Inside Pitch Magazine, January/February 2021

Cover Interview: Spencer Allen

Modeling Diversity in College Coaching 

By Adam Revelette

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverSpencer Allen is entering his sixth season as the head coach at Northwestern in 2021. In 2017, Allen coached the Wildcats to their first Big Ten Tournament since 2010, advancing all the way to the championship game, one win away from the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1957. Allen came to Northwestern after serving as an assistant at Illinois, where he helped the Fighting Illini set a school record with 50 wins, win its first-ever NCAA Regional, and earn a postseason national seed for the second time ever in the Big Ten. Prior to Illinois, Allen worked a pair of stints at Creighton (2005-06 and 2013- 14) and has prior experience at Washington State and Purdue, as a scout in the Detroit Tigers organization, and as a volunteer assistant at Iowa. He began his coaching career at Edmonds Community College in 2002, and played at Iowa State from 1999-2001.

Inside Pitch: You have a very interesting coaching journey that has led you to Northwestern…

Spencer Allen: I’ve been very lucky. I started as a junior college coach, and that was just a great opportunity to understand development; seeing a kid come in as a freshman, and then observing how much they develop and mature in just one year. Another big stroke of luck was my stop at the University of Iowa, when Jack Dahm gave me my first opportunity to get into coaching Division I. He taught me how to run a program, how to interact with boosters, run a practice and truly how to shape the values of your program.

Each stop I made I picked up so many things, but I also learned what doesn't quite fit my personality. I think that that's important to admit when something is not quite “you.” I can't be someone else.

IP: Another observation about your stops is the location…are you a cold weather guy?

SA: I'm officially labeled! I'm going to take the Fifth on that, but trust me, I love the warm weather. Obviously being outside is important, being able to stay outside all fall. And, there have been springs where we've started and stayed outside. But we’ve had the other way too, when your first game is the first time you set foot outside. The fall is just so important, to make sure that your incoming guys have a great feel for the speed of the game, the importance of the little things like fly ball priority and communication. For the most part, everything else you can get done – with the pitcher, batter, catcher, your infield, bunt defense and those types of things – you can get done inside. But I think the fall just really gives you that opportunity to lay that groundwork for those other team-type settings.

IP: How have you handled your leadership role as an African American head baseball coach amidst the societal challenges our country continues to face?

SA: It starts with really trying to educate and re-educate myself, and that's been challenging, because sometimes when you really look at history, there's some ugliness to our past. But there are also a lot of great things. So I think it's that balancing act of not trying to push away or hide our truths as a country and as a nation and where we are right now, but also trying to find some common ground. We’ve embraced the challenge of how to talk about this. I know a lot of coaches an their players are diving into it, continuing the conversation, looking for actionable things they feel like they can do to make a difference. That can be tough, but I think people are working towards trying to gain a better understanding.

It has really helped me gain perspective in what I do. I think sometimes you can sit here and go, “okay, I'm just a baseball coach, that’s pretty insignificant.” So I try to reframe what I do; I have the opportunity to build, shape and develop young men. That's my job. Obviously, the vehicle is Division I athletics through Northwestern baseball, but we understand that it's a game, and there's just a lot more to it than just the wins and losses.

IP: What are the steps to improving minority participation with playing and coaching baseball?

SA: Ultimately we need some decision-makers to take some perceived chances. Everyone can be guilty of going with what you’re comfortable with. It just takes some more people to say, "You know what? I don't know this guy as well, but his resume looks good. His references are good. I’m going to take a chance." And I think that's how it's going to improve steadily, as well as continue to get better minority participation in youth baseball. It is getting better. There are more African-American kids playing, no doubt about it. So that is going to be a little bit of a slower shift, because as those kids get in and graduate through and finish their playing careers, hopefully some of them decide to get into coaching. And then matched with a mentality that, "Hey, we're going to take a chance," I think that's how you start to see a shift. I think we're going to look up in 10 years and we're going to be better than where we are sitting here in 2020.

IP: Beyond the obvious, how would you recommend that coaches recruit more African-American players?

SA: You're not going to go [instantly] from zero to 60, so to speak, so there has to be a progression. The first thing to do is look at your school or institution. Does your university offer any advantages in terms of need-based or minority aid? If so, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, don’t make the assumption that all African American kids – or whatever diverse population you're trying to get into – can't afford your school. That's not necessarily the case. So as far as finding ways into it, again, it goes back to getting a little bit uncomfortable and diving in there.

IP: Regarding how you spend your athletics aid, is there a formula that you try to stick to in terms of pitching, left- or right handed, or any particular position?

SA: I don't think there's necessarily a set philosophy on that. When there’s a really good relationship or mutual fit, that's the one or two players a year that we'll get on the “early side.” We really try to be the best late. We want to get the guy that pops up late that's trending the right way. That works well for us because, number one, we don’t want to have kids de-commit, and number two, we want to make sure it’s a fit academically. So we really try to be the best late in the process, find the kids that are trending up, that are projecting. Scholarship-wise, I don't think we necessarily have any trends; some years we're a little more pitching-heavy, other years we're a little bit more position-player-heavy.

IP: What are your thoughts on the act of de-committing a player?

SA: Parents, as the adults in the room, have to understand and admit that this happens in some places, and they can't take a mentality of “this is not going to happen to my son.” I tell kids all the time, "Listen, I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't go to this school because they over-recruit, butI need you to look at the facts and how many kids have transferred. And if that's the case, then hey, there's a chance that could happen to you. Or a kid’s scholarship could get dropped before they get to the NLI. Just look at the facts.”

I’m willing to bet that 99% of coaches don't want to be in that situation. They just don't. That's never a fun call to make. I'm not going to sit here and lie and say I haven't had to make that call. So I think that's one of the things now that I do enjoy; I don't have to make those calls unless there was something that was just fraudulent by a prospective student-athlete from an academic or ethical standpoint.

IP: You've had several different head coaches along the way, and certainly you want to make their job easier by executing what they asked you to do at a high level, but you've also got to figure out what your identity is as a coach as well. So you're taking bits and pieces from each place? Or do you feel like you have some core values or foundational aspects of your coaching identity that you've stuck to?

SA: Definitely! For example, I would say my time at Washington State really helped me with recruiting in the PAC-12 and going up against Oregon State in the Northwest. Understanding just how the recruiting game truly works is so important. I think I definitely have a good foundation in terms of coaching philosophy, but I want to have a growth mindset and be open to change. Every coach has to set their foundational, core principles, but it’s also your job to constantly challenge those.

IP: What is the right way to pursue a job in terms of getting an interview?

SA: I've always told my assistants – whatever they think advancement may be in their careers – “go for it.” I just want them to be really upfront and honest. So it makes it easier in some sense for me just to have those conversations. Obviously as a head coach, you want that consistency with your staff, things are just easier in that way. But as an assistant who has been at a lot of different places, it can be tough. I can't say every job I've taken that the head coach has been happy for me that I've left, and you just try to do it in the best way.

My advice would be to communicate with your head coach. Ultimately you have to make a decision on what you feel is best for your career. And sometimes grinding it out where you're at for eight to 10 years may be the best for your development and advancement, even though it can be hard to see at the time.

IP: At what point of the year are you evaluating and making any changes to the program?

SA: That's a great question. I think internally you're always having those conversations, because everything isn’t always so rosy. There are some tough conversations to be had. It’s a challenge when you have to decide whether to punt on something or regroup and continue to trust the process. My assistants Josh Reynolds and Dusty Napoleon deserve a lot of credit for that. There have been times I wanted to change things up with recruiting or a player’s role, and they’ve been able to keep me patient and it’s really paid off. Having the ability to learn from them on a daily basis and make some tough decisions with their guidance is really how I try to go about it.

IP: Explain your overall experience as a minority coach – how you got involved and stayed in the game.

SA: I think anyone wants to be recognized just for what they do and not necessarily by how they look, but right on the other side of that spectrum is the importance of embracing and understanding my role as a minority coach in a predominantly white sport – and profession – for that matter. These times have forced me to look at a lot of different things in terms of who I am, not necessarily as a role model, but someone people can look to and say, "Hey, I can do this."

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.