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Inside Pitch Magazine, Winter 2015

Inside Interview: New Places New Faces 

By Adam Revelette

Collage of CoachesWith the ever-changing landscape of the college baseball coaching industry, the winter offers a time to take a look at the ‘coaching carousel’ and check in on how some of our game’s new head coaches are doing at their respective programs. Inside Pitch caught up with some of the best and checked in on how they are implementing their philosophy and foundation at their new landing spots:

Inside Pitch: What are the challenges to moving from one place to another and taking over the reins at a new program?

Matt Deggs: “Most young coaches want to be a head coach one day, so they’re working towards that goal with everything they do. There are so many good coaches out there nowadays, it’s tough because there are only so many head Division I jobs to go around. So when you do get that opportunity, you have to jump on it. It didn’t come as quick for me as I thought it might, but this is an incredible situation at Sam Houston State; we’re very, very blessed to be here at a proven winner and place you can win at a high, high level. The program that Mark Johnson and David Pierce built here speaks for itself, with six regionals in the last eight years and three straight conference championships. There’s a lot to live up to and there are gigantic shoes to fill.”

Cliff Godwin: “It's always hard to leave a place. You normally have relationships with players for 2-3 years before they ever step on campus. Then you get to work with them each day. It was really tough to leave the players and the coaching staff at Ole Miss. Coach Bianco, Carl Lafferty, Stephen Head and Andrew Case weren’t just co-workers, they're friends as well, so it's hard to leave them. The players and coaches were my family. Ole Miss & Oxford will always have a special place in my heart. It’s my second home.”

Chris Lemonis: “The new job was bittersweet in the fact that Louisville was such a special place. I had a chance to coach with my college teammate and best friend [Dan McDonnell], but our whole staff had been together for eight years, with Roger Williams and Brian Mundorf, all the guys we were there with. We won a lot of games, but we had a lot of fun doing it.

Indiana is a dream job in a lot of ways, and I’m very fortunate to be able to stay in the same part of the country in terms of moving. Tracy Smith has done a great job of building the program and getting it to where it was, and our goal is to move the program forward, to keep Indiana at the top of the Big Ten. I think with the last two years with the College World Series, a number four overall seed, and a brand new ballpark, the program is in a great place.

We also feel very fortunate because Indiana is one of the best states in the country to recruit out of, there’s a lot of talent in our state.”

David Pierce: “The immediate challenge is retention of all our players. The players and the game seem to be the easiest part, the tough part is dealing with all the domestic side of a move. Leaving a good place like SHSU and starting over with moves, selling and buying houses are the biggest challenges. The players have always been very receptive to our staff and I’m thankful for that.”

Rick Robinson: “The hardest part of leaving Young Harris college after sixteen years wasn’t leaving behind a program that my family and the administration that hired me had put so much time, effort, and resources into. It wasn't removing myself from the program we had transformed from an obscure, small college in the middle of nowhere into a national power that was recognized in the baseball community as a program that developed young men into major leaguers, as well as quality husbands, fathers, and community leaders. The hardest part was leaving behind a community and church that we invested our lives into, which had, in return, given my wife and I a wonderful place to watch our children grow and mature. The greatest memories are not of the championships we won, but of the relationships we developed over the years in that small town community. That small town community always made this small time coach feel like a big league manager.”

Tracy Smith: “You just evaluate as a professional whether you want to be comfortable or you want to challenge yourself, and with the two moves [from Miami of Ohio to Indiana and then from Indiana to Arizona State], the opportunities were better, so that’s how I looked at it. Are you wired to be comfortable, or are you wired to challenge yourself? At the end of the day, it was a very simple answer. It’s tough moving away from family and friends, but the bigger regret would’ve been sitting back and wondering what could’ve been.”

Inside Pitch: How do you handle the returning players are your new school?

Matt Deggs: “Our plan is pretty simple and we return an older team that has been around the block, they’ve been to three straight regionals, and they know the standards and the expectations. We want to build off of their hard work, build off what they’ve created. We want to take the next step, and have a chance to play in Omaha, and I know that’s possible here.”

Cliff Godwin: “I told everyone when I got here that we're all wearing 'East Carolina' across our chests, so they're all 'my guys' now. It's important to embrace them because we're all part of the East Carolina family, whether or not I recruited them.”

David Pierce: “When I went to SHSU we had all Texas kids with similar backgrounds. Here at Tulane we are a very national university and have kids from all over the country with different backgrounds. The majority of our kids come from Louisiana, Texas, Florida and New Jersey. It’s a fun challenge taking different groups and helping them become one team. Our staff has done a great job of treating players (incoming and existing) with respect, so in turn we have received great respect. I don’t care if someone else recruited our players or we recruited them, they’re ours now and we are going to coach them the best we can.”

Rick Robinson: “When the athletic director hired me, he gave me complete control over my roster. My first day on the job, I spent 9 hours on the phone getting to know the returning players. I thought each conversation was going to take about 8-10 minutes, but each took closer to 35 minutes. It was during those conversations that I realized the players were hungry for a change, and all expressed a desire to embrace the changes I would bring to the program.

I made the decision to keep all but one of the returning players, regardless of how much scholarship money they were receiving or how little they had contributed to the team over their career. I want this to be the best experience the senior players would have in their college baseball careers, and leave with a renewed love for baseball and for University of Tennessee Martin. We did have a couple of underclassmen that decided not to return, but when I stood in front of our new team for the first time, I knew that I was speaking to a group that would be committed to turning this program around.

I have been very fortunate throughout my coaching career to not change jobs as often as most coaches, but I have taken over a couple of programs that needed change. When going into a program that hasn’t been successful, I think it is important to make sure your system is based on coaching the fundamentals. One cannot start by experimenting with things that have not already been proven as effective in previous programs. That is one of the first things I told our team here at the University of Tennessee Martin. This isn’t going to be an experiment to determine if it works. Our system is proven not only through winning games, but by the 43 former players that had the opportunity to continue their careers professionally, five of which made it to the big leagues.”

Inside Pitch: Has your recruiting mindset changed at all?

Matt Deggs: “What we do is recruit speed and strength, we recruit guys who are athletic and naturally competitive and aggressive. We set out from there to try to mold them and shape them into what we want. On the mound, Jay Sirianni knows exactly what we want- guys that attack, want the baseball, field their position, locate fastballs to both sides of the plate and have the makings of an out pitch. Those guys come in all shapes and sizes.

We don’t compromise in recruiting. If you can’t meet those standards, then we’re going to have to keep looking. You flip over every rock until you find your guys; some will take longer than others but we’re committed to [finding our guys], so we’ll stay patient with it and end up with our players.”

David Pierce: “I learned a long time ago from Coach [Wayne] Graham (Rice University) to recruit the middle of the field and when you think you have enough pitching, get more. We’ve continued that philosophy. We do have a more expensive price tag at Tulane so it is our responsibility to use the 11.7 as wisely as possible, tap into the merit aid and continue to explore any type of scholarships that are available to our student athletes.”
“I’m not sure the recruiting has changed very much from a talent stand point. As a junior college, we always had very talented players. This is evident in the fact that during the 12 years of being a JC we placed over 150 players into some of the best D1 programs in the nation. One year, we had 3 former players playing in Omaha on three different teams. And one won a National Championship that same year. We recruited and developed some very talented players. Once we went D2, we were not able to recruit the same talent level, so more of our recruiting centered around projecting and developing high school players.

Rick Robinson: At University of Tennessee Martin, we are trying to do both. We aim to recruit the best JC players possible, and the best HS school players that will develop mentally and physically over the next couple of years. The history of the program doesn’t allow us to recruit the top tier HS players or JC players from Tennessee, because it is hard for them to envision the future of the program being different. They also allow their egos to cloud the decision making process. But realistically speaking, not many players grow up dreaming of playing baseball at University of Tennessee at Martin. That is why I was hired: to change the negative aspects of the program. We are looking for a few good men that understand this vision and want to be a part of the reality that this program will change for the better, and is already changing every day.

That reality, and lots of prayer, is the reason I was able to recruit what I think is one of the best young coaching staffs in the nation. They believe in UT Martin, in me as a head coach, and in our potential to be successful.”

Tracy Smith: “With the addition of the Big Ten Network, we were really extending our recruiting boundaries at Indiana. It’s been a busy month with meeting people, because I had no history with Arizona State or the people in that area. I did have some ties to Southern California, but my first five months on the job have been a hamster wheel, on the go, just meeting people. [Assistant Coach] Ben Greenspan has done a fantastic job getting us up to speed on the west coast, and [Assistant Coach] Brandon Higelin is a west coast guy, so that helps. I still feel like we’re behind, but we’re making a concerted effort to meet as many people as we can on a daily basis.”

Inside Pitch: What have the off-the-field obligations been like as head coach?

Matt Deggs: “The baseball part is about 10, 15, 20 percent of what you do. The rest what you’re doing is building a program, creating a brand and making sure your team’s name is visible in the community. There’s a lot that goes along with that.”

Chris Lemonis: “One of the biggest things is that everything that happens in the program comes through me now, which is a good thing. When I was at Louisville, [Coach Dan McDonnell] was such a great motivator with our kids; that’s the side I want to replicate. We all have to be motivated every day.”

David Pierce: “I coached high school baseball for twelve years and learned a long time ago how to wear many hats. I have so much respect for the high school coach. That’s where I cut my teeth. As an assistant at Houston and Rice I spent most of my time in an area. When I went to SHSU I hired a great staff that could flat coach. They allowed me to manage and see the big picture. I spent a lot of time fundraising and overseeing. I am hands on in all phases of the game, but I trust our coaches. They make me better. The best thing about coming to Tulane is the fact that Rick Dickson (Athletic Director) allowed me to bring my staff with me. My off the field obligations consist of speaking engagements, donor cultivation and just being available for any needs of the program.”

Rick Robinson: “Once again, I really don’t think the off the field components have undergone much change. People that knew our program at Young Harris would say that we ran a D1 program in every aspect- player development, budgets, assistant coaches, speaking engagements and fundraising. I think the difference here is that there is a lot more pressure to fundraise effectively, because if you don’t you won't have sufficient funds to operate a college baseball program at any level. At Young Harris College, the fundraising was extra, it made the program better. Here it just makes the program operate.”

Inside Pitch: How will your gauge your team’s success in year one?

Matt Deggs: “Success for me is becoming the absolute best at the ‘stuff that nobody cares about.’ We want to become really good at controlling what we can control, we get it done in the classroom, and our guys make a difference off the field. That to me is success and if you can control those things and combine that mindset with some talent, I think you’re going to come out on top.”

Cliff Godwin: “It's going to sound cliché, but it's got to be a day to day thing. We open up against Virginia this year and I told our guys that we're not going to be the most talented team on the field that day, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win. Finding a way to get one percent better every day in baseball and in the game or life!”

Chris Lemonis: “Our expectation is to win the Big Ten and to get to the postseason, and that won’t change. That had always been our goal at Louisville too- get to the dance and hopefully play well. [Indiana] lost four All-Americans but we bring a lot of great players back and we feel like we’re going to be in the hunt.”

David Pierce: “I have great expectations for myself, my coaches and our players, but I’ve never been one to write down objective goals. Goals come with a vision and to get there, the team must experience the process from the beginning of the Fall until the last pitch of the Spring. The process and staying the course is the key. We will probably lose a game we think we shouldn’t have and win a few we may not have deserved to win, but we must continue to have a consistent approach every day. If we can maximize players and get them to play to their full potential we won’t have any regrets.”

Rick Robinson: “Great question, and I could give you a lengthy answer about improving each day, working hard to recognize our potential and making sure the players have a great experience. Academic success, Increased attendance and an increase in giving should also be included on that list. All those points are important, but for me, as a head coach, I gauge success just like Tim Corbin, Jack Leggett or Andy Lopez. If I am coaching a game in June rather than watching a game in June, it has been a pretty successful year.”

Tracy Smith: “Results don’t motivate me. It goes back to ‘keeping both feet in today.’ If we make the ultimate prize to win a national championship, I think that sets you up for some pretty extreme highs and some pretty extreme lows. What we try to focus on and what I do as a coach is just trying to be darn good every single day, and if I we do that, the results that everybody wants are going to follow. There’s a lot of good baseball teams out there; you’ve got to be good, but you’ve also got to be lucky. I want to be good because I’m a proud person, it’s not because we have a fan base saying ‘you better do this.’ I try not to factor that in to my emotional state of pressure, it comes from me, because in our sport, you can do everything right and still lose.”

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.
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