to his friends and his former team he had throughout the years.”
David Dellucci on Don Kessinger
Coach Mike Bianco recalls Kessinger’s kindness
Current head coach Mike Bianco recently shared a special story about his relationship with Kessinger.
“When I got here in 2000, and he was still working a little bit in the athletic department, he came over and was so kind to me, and he didn’t have to be,” Bianco began. “I’ll never forget . . . (my second year), we got off to a great start, at one point we were ranked No. 6 in the country, but then things just really fell apart the last month of the season. We went from sixth in the country to not making the SEC tournament (back when they only took eight teams), and we just kind of fell off the face of the earth, practically,” Bianco explained.
“At that time, here I am, I became head coach at 33, so I am 34 years old, trying to figure it out. And I remember one day in my office a couple weeks after the season, he came in, unannounced, shook my hand and said, ‘I just wanted to come by and tell you to hang in there. I think you’re a heck of coach. You’ve done a wonderful job. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s your guys were playing great and you won a lot of games. Then all of a sudden, your guys just hit a spell where you just didn’t play well — and it’s unfortunate it just happened the last few weeks of the season. You’re going to do great here. Keep your head up,'” Bianco recalled.
“He didn’t have to do that that. That meant the world to me, and the truth of the matter is I really needed that. I needed somebody that I respected, that knew baseball, to say something to me. That was one of the lowest points of my coaching career. (Kessinger) kind of picked me up. This is the coach in him. He didn’t have to do that . . . he came over to say some really nice words to a young coach who really needed it at the time.“
Coach Mike Bianco on Coach Kessinger’s support
Coach Kessinger has now rightly taken his place “on the wall” along with Coach Jake Gibbs. Many congratulations to Coach Kessinger and his family on a much-deserved honor.