Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2021

Cover Interview: Woody Hunt, University of the Cumberlands

Feeding the Appetite for Championships

by Adam Revelette

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverCumberland University’s Woody Hunt retired after the 2021 season, completing his 41st season as the head coach of the Phoenix. At CU, Hunt captured three NAIA national titles (2004, 2010, 2014) a pair of runner-up finishes (1995, 2006), and more than 1,600 wins. Under his leadership, Cumberland punched a dozen tickets to the NAIA World Series, including a run of six in 11 seasons from 2004-14, and won 20 regular season conference championships. 

Hunt’s teams reached the 40-win plateau 24 times and in 20 of his last 27 years, winning 50 games eight times. He’s coached nearly 70 NAIA All-Americans and 99 of his players have signed professional contracts.
Hunt is a 17-time Coach of the Year, earned the 2006 and 2010 Rawlings National Coach of the Year awards, and received the Pat Summit Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2020.

Inside Pitch spent some time with Hunt, who transitioned into a role as Assistant Athletics Director for Fundraising and Facilities in June, on life after baseball…

Inside Pitch: What motivated your desire to coach for as long as you did?

Woody Hunt:
 You just get wrapped up in what you do and you want to be the best every year. You have a vision, you have a goal and you get wrapped up into it. It’s a constant push to be the best. That started early in my career and that feeling just never left, to be honest. When you feel that obligation to your program, and you really like where you are and where you live, that means a lot as you develop your career.

It feels kind of weird knowing I’m not going to coach again. When that feeling hits you, it’s just strange, knowing your routine is going to change on a daily basis. As a coach you’re always recruiting and I still think about those things daily, until it hits me that it’s not my responsibility anymore.

IP: And a line drive in Waleska, Ga. almost ended your career a few months too soon…

WH: I wanted to coach third base my last year, that’s where I started and that’s where I wanted to end up. That first weekend we were at Reinhardt University. Good club. We had a runner on second so my body was turned a little bit to help him out, and I would just follow the ball over my shoulder a bit as it was pitched, like everyone does. There was a line drive right at me, and I don’t even know how to describe it, maybe like a bird hitting your windshield when you’re driving on the interstate, you just don’t have time to move. After I recovered from that, our Athletics Director cut me off, and wouldn’t let me coach third base anymore. And I didn’t argue it!

IP: Your program is known for its class, yet the NAIA level can get a bad rap for the type of player it attracts…

In terms of our team, we set standards and expectations in our program, and build off whatever successes we have. Tradition has a lot to do with culture. Players should understand what your program is about and what is expected. When you’re at a program without facilities or tradition, it’s very difficult, but it’s just a necessary evil, to establish some tradition. A lot of that depends on what happens with the coaching staff and how long those guys are in place. But either way, you have to keep demanding what you’ve always demanded. As I’ve gotten older it’s become harder to make connections with players, but that’s another very important factor, you have to work harder at that.

I would like to defend NAIA, it’s the most misunderstood level in baseball. We do take bounce backs and we do allow second chances, but that’s what life is about. We get hammered by some other classifications that we’ll take anybody and ‘well, he could always go NAIA,’ but they just don’t understand the level of player we are getting, the character we are trying to recruit, and the standards we set forth. Throughout all levels of college baseball, there are programs that are doing it the right way, and programs that are doing it the wrong way. But NAIA baseball is very misunderstood, and has a lot of really good people and programs around the country.

IP: And your program has been as competitive as any in the country, including Division I…

We used to play Division I teams every year, we were very competitive against DI teams. We’ve beaten Kentucky, we’ve beaten Ole Miss, we beat Auburn with Bo Jackson in the lineup, we beat Tennessee with Todd Helton on the mound.

IP: What would you say your coaching philosophy is?

I think we overstate coaching philosophy, to be honest. Maybe mine is just to work as hard as you can. Try to figure out the ability level of your players and go from there. I’ve built our program on starting pitchers, I really believed that you have to begin with starting pitching. I also believe in finding the best offensive players you can. I have a theory that the best offensive players become the best defensive players, because they’re generally athletic and usually in the lineup every day. I understand what defense does for a team, when you can pitch and defend you have the chance to win a lot of games. But everyone has to have the ability to contribute offensively. I’ve just found out that our best hitters seem to end up being really high level defenders. And I think offense can define your team- if you are hitting as a team, you can create a mindset that carries onto defense and with the pitching staff.

IP: What’s is like running a program with as many players as you have?

WH: We are an enrollment-driven institution and program, and we carry anywhere from fifty to seventy players. That’s too many, but I understand it. A lot of schools like us have to have a lot of players to support enrollment.

It’s really difficult when it comes to developing players and planning practice. The first thing we do with planning practice is looking at schedules. We’ll have some early work hitting or defense before we do any team practice. We try to check every box in terms of developing offense, defense, bunt coverages, base running every day. Some of those things you can incorporate into batting practice times. Towards the end of my career I did a lot of it based on feel, but I do have a checklist of things we want to get in. One big factor for programs like ours is the weather, when you have to practice inside, that changes your planning a little bit.

IP: When did you get the most nervous during games?

WH: If the pitcher is throwing strikes, I’m really okay when we’re on defense, but if he’s not throwing strikes, I get to pacing a little bit more. I just can’t handle walks. But I generally get more antsy if we are struggling offensively.

IP: Are you a Major League Baseball fan?

WH: There are a lot of things that go on that make me wonder ‘why,’ but I am a big fan of major league baseball, I grew up a Reds fan. All of the technology and analytics has certainly changed the way the game is played. I don’t know it all, but I really don’t feel like I need it to evaluate players. We have all of that in our program and it’s all good, but you just don’t want to create a mindset with your players that are worried about analytics and spin rate, for example. 

You can see some of that culture, along with the bat flips and stuff, leaking into amateur baseball, youth baseball. I am all for having fun, but it’s like what Nick Saban says, ‘winning is fun.’ I think winning is a lot of fun, so that is what we are striving for.

IP: And your son is taking over the ‘family business’…

WH: My son was basically raised on our campus. He played here and was my assistant coach for 13 years. He was with us for two of our three national championships. He left for Volunteer State to be an assistant there, but the school really wanted him back. We have a really strong alumni base, and Ryan has really good connections. He knows how to run a small college program, a JV team, practice with 70 players. He knows he has a real chance to win here and he wants to get us back to the World Series. He’s ready to handle it.

IP: Speaking of the World Series, what were each of those championship runs like?

WH: The process of winning a national championship is a long one. I’m a big Kentucky basketball fan, and when Tubby Smith won a title his first year, that was great, but you have a feeling that’s not the best thing for him, because now he has to get back there every year. We were the other way around, we could’ve won a few championships before we got there in 2004, but we just didn’t. 

It was a lot of joy, a lot of excitement, our community went crazy, but it was a relief in some ways too. And the dust settles fast, you’re making recruiting calls the next morning and working on the field, doing baseball camps the next week. But it all goes back to zero pretty quickly, and now you really want to win one again. 

After our first one, I convinced myself that we had to win another one to validate our program. We lost in extra innings a couple years later in the title game, and eventually got another one in 2010. And you know what? After awhile, you really, genuinely want to do it again. The feeling of winning a championship, it’s not like that it ever leaves you, but eventually you have to put the trophy up in the case and go do it again. Winning really feeds the appetite of wanting to do it again. And either way, you’re going to have to edge the infield and mow the grass.

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