Hall of Fame Spotlight: Pete Varney

TEXT: Hall of Fame Spotlight: Pete Varney
IMAGES: Pete Varney swinging a bat; Varney talking with a player on the mound; Varney at the plate with an umpire

The summer is here, but it's never too early to start thinking about Homecoming 2021! With an unprecedented Hall of Fame class of legendary coaches set to be inducted on October 9, we'll be spotlighting the class throughout the summer. First up, Doug Stark '94 profiles coach Pete Varney!

Sunday, October 1, 1967 dawned a beautiful day in Boston as the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins faced off tied in the standings on the last day of the regular season. The winner would meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. For Boston, this season was the Impossible Dream after decades of futility. The last time the Sox reached the World Series was 1946 after World War II with Ted Williams in his prime.

Seated in the stands that days with 35,000 of his closest Red Sox friends was Pete Varney, an 18-year-old ready to begin his Harvard University academic and athletic career. A multi-sport athlete in baseball, football, and basketball, growing up as one of nine children, Varney had spent the summer of 1967 playing baseball for the Massachusetts Envelope team in the suburban Boston Park Baseball League. A baseball-loving kid watching the improbable Red Sox in a summer that forever changed the relationship between New England’s fandom and the Red Sox could not have been a better experience.

A few years later, Varney reflected on that day at Fenway, “I was sitting in the bleachers there in 1967 when the Red Sox won it all. I said to myself then I’d do anything to be a part of baseball. Now that I am, some days when I’m running in the outfield, I take a look at the bleachers and see a lot of kids who are probably thinking the same thing.”

Few can say that they have followed their dreams, but Pete Varney did, spending a life in baseball as a player, teacher, and mentor. As Brandeis University prepares to induct a new class of Hall of Famers in October for their achievement both on and off the field, Pete Varney stands tall in that pantheon of success.

During his time at Harvard, Varney excelled in multiple sports, even making his mark on football. On November 23, 1968, Varney caught one of the most memorable passes in the long-standing history of Harvard-Yale football. With time expired on the Harvard Stadium clock, Varney grabbed a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Frank Champi to end the game in a 29-29 tie. The game was immortalized the next day in the Crimson newspaper Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Despite his singular achievement in football, baseball was Varney’s first love. As a senior, he led Harvard to the 1971 NCAA Division I College World Series where the Crimson finished fifth in the nation. For his efforts that year, he was named first team All-American. He was drafted seven times by major league teams between the years 1966 and 1971. Three times he was the number one pick overall. Finally, after graduating from Harvard in 1971, Varney signed with the Chicago White Sox, who drafted him with the first choice in the June secondary phase. He went on to play seven years of professional baseball and spent parts of four years in the big leagues with the White Sox and the Atlanta Braves.

Towards the end of his playing days, he began to think about life after his playing days. Coaching seemed a natural fit. After replying to a newspaper advertisement in the 1976-77 offseason, he coached the junior varsity basketball team at Littleton (Massachusetts) High School. He repeated that experience a year later, 1978-79, as well as assuming a teaching position in Wayland. As we have seen with Varney, though, baseball was his first love, so he sought a career coaching baseball and found his start at Narragansett High School in Templeton, Massachusetts. After three years, the head baseball coach’s position opened at Brandeis so in 1982 Varney began what would become a Hall of Fame career.

Immediately, Varney made his mark as the Judges compiled a 23-13-1 record in 1982, his first season, and earned a berth in the NCAA Regionals. With success that first season, Varney kept his foot on the pedal over the next 34 years.

His career accomplishments speak for themselves.

He won more games than any other coach of a single team in Brandeis history. He became the fourth Division III coach in New England history with 700 career victories after defeating Worcester State University, 7-2, on April 7, 2015. After his 700th win, he stated, “It has been a wonderful journey watching all the young men arrive on campus as freshmen, and then witnessing their development into mature, successful men.”

Varney's final career record was 705-528-6 upon his retirement following the 2015 season. He guided the Judges to 21 postseason berths, including two ECAC titles and 12 NCAA tournament bids. Varney led the 1999 squad to the New England Regional Championship, only the second Brandeis baseball team to advance to the Division III World Series.

His success was recognized by his peers. Varney was named New England Division III Coach of the Year three times (1984, 87, 99) and Greater Boston League Coach of the Year five times. Varney spent three summers (1988-90) as the head baseball coach of the Cotuit Kettleers in the nationally-known Cape Cod League. In 2018, he was inducted in the New England Intercollegiate Baseball Association Hall of Fame.

In addition to his victories, Varney coached three American Baseball Coaches Association All-Americans, one CoSIDA Academic All-American and 12 student-athletes who went on to play professionally. Twelve Brandeisians he coached were signed by major league baseball clubs, including Nelson Figueroa '98. The Judges' only Major Leaguer, pitched parts of nine seasons in the big leagues. More recently, Bryan Lambert '05 was signed as a free agent and spent two years in the Washington Nationals system. His players were named to All-New England teams 50 times and All-University Athletic Association (UAA) squads more than 100 times, including four UAA Players of the Year and six Rookies of the Year. Varney will be joining six of his former players in the Brandeis Hall of Fame.

Varney’s influence extends to the proverbial coaching tree as several of his former players have become highly successful coaches. Eric Podbelski ’91 has built a successful program at Wheaton College, bringing the Lyons to the Division III World Series in 2021. Michael Connolly ’94 has been at Bowdoin College for more than 15 years and is the winningest coach in Polar Bear history. Bryan Haley ’99 served five years as an assistant at Division I Columbia before getting the head job at Endicott College. Cliff Smith ’01 spent four years in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim minor league system before spending a decade as head coach at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Yet, despite all the accolades what stands out is how his former players view him and the lessons he instilled in them.

The most important lesson that Varney has passed down has little to do with balls and strikes or hitting the other way; the key to success is mental toughness. Whether it's keeping emotions in check at practice, in the dugout or on the field, the sport is won or lost in your head, according to his former players and assistant coaches.

"The trait that I've tried to emulate is to be even-keeled during games," said Podbelski, a five-time New England Coach of the Year at Wheaton who ranks fourth all-time at Brandeis in pitching wins and innings pitched. "[I] focus on the decisions that need to be made, rather than getting caught up in the moment."

"Coach Varney took me from a very raw pitcher with potential and crafted me into a fierce competitor who was prepared to compete against any team, in any situation, and succeed," said Haley, the program's career leader in pitching appearances. "I truly believe that Coach Varney is one of the best teachers of the game of baseball, at any level."

Derek Carlson, Class of 1991, played under Coach Varney and succeeded him six years ago as Brandeis’s head coach, after spending the previous 13 seasons at Roger Williams. His biggest takeaway from Varney is the notion of respect. “Respect your teammates, opponents, and the game. You respect the players who came before you, the university, and your family and act accordingly.”

As he further reflected on Varney, the theme of consistency emerged. According to Carlson, “Under [Coach] Varney, no game was any more important than any other. It was consistency of effort and focus. He approached every game and every season the same way. It was consistency of excellence.”

For more than 30 years, Coach Varney showed up for his team, instilling in them a work ethic that championed consistency, effort, respect, and putting yourself in the best possible position to succeed. As a result, Coach Varney is receiving the highest achievement in Brandeis athletics—induction into the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame.