Aoki Expected To Be Hired Soon At Notre Dame

July 8, 2010

BC’s Coach Expected To Take Irish Helm Next Week…

By Editor Sean Stires

* In preparation of this story, I talked to several sources, including four former Notre Dame baseball players who played for both Dave Schrage and Paul Mainieri. Two of them, former captains Jeremy Barnes and Ryan Connolly, agreed to be quoted, while two asked to remain anonymous. Those players will be referred to as ‘Player A’ and ‘Player B’.

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South Bend, Ind. – During his 12 seasons at Note Dame (1995-2006), Paul Mainieri amassed a record of 533-213-3 as head coach of the Irish baseball team. In his final eight seasons at Notre Dame, the current LSU head coach won 367 games while taking the Irish to eight straight NCAA Tournaments. He also ended ND’s 45-year College World Series drought with a 2002 trip to Omaha.

In his first four seasons at LSU, Mainieri’s teams have made two College World Series appearances with a 2009 national championship under his belt.

Dave Schrage

It would be an understatement to say things have not gone as well at Notre Dame during the past four seasons, as Mainieri’s successor Dave Schrage compiled a record of 119-114-1 from 2007-2010. Schrage’s Irish finished this past season with a 22-32 record while failing to qualify for the Big East Tournament for the first time since Notre dame joined the conference in 1996. It also was the program’s first losing record since 1987.

Dave Schrage was fired in June.

Sources have told that a press conference will be held “early next week” and at that time Boston College head coach Mikio Aoki will be named Notre Dame’s next baseball coach.

Aoki’s 114-104-1 record over the past four years is only slightly better than Schrage’s, but the BC coach has compiled that record in an Atlantic Coast Conference that has seen a total of eight teams advance to the CWS during that time. Louisville is the only Big East team to qualify for the CWS since 2007. In fact, while Louisville and Notre Dame are the only current Big East teams to advance to Omaha in the past 20 years, ACC teams have combined to make 26 appearances in the CWS during that same stretch (Miami has made several CWS appearances since 1990, but the Hurricanes did not join the ACC until 2005). Only the SEC, with 33 appearances, has sent more teams to Omaha in the past two decades.

Mikio Aoki

Aoki also has another feather in his cap that Schrage could not accomplish – an NCAA Regional berth. Aoki’s 2009 squad became the first Boston College team in 42 years to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 42 years, and he coached in possibly the most famous game in NCAA Regional history when his Eagles fell 3-2 in 25 innings to eventual CWS runner-up Texas.

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Talking Heads Once In A Lifetime lyrics

When Schrage was hired at Notre Dame in the summer of 2006, he stepped into his dream job. He was was a lifelong Notre Dame fan who had grown up in the Chicago suburbs, shagging batting practice home run balls at Wrigley Field. It wasn’t long, though, before his dream turned into a nightmare. Schrage’s wife, Jody, died after a battle with cancer shortly before the start of the 2007 season. “He was never the same person after that,” a person close to Schrage told me. “He was still a baseball guy, but there were times in the dugout when you could just tell he didn’t have that same fire.”

While Schrage’s personal tragedy was devastating, the contrast of his own personality compared to that of Mainieri’s was a tough adjustment for the players who had suited up for both coaches. “I think it all goes back to that first year,” former ND captain Jeremy Barnes told CB360. “A lot of things happened off the field that were hard to deal with.  I would say Schrage was not fully himself and things were a little more lax.”

Jeremy Barnes

Barnes, who is in his second season in the Philadelphia Phillies minor-league organization, added, “Mainieri ran a very tight ship. It created a different culture, and with the team being so young it was unfortunately the wrong type of foundation to build upon for the next couple of years, because the majority of that group was there for the next three or four years.”

Player A” agreed. “Mainieri had incredible senior leadership in the lockerroom where everything was policed amongst us,” he said. “Coach Schrage didn’t implement that disciplinary value amongst the players from the get-go, and so when he doesn’t come back with [discipline] either … the discipline was missing. The culture itself of Notre Dame baseball is completely different [now]. There are no similarities at all. None.”

Last of the breed …

Ryan Connolly was a fifth-year senior for the Irish this past season. He sat out all of 2006 (Mainieri’s last at ND) due to a shoulder injury. He battled the injury during his Notre Dame career but still managed to lead his team with a .335 average, 11 HR and 38 RBIs in 2010. He was the only player remaining from the Mainieri era.

Ryan Connolly

“I think the biggest difference [between Schrage and Mainieri] was organization,” Connolly said. “Mainieri was overly organized to the point it was overwhelming, but at the same time we would have been lost without it. You knew when you had to go to the bathroom, tie your shoes … everything was down to the second. That just made going out and playing baseball that much easier, because you didn’t have to worry about anything. You could just go out and play. Coach Schrage was looser, and I think guys struggled with that.”

However, Connolly says he and his teammates share the blame with Schrage: “Did he go out there and play? No. There are nine guys who go out there and play, but at the end of the day if we don’t go out there and win they’re going to go to the top. It’s the nature of the beast, and he’s an easy target. I have no beef with Dave Schrage.” Connolly said.

The great communicator …

While Connolly sees organization as the biggest difference between Mainieri and Schrage, ‘Player B‘ sees another big difference. “Mainieri was always talking to players and communicating with them to make sure everyone was mentally prepared to succeed,” he said. “He wanted to always make sure that everyone knew their role on the team and that we were in the loop on what was going on. Not every player was OK with it, but everyone always knew what was going on at all times.”

However, “Player B” says that approach was not the case with Schrage: “Not a lot of guys knew what was going on.  Not a lot of guys understood their role on the team. Some guys would just happen to see the lineup card and see they were playing that day, but there was no communication between player and coach before that, whereas coach Mainieri would have a 30-minute conversation with a guy if it was someone who hadn’t played in a while, so he would be mentally prepared.”

When it comes to communicating, Aoki would appear to be somewhere in the middle between Mainieri and Schrage.

Mike Belfiore pitched for Boston College in the previously mentioned 25-inning game during the 2009 Austin Regional. He was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the 45th overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft and now pitches for the single-A South Bend Silverhawks … whose stadium happens to be about a 10-minute drive from the Notre Dame campus.

Mike Belfiore

Belfiore recently told the South Bend Tribune: “Coach Aoki doesn’t say a lot. That’s part of his personality. He lets everything pan out, and then he’ll bring you in his office and let you know where things stand. He doesn’t play that game of you have to guess where you’re at.:

Belfiore also told the Tribune: “[Aoki] is a great guy. He always made school the first priority …H e knows how to back his players up in every sense. He doesn’t let you beat your head into a brick wall. He’ll always point out things that you need to work on. He always wants you to be better.”

Barnes says it’s an approach that he thinks will be important for Notre Dame’s next head coach. “You have to be firm and unwavering,” Barnes said. “As soon as you get there, implement your rules and philosophies and do not waiver, even on the little things. Have an open door to the players and try to keep a good relationship with them, but at the same time you’re the boss – players don’t run the program.”

Northern exposure …

Assuming Aoki is Notre Dame’s next head coach, he will face many of the same challenges that he has faced at Boston College. Boston is only slightly farther north on the map than South Bend, so Aoki has dealt with similar weather to what he will see in Northern Indiana.

He succeeded in recent years with rosters that were comprised mostly of players from the northeast, at a time when many of the top players from that region have opted to stay relatively close to home by playing in the warmer weather of the nearby Carolinas and Virginia, to name a few.

Evan Marzilli and Christian Walker are from Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, respectively, but they helped South Carolina win the 2010 national title. Cody Wheeler (Indiana), Tommy LaStella (New York) and Anthony Meo (Rhode Island) helped Coastal Carolina’s 2010 team fashion the best season in the program’s history, while Virginia’s talented closer Kevin Arico hails from New Jersey.

Aoki’s new association with Notre Dame will give him a much broader recruiting canvas, but it also will bring with it a more strict academic standard. According to one source, San Diego pitcher Sammy Solis and Illinois outfielder Willie Argo are two recent examples of smart student-athletes who wanted to play for Schrage at Notre Dame, but they could not meet the school’s high academic standards.

An inside shot of Eck Stadium (courtesy

Solis – whose father played at Notre Dame – was 9-2 with a 3.42 ERA for the WCC champion Toreros this year, while Argo belted 16 home runs with 51 stolen bases and a .335 batting average during his first two years for the Illini (’09-’10).

Whatever challenges Aoki faces in academics could be countered with a facility upgrade. At Boston College, the playing field also doubles as a parking lot during football season, while Notre Dame’s Frank Eck Stadium (built in 1994) still is among the top three baseball facilities in the Big East. Only Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium and Marge Schott Stadium in Cincinnati would rank above Eck.

Back to the future?

If in fact Aoki is named Notre Dame’s next head coach, the first questions will be the composition of his coaching staff. Aoki did not have a pitching coach at Boston College, and one source has indicated that current Irish assistant Dave Dengler could be retained in that role.

There also is the question of the value of having a former Notre Dame player on the new staff.  “I don’t think it’s important,” Barnes said. “I think when I was there, we had the kind of players who understood team cohesiveness.  If one of those players was hired as an assistant, he would know that feeling and type of player they should recruit and be successful there. I think it would be beneficial, but I don’t think it’s a necessity.”

Connolly concurs: “I don’t think [a former ND player on the staff is] necessary, but it may help. [ND football coach] Brian Kelly had no ties to Notre Dame, but that guy knows what it means to be at Notre Dame. He kicked it up seven gears.  You don’t have to be associated with ND to coach here.”

“Player A” simply says of the current change: “This is a great time for Notre Dame baseball”.

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