College Baseball’s Coaching Carousel Has Begun

May 25, 2010
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Collegebaseball360.com contributor Chase Titleman from Road2rosenblatt.com checks-in with a look at where coaches could be headed (and where some already are headed) during the off season.

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By Chase Titleman

With the announcement by new UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood that head coach Buddy Gouldsmith will not be retained for the 2011 season, the first initial shot sailing over the bow of the annual coaching carousel has been fired.

With other coaching openings rumored to be open soon, which may include Tennessee, Georgia, USC, Notre Dame, UNC-Greensboro and Hawaii, this could be a monumental year for not only the experienced head coach who desires to move up the coaching ladder of success and on to greater challenges, but for developing assistant coaches looking for their first gig at running a Division I show.

This past month, Mike Weathers (Long Beach State) and Bob Todd (The Ohio State University) both announced their retirements, while earlier in the season, Mike Hutcheon was replaced via a forced resignation by interim head coach Mike Kazlausky at the Air Force Academy.

None of these positions carry the attractiveness of UNLV, which sports an outstanding baseball stadium with rich university athletic facilities, and is located within the heart of a 500 radial mile recruiting hot bed, which includes the Phoenix, Los Angeles and Bay Area markets, not to mention the fertile baseball grounds of Las Vegas itself.

Obviously attractive in it’s own right for the young developing coach looking to create a coaching resume before bolting to greater opportunities, neither The Ohio State University, nor the Air Force Academy are highly sought after positions, being from cold-weather climates and limited recruiting resources specific to baseball.

The one job that is attractive to experienced head coaching icons (Long Beach State) has already been filled with the announced hiring of Troy Buckley, a former alum, who after a years sabbatical with the Pittsburgh Pirates Organization, will run the “Dirtbags” over on “The Beach” next season.

The Ohio State University certainly has the resources to be a very attractive position given the wealth of the Athletic Department.

Bob Todd retired after 23 seasons at Ohio State.

A natural power harbinger for the developing Big-10 Network, but given Todd’s apparent success – or to some – “the lack of success” at the school, is there a serious contender with head coaching experience from outside the great lakes region who would consider the position?

The Todd debate is a convoluted affair as most of his supporters are thrilled with the 837 all-time victories, but the corporate power players are less than enthralled, especially considering the closest he came to Omaha were Super Regional losses in 2003 and 1999.

Todd, who has been a head coach at the Division I level for 37 of the 39 years he has been coaching, is one of the few in coaching who has achieved the much revered 1000-win milestone, and he is a member of the College Coaches Association Hall of Fame, as voted in 2009.

A winner of eight Big-10 regular season titles and eight Conference Tournament championships, as well as 13 trips to the post season tournament, is this – perhaps – as good as Ohio State can expect for a northern program with such a talented coach guiding the ship?

The obvious question to ask is if Todd couldn’t get it done with all of his credentials and accomplishments…who can?

Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell certainly can, but the former assistant at Ole Miss who led Louisville to the College World Series in 2007 has his sight set on a bigger horizon as he is rumored to favor a return to the SEC, where both the climate and fertile recruiting grounds harbor greater hopes of reaching college baseball’s promise land on an annual basis.

Gary Gilmore and Coastal Carolina have won 35 straight Big South Conference games.

With openings rumored at both Tennessee and Georgia by seasons end, McDonnell will have to fend off stiff challenges within the region, especially from Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore, who won his 600th game in a 7-2 win over Radford last week.

Gilmore, who is 600-300 in 21 seasons heading the Chanticleer ship, is currently in the middle of his most successful campaign as Coastal Carolina (47-7, 25-0 Big South) is a major player in the race for the national championship this season.

Not that he is necessarily looking, but if ever there was a season that led Gilmore to the SEC, this would be it as his overall coaching record of 853-402 certainly fits the SEC criteria of success, and he has a trip to a super-regional to tack on his rising resume.

Another rising star within the SEC footprint is Western Kentucky’s Chris Finwood, who had his most successful season last year in guiding the Hilltoppers to their first 40-win season in 21 years.

No stranger himself to the post-seasons of the past, but this season his Topper program has struggled to maintain the high benchmark the program has recently established, falling all the way to 5th in the Sun Belt Conference standings with a little over a week to go in the regular season.

Finwood may no longer be a “Flavor of the Month,” hire the SEC is so duly noted for, and he may in fact need another year or two of seasoning before getting his SEC invitation.

But with McDonnell waiting patiently in the wings for an SEC opening to occur, his decision to return to the SEC could set off a potentially wild off-season of coaching changes across the landscape of college baseball.

Imagine the following scenario:

McDonnell takes the Georgia job, which opens up Louisville.  Gilmore then takes the Tennessee position, which opens up Coastal Carolina.  Would Finwood be interested in the lateral move to Coastal, or would his sights be set upon the beautiful ballpark in Louisville?  Would Louisville even be interested in Finwood considering the program’s latest fall?

Would the assistants under McDonnell or Gimore stay to take over Louisville and Coastal, or would they follow their leader to the SEC schools of Tennessee and Georgia and the land of higher paychecks and greater prestige?

And who knows, given the surreal and unrealistic demands of the SEC, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see Mississippi State or even Kentucky open as well, which would send the carousel into an absolute shark frenzy, and potentially leading college administrators to some stressful and sleepless nights.

Which brings us back to UNLV and the urgency that Jim Livengood is faced with for the various scenario’s must be keeping him up at night wondering how to attack and take advantage of the timing surrounding his baseball opening.

Given the current opportunities at low profile schools, such as Ohio State and the Air Force Academy, coupled with what would now be potentially high profile openings at Louisville and Coastal Carolina, two teams that could end up in Omaha this season, should Livengood wait until the end of the post-season, which could extend the Rebels coaching search into July and risk trying to sell UNLV as a destination job when so many are jockeying for high profile positions, or should he strike while the opportunity is hot in taking the best assistant coaches the country has to offer?

Florida took this option three seasons ago in hiring Clemson assistant coach Kevin O’Sullivan after Florida failed to make the post-season and look where the Gators are now…a solid Top-5 program and a legitimate contender with a solid pitching staff to win the national championship.

Given this scenario, Livengood should narrow his focus to two longtime successful assistant coaches who have major west coast ties and get his program moving in the right direction now while the irons are hot.

In most circumstances, the failure to reach postseason play would be a fatal doom to many assistant coaches looking for head coaching positions as the “Flavor of the Month” factor is a vital key for young coaches looking to capitalize on a masterful season.

However, with both Oklahoma State and Washington in the midst of youthful rebuilding projects, ironically, the timing may be just right for assistant coaches Dave Nakama (Washington) and Billy Jones (Oklahoma State) to capitalize on the marketplace for they are not involved with the daily preparations on the post-season “Road to Omaha.”

Both are no strangers to post-season play as Nakama has been to Omaha with the Stanford Cardinal on more than one occasion, even participating in a national championship game in recent past, while Jones has been as close to Omaha as you can get without actually getting there, losing in game three of the super’s at both NC State and Oklahoma State, programs that were largely built on his recruiting efforts.

Livengood must face the music for UNLV is not a destination job to most, but rather a stepping stone job one can use to reach greater fortunes. He won’t attract names like McDonnell, Gilmore or Finwood for they would simply see a move to UNLV as a lateral move, or worse yet, a step down in stature.

For Jones and Nakama, however, who are no strangers to multiple second place finishes in multiple coaching searches across the country in the last decade, UNLV would in fact be the destination job that Livengood so intends to sell considering both have experienced the trials and tribulations of developing various schools into successful programs and recognize the importance of not only the timing, but the opportunity itself.

Plus their age, with both now over 40, is likely to make both realize the fragility of the opportunity.  Both can neither afford to take any job, for the job they take at their age may certainly be their last chance at the coaching carousel.

The ironic timing of the situation is that UNLV is not just any run of the mill coaching job.  It is a sleeping giant waiting for the right mix of coaching intelligence and fortitude to mold it into success.

With the Mountain West Conference on the verge of a possible automatic BCS invitation in the near future, the conference and its member schools may just be awash in revenue sooner than later.

With outstanding facilities and a state government friendly to the dynamic needs of the corporate world, UNLV could be a major player in the Western region if the right coach is hired, and the right coach is someone who recognizes that you can get to Omaha from Las Vegas if you are willing to develop the foundation and commit the time to see it to fruition.

If Livengood is serious about building a program in “Sin City,” he should focus on hiring a coach who is not intent on building a program for 5 years, padding his resume only to move on to greater exploits, which is exactly why Nakama and Jones make so much sense from the long term viewpoint.

If the small school baseball powers – all within the 500 radial mile footprint of UNLV – schools such as Cal-State-Fullerton, Cal-Irvine, Long Beach State or UC-San Diego can achieve success on the baseball diamond without a cash-cow football program generating substantial revenue for the entire athletic department, the Rebels certainly should have a major advantage over this list of baseball Titans in the west if they can get their act together.

In today’s climate of player motivation and team communication, you need a coach who can garnish the will of the athletes to grind out a championship.

You need a coach who can sell not only his institution, city or state, but himself.  You need a coach who can manage the educational demands of the classroom and the professional baseball aspirations of the family.  You need a coach who can sell the corporate sponsors within his region with excellent speaking and entertaining skill sets, as well as a grounded sense that the program is not about his personal coaching recognition, reputation and fame, but the recognition, reputation and fame of the university and the players who represent it.

For Livengood, he needs a coach who has been through the grind and recognizes that UNLV is not a stepping stone job and who isn’t going to bolt 5 years down the line, which is a rare combination when considering the current recycled head coaching candidates.

It is time for Livengood to give either Billy Jones or David Nakama, two often forgotten names among the coaching fraternity, a chance to develop a program that will one day play on the fertile soil in Omaha on a regular basis.

The Jones File

Jones began his coaching career in 1997 at Green River Community College in Washington State following in the footsteps of his coaching mentor Dan Spencer, who after over a decade of work at Oregon State and two national championship rings later, is now the head coach at Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State assistant Billy Jones

Green River College, under the direction of Jones, won the NWAACC’s Western Region championship in 1998 and a year later Spencer, then the lead assistant coach at Oregon State University under head coach Pat Casey, offered Jones the volunteer assistant position where he earned his degree in Liberal Studies.

Noted as an outstanding hitting coach (he hit .433 as a player at Lower Columbia College), his Green River wood bat program once hit 60 home runs in just 36 games.

The strong hitting trend has followed Billy’s coaching pursuits across the country as the Oklahoma State program led the Big-12 in home runs and batting average in 2005, his first season in Stillwater, and by year three at the school the Cowboys led the conference in batting average, home runs and slugging percentage altogether.

The 2008 team alone had 8 members in the starting line-up who hit .317 or higher!

A noted players coach, Jones developed national recruiting classes at both NC State and Oklahoma State after being mentored by Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, where he was the Director of Baseball Operations for two seasons.

While in Raleigh, North Carolina – Jones helped guide the Wolf Pack to two NCAA Regional appearances in three seasons and was one of five finalists for the Baseball America National Assistant Coach of the Year Award in 2003.

Although he coaches outfielders and hitting at present with the Cowboys, his troops at NC State improved their team fielding percentage every year, from .958 in 2002, to .966 in 2003 to .976 (4th best in the nation) in 2004, the year NC State lost in the super-regional finals.

Former Oklahoma State volunteer assistant coach Trevor Brown, who now works as the Northwest Area Scout for the Minnesota Twins Organization, has nothing but glowing words for his coaching mentor Jones.

Brown, a former NAIA All-American who won a national championship at Lewis and Clarke State College under the direction of Ed Cheff, claims that “Jones is the best coach he has worked for or played under in terms of getting the most talent out of his players.  “He has an innate ability to connect to all players of differing backgrounds as he approaches each player individually, playing to their strengths and masking their weaknesses to improve player performance.”

Brown played for both Cheff (Lewis & Clarke State) and Donny Harrel (the current head coach at Seattle University) at Lane Community College, and although not taking anything away from those other coaches, believes Jones has a special talent in developing players compared to most of the coaches around the country today.

“His players have extreme loyalty and he is somewhat of a master in identifying and recruiting diamond-in-the-rough type players and developing them into All-Americans and professional baseball prospects.  It would be a shame not to see him lead his own program in the near future as he is certainly qualified and well equipped to run a championship level program.”

The Nakama File

After spending 10 plus seasons at Stanford University, Dave Nakama has moved up north in the PAC-10 Conference joining coach Lindsey Meggs initial staff at Washington in 2010.

Washington assistant Dave Nakama

At Stanford, Nakama worked with the infielders and hitters while coaching first base, and was a central figure in recruiting, helping the Cardinal land four top-10 recruiting classes in the last 8 years according to BaseballAmerica.com

During his decade on “The Farm,” Nakama helped the team to four PAC-10 Championships, five NCAA regional titles and four trips to the College World Series.

Among the many he mentored as coach, Boston Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie, first-rounder John Mayberry Jr., and Seattle Mariners farmhand Chris Minaker stand out among a crowded and talented athletic baseball crop that populated the Stanford dugout.

Under Nakama’s watchful eye, the Cardinal posted their five best seasons for fielding percentage in school history, including a .977 mark in 2005 where they committed 51 errors in 59 games.  All in all, Nakama led the Cardinal to five top-10 finishes in his last eight years at the school, including another .977 mark in his last season.

According to Husky coach Lindsey Meggs, who worked with Nakama at Chico State and San Francisco State, “having Dave on the staff is like having another head coach in the dugout…he has all the intangibles needed to be a head coach as he can manage the game both offensively and defensively, and more importantly, he knows the PAC-10 Conference inside and out.”

Having personally watched Nakama work with the En Fuego Academy program in Seattle, he has an innate ability to communicate with young athletes and what impresses me the most is his genuine interest in helping players move on in college baseball, even if his school (currently the Huskies) isn’t on the players list of schools as he believes the college decision is one of the five defining choices a young man will make in his lifetime.

Like Jones, who has Junior College and collegiate summer-ball coaching experience, Nakama spent five seasons as the head coach at Mission Junior College (Santa Clara, CA), leading his squad to the California State Tournament in each of his final two seasons, earning conference Coach of the Year honors in 1996.

Although Nakama would be a great hire at UNLV, which is a job he wouldn’t turn down, the natural position for the Hawaiian native and perhaps the job he covets most is the Hawaii job.

A graduate from Kaiser High School in Honolulu and a former head and assistant coach for the collegiate summer-ball Hawaii Island Movers, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Nakama isn’t named the program’s next head coach.

That is if someone like UNLV doesn’t beat Hawaii to the punch.

The question athletic director Livengood should seriously consider is what other coaching candidates have ties to so many successful coaches and championships programs in comparison to Jones or Nakama?

Jones has worked with Pat Casey and Pat Murphy, no strangers themselves to the College World Series.

Since leaving NC State, the Wolf-Pack have not sustained the barometer set by Jones who led them to a super-regional.  Jones has also worked with Frank Anderson, who came to Oklahoma State after winning a national championship on the Texas staff in 2005.

For coach Nakama, is there another assistant coach in the country who has worked for two coaching icons like Mark Marquess at Stanford or Lindsey Meggs at Chico State?

With four trips to the College World Series and team records in fielding percentage, not to mention his recruiting prowess, what exactly is Livengood looking at to eliminate Nakama?

The same can be said of Jones.

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