BINGER — Kirk Wilson wasn't sure what Reggie Willits' answer would be when he drove to Willits' cattle ranch.
Wilson, Binger-Oney's school superintendent, went to see the former major league outfielder in May, asking if he would take over Binger's once-elite baseball program.
“Didn't have a clue if he would be interested at all,” Wilson said. “With every position we have here at our school we try to get the best person available.
“I knew we had a former major leaguer 10 miles down the road, so I figured I'd start there.”
Willits, a Fort Cobb native, retired from professional baseball in 2012. Willits thought he had escaped the pressure, but he is back in a similar pressure situation as Binger-Oney's coach in hope of revitalizing the success dating back to the days of Johnny Bench.
But Willits doesn't have just a rebuilding project on his hands; he has a complete overhaul, complete with the prospect of ballpark renovations and the pressure of returning a baseball-crazed community to prominence.
“I don't really know how to describe it, but I guess I would kind of describe it like OU's football when they were kind of down in their years,” the former Oklahoma and Los Angeles Angels outfielder said. “But that tradition was already there for the guys of the past and it's the same here.
“It's a baseball town, and they want it to be an elite program again.”
The school has five state titles, the first dating back to Bench's junior season in 1964.
It's been 22 years since Binger-Oney last won a baseball state championship, though, and last spring featured just six victories.
With that in mind, Wilson set out in search of a coach capable of returning the winning ways. Willits, 31, was a logical but bold choice.
Willits' only previous coaching experience was coaching his sons' Little League teams.
His older sister, Wendi Wells, had gone through a similar transition. She moved from a WNBA career to eventually coaching Shawnee's girls basketball team to unprecedented prominence, including a state title in 2012 and a runner-up finish this season. So, Willits went to her for advice.
Wells told Willits to be patient and mindful of each situation, while reminding him not every high school athlete has the same mindset they did. She also told him to rely on his veteran assistant Gerald Wall.
He's taken heed to his sister's words, and the Bobcats appear to even be ahead of schedule with a 10-6 record and No. 4 ranking in the Class A coaches poll.
“You can actually look forward to a game,” senior Kelton Green said. “Last year you're just going into a game like, ‘Man, I hope we play good.' Now it's like I know we're going to play good.”
Last spring, Willits turned down three offers from major league clubs to compete for a roster spot after an injury-filled 2011 campaign. He even turned down professional coaching opportunities, instead choosing to remain home with his family.
“Chasing my dream is kind of over with,” Willits said.
Now Willits is not only rebuilding on the field, he is part of the movement to actually rebuild the field.
On April 2, the community will vote on a one-cent tax increase. If it passes, renovations will be made to Johnny Bench Field, while incorporating the Johnny Bench Museum — currently located in city hall — into it. The state-of-the-art facilities totaling anywhere from $400,000 to $600,000, will breathe new life into the program and community, possibly adding even more pressure.
“One thing I told them is we'll do our best to live up to it,” Willits said. “We're going to work as hard as we can from a baseball-program standpoint.”
That's all the community expects.
“There's a lot of tradition there, and it kind of went by the wayside for a few years,” Wilson said. “So we are on the right track and Mr. Willits has expanded on that.
“Bringing the knowledge of a major leaguer in, you just can't put a price on that.”