Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2019

Cover Interview: Dan McDonnell, University of Louisville

By Adam Revelette
Inside Pitch CoverSince taking over the program in 2007, Dan McDonnell’s Louisville Cardinals have notched more wins than anyone else in the country, reaching new heights in 2019. Last year Louisville won 51 games, captured the ACC Atlantic Division title for the fourth time in five years, and made the deepest postseason run in program history.

Inside Pitch: What’s your experience with the ABCA been like?

DM: I’ve been to every convention for 28 years in a row, and I still rely heavily on some of the principles that I’ve learned at those clinics, from Skip Bertman, John Scolinos, Gordie Gillespie and so many others. It’s just about a growth mindset as coaches; once we think we’ve got it all figured out and we don’t need to learn, we’re in trouble. Just like we preach to our athletes, we have to learn, we have to grow.

The ABCA is an opportunity to grow and hear from many, many coaches who did it before us. The opportunity to give back as a board member now is such an honor. I’m in charge of the speakers at the Convention this year and so geeked up to introduce these guys. Harold Reynolds is coming this year to talk about base running, and I told him, “I want something deep, give me details, give me something I can take with me.” And his exact words were, “I’m going to kill it.” We have Brett Butler doing bunting. I went on a SCORE trip to the Dominican and had breakfast with him one morning and I was so fired up when I got back to the Louisville, I had these new strategies and phrases and techniques.

IP: So in addition to learning and growing as a coach, what are the philosophies you have on player development?
DM: I probably don’t enjoy the present as much as I should. I have a recruiting mind and I am always preparing for the future. I think it’s healthy though, because it forces us to get the next group ready. That’s where we take so much pride in our program- player development. So, whether a guy got red shirted coming off an injury, didn’t play a lot as a freshman, or was just behind an All-American- and I don’t want to say I don’t fully enjoy the All-Americans- but I think players would look back and say, “I think he coached the back-up more than he coached the starter.”

Once the starter is an everyday guy and he’s a dude, he doesn’t need me as much. I’m still going to coach him, but I’m just going to make sure he’s feeling good, in a good place, if I see something I’ll tell him. I’m really going to coach the guy behind him. I’m going to be on that guy because he’s not the everyday shortstop. And so I can stay on him, coach him, force him to make adjustments, work, work, work, so when it is his time he’s ready. And that’s where I look at Coach [Roger] Williams and I look at Coach [Eric] Snyder and Coach [Adam] Vrabel, they probably do that as well as anybody in the country.

We take a lot of pride in the fact that we are the winningest program in the country in the past 13 years. Obviously none of our players are able to stay here for 13 years, most of them are here for three. I want them to be part of a run that includes championships, hosting regionals and super regionals, and Omaha. The coolest thing is we haven’t won the national championship. So even though the bar is very high, when these kids show up, it’s like all right, still have a chance to be one of the best teams to ever play here because no team here has won it all… yet.

IP: How do you approach the Fall practice period?

DM: Every year, you get this new group of players that you’re trying to teach your system. And you want to keep it going- you don’t want to have the setback. You feel like you owe it to these kids that only get three or four years with us; I don’t ever want one of their three years to be one of those rebuilding-type years. These guys are coming to Louisville for the player development and for that team success. I want them to enjoy the fruits of what so many guys before them have enjoyed. It’s like you hit the reset button and you start from scratch, from day one, every fall.

You never just kick your feet up and go, “Whoo, we got it made now!” It’s like Groundhog Day, it’s a new group of kids each year, and maybe the last group got to do it, but that’s got nothing to do with this group. Let’s see what you can do with this group right here and that’s what keeps me going.

IP: On the time frame when you guys commit and sign high school kids, how do you work them through the draft process?

DM: It depends on who you are. Jordon Adell was the 10th pick of the draft in 2017, committed to us as a ninth grader. Jarred Kelenic was the fifth pick in the 2018 draft, committed to us as a ninth grader. Nick Schnell committed to us as a ninth grader and was a first-round pick in 2018.

We want to be a springboard for kids when they commit to us. We give them academic peg points to shoot for, don’t be average. You can come here and reach these peg points before you get here, which I think parents love. We’re also a sounding board for baseball development. We don’t want to coach you right now, but if we see or hear something we don’t like, now we are another powerful voice in your ear. We have a lot to sell in college baseball and with college education, so we really don’t go up against pro ball, unless you’re a lottery pick, and it’s hard to turn that down.

If a kid blows up and he’s a superstar and he’s a lottery pick, I’m the first one congratulating the family. And I talk to those kids as if almost like they showed up to our program. I’m hoping Jordon Adell becomes for Louisville what A-Rod is to Miami. He’s part of our family, he’s from our city, he’s a fan of Louisville, he wanted to come here.

I didn’t have to get on him much. My comment to him after he committed was, “The best players win, so now you’re expected to win.” And when he made the state finals, he called me up and was so excited. I’d kind of pounded that home to him, “If you’re one of the best players in the state, then you should win, your team should win.” And he took that to heart.

If you’re not a lottery pick, we’re just talking the law of averages. We’re looking at numbers, we’re showing the value of the education, the one opportunity you have to be a student athlete. Hopefully pro ball can be bigger and better in three years. We don’t ever don’t ever talk signing bonus with a kid. I can’t promise you signing bonus will be bigger and better in three years, but we think you’ll be more ready physically and mentally. So maybe the round will go up, maybe the signing bonus will go up, but that’s not what we really preach.

IP: How do you lay out a practice with your team and all the different moving parts that you want to have?

DM: You have to trust your coaches. I talk to Roger Williams about what he wants to get done with the pitchers, and with Eric Snyder and Adam Vrable with the hitters. And I consider what I want to get done with defense and baserunning. I take input and I map it out.

I believe in some form of BP every day. So based on that, if hitters are going to hit every day, then shouldn’t infielders field ground balls and outfielders field fly balls every day? And then shouldn’t we do something like team defense, first and third defense, pick offs, run downs, base running every day? Then there’s individual defensive drills, team defense, base running, BP, station work with the pitchers and the hitters, there’s defense throughout practice, and then I like to add some form of competition.

I’m a competition guy, I just love to compete. Whether it’s hit and run drill or base running or a fly ball drill- we try to have some competition. At the end of practice every day where there’s a winner and there’s a loser, or maybe everybody wins or everybody loses if we don’t catch every fly ball. But there’s always a punishment for the loser, run more or clean up or something. We put a quote on the practice schedule every day and I randomly call one guy up and if that guy doesn’t know the quote, the whole team has to run. And to me, there’s a competitiveness to that.

I got that from Dean Smith’s book. I copied his theme for the day and quote on the practice schedule and I thought, “if they compete every day in practice, why aren’t we?” Coach Smith also wrote about how competitive Michael Jordan is, so we literally have a Michael Jordan award now. We total up every competition in the entire fall, every scrimmage, every controlled scrimmage, every hit and run drill, every hit game, you name it, every competition we have. And at the end of the fall, we have a plaque and everything, and we present the Michael Jordan award- “Who won the most in the fall.” There’s something about that competitive gene that you want your athletes to have.

IP: Is the competitive gene something you can develop?

DM: Gene is one word for it, but I probably should have called it a muscle. That’s something I got from the Jay Bilas book- toughness is a muscle. You’re not born tough. You might come from a tough background, but you’re not born tough. It’s easy for us as coaches to go, “Oh, he’s not tough, or he’s not competitive.” But wait a second, you have them for three or four years- what did you do? Why didn’t you get them tougher or more competitive? So yes, you can teach kids how to compete. You can teach them to hate losing.

IP: How important is body language?

DM: So important… there’s a TED Talk with Amy Cuddy on body language, and it’s awesome. She talks about the power of body language- it’s how you stand, how you sit, how you can ‘fake it till you make it,’ how you can actually put up a front physically and convince your mind of things.

I’m fascinated by the power of the mind. I mean, what are we really doing for these kids ultimately? Of course we’re trying to prepare them for pro ball and we’ll brag about the guys who make it to the big leagues. But at the end of the day, a lot of them aren’t going to have a ten year big league career, but they’re all going to have to wake up and go to work. They’ll all have a chance to find an excuse or choose to be reliable. Life is going to be real and there’s going to be challenges. How competitive are you going to be? How tough are you going to be?

I find as much satisfaction in that as a guy making it to the big leagues. You just want these guys to be their best and you hope the lessons they learn in your program are life lessons they can take with them. We have mandatory class attendance. If you miss class, you and your buddies have to serve the consequence. You don’t show up to surgery and you’re laying on that table and you don’t hear “Uh, Dr. Smith is going to be late this morning, he slept in”. That doesn’t happen in the real world, not to winners. So you try to ingrain life strategies into these kids that yeah, it translates to success on the field, but I’d like to think we’re doing way more than just trying to help these kids win a game.

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