A former player, coach, umpire, groundskeeper, bus driver and more, Jack Warren is owner of Cornbelt Sports the host of Top Coach, an interview podcast with baseball coaches, about baseball coaches, and aimed at baseball coaches.
Top Coach (www.topcoachpodcast.com; @TopCoachPodcast) provides a valuable outlet for baseball coaches and fans that is both entertaining and educational. Inside Pitch recently caught up with Warren to chat about his unique experience.
Inside Pitch: Explain your baseball background and how you developed your interest in coaching.
I was always the youngest person in my class, the smallest. I had to work harder and study harder at the game, so the coaching part came naturally because of that. I got my first opportunity as a junior in high school. I was an assistant coach at the local little league and the head coach was a state representative in Indiana, so he wasn’t able to make it to most of the practices. That’s where I got my first taste of it.
I’ve coached high school baseball and women’s basketball and several youth teams along the way. I also umpired for five years, which paid better and had a lot better hours and I didn’t have to rake anything! All that kind of led into where I’m at today with what I do.
IP: How did Cornbelt Sports and Top Coach come about?
Cornbelt Sports was a local website that covered baseball in and around Central Illinois, where we have three colleges, one minor league team, and 15-17 high schools. It was a labor of love- there was no expectation that we were going to get a return on it- and an outlet for our passion for baseball.
The direct link to Top Coach was probably five years of a podcast that we did called “Cornball- Diamond Chatter with Tom and Jack.” We’d meet at a local eating establishment every Wednesday from February through September and interview local baseball people. That included guys like Mark Kingston (former head coach at Illinois State, current head coach at South Florida), Dennis Martel (Illinois Wesleyan, the 2010 D-III National Champions), Nate Metzger (Heartland Community College) and many other baseball people.
I was out walking the dog last summer thinking about all of the coaches I’d been interviewing, and it hit me: why not take this nationwide, even international? I’d met so many coaches and made friends over the years, so it was a natural outlet. I called Tracy Smith (former head coach at Indiana, current head coach at Arizona State) and that started the ball rolling.
IP: How do you come up with your questions?
In the beginning, I always had a grand idea of these homerun questions. Thank goodness that I can still learn pretty quickly at my advanced age! I look back at that first interview with Tracy Smith and can feel the direction I’m trying to go, but quickly discover from his answers that some of my questions had to go. I was spending way too much time on things like ‘where did you develop your love for baseball?’ and things that might be interesting if it was a multi-part interview, but I really came to determine that the best way was to spend about one-third of the time on the background and two-thirds on philosophy and things like that.
Depending on the place, I want to talk about the weather, starting a program, staffing, or facilities. I would say about 60-70% are questions that could apply to any of the coaches, and I try to come up with the other 30% based on the bio and what I’m reading about the coach.
IP: What are similarities across the board with coaches? Differences?
It’s interesting, the similarities jump right out at you. You have to do so much yourself with baseball, regardless of the level. For example if you want your field to look good, you’re going to be doing a lot of it yourself. Being creative and raising funds is another similarity; most everyone is having the barbecues and golf outings to raise money – it’s not like the difference between Nick Saban and a D-III coach in football.
Some of the differences start to come in with the staffing. Division I has a little more latitude because they can pay their coaches to actually make a living. Recruiting efforts are the same, but what folks are allowed to do is much different- flexibility, rules with interacting contacting players, on-campus rules. Facilities are also a huge difference; there’s a big divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s.’
IP: How do you pick your coaches?
In the beginning it was no secret, I was trying to start with a bang and get the biggest names possible. Also, it becomes kind of an entrée with getting other guys. No matter who I ask now; once they find out that Paul Mainieri, Rick Jones, Andy Lopez and others have been on, they’re in. The one thing I’m really focused on it having a wide variety of coaches; high school coaches, volunteer assistant coaches.
I don’t want to just get all Division I head coaches, because most other coaches can’t relate to what they’re doing. It’s important to get junior college coaches, high school and Division III coaches involved. I figure my job is to serve all coaches and try to provide content that’s really going to help them out.
IP: What’s the future of Top Coach looking like?
Right now, it’s really growing a lot quicker than what I ever imagined. With our partnership with Burbank Sport Nets, we have revenue coming in. I’ve been very careful about advertisers, and have turned down probably seven or eight so far. If the coaches trust me and I’m building up rapport with them and I throw up a gambling site for an advertisement, then it would not be a good fit.
I’m trying to recruit somebody to do softball, because that’s a natural progression for Top Coach. I’ve helped a couple people out launching softball websites and I hate to admit it, but those people are way more passionate than baseball people!
As coaches give us feedback on the types of things they’re wanting, we’ll be moving in those directions to help coaches out; seminars, conferences, things like that. In fact, we do have a conference that’s in the early planning stages. It’ll be in Fernandina Beach, Florida and we’re planning on having a more intimate, roundtable, Q&A format with some very recognizable names.
IP: What has impressed you the most about the coaches that have impressed you the most? Any advice for young coaches?
Here’s the deal. Coaches have always been an important part of my life, since early on, but the one thing that has blown me away is how giving coaches are. For anybody reading the article right now, they know what I’m talking about. When they’re at the ABCA Convention, no matter who you run into, they’ll stop and talk to you for five, ten, even thirty minutes. Once I tell coaches that I’m interviewing that their primary audience is going to be other coaches, it changes everything. They all have that sense of ‘that’s where I was’ and they want to help. It has just been remarkable. You can listen to any interview I’ve done and you can hear how much coaches want to give back to the profession that’s given them so much. It’s really obvious.