Two of California's top assistant coaches broke through into the head coaching ranks this summer. Long Beach State did not have to look far to find a replacement for Mike Weathers, as Dirtbags pitching coach Troy Buckley has long been considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. The Dirtbags made that hire very early in the summer, but Cal State Northridge took far longer to hire a replacement for Steve Rousey. Finally, after two months, the Matadors announced the hire of Matt Curtis away from Fresno State this week.
Like Buckley, Curtis has proven himself as an elite recruiter on the West Coast. Now he will try to turn Northridge into a contender in the ultra-competitive Big West Conference. It won't be easy, but Curtis is excited for the challenge. BA caught up with Curtis to find out how he plans to do it.
BA: Congratulations on landing your first head-coaching job. What made the Northridge job appealing to you?
Curtis: "Division I head coaching jobs are few and far between, and it's something that I've aspired to. I'm excited; there's been a tradition of winning in the past, and you're in a great baseball area."
Obviously Mike Batesole (Curtis' former boss at Fresno State) had some success at Northridge. How much did you discuss the job with him?
"As the process went on, we discussed it at length. I discussed it not only with Coach Batesole but with (Cal State Bakersfield coach) Bill Kernen—he had success at Cal State Northridge as they transitioned from Division I II to Division I. There's certainly been a track record that you can win there. The conference is a challenge—there's a lot of schools to fight with for players in that Southern California region, but there's also a lot of guys to go after around there."
Do you have a blueprint or philosophy in mind to turn this program back into a contender?
"At Fresno when Coach Batesole came in, the overall philosophy was we wanted to recruit high-character kids with work ethic. On the ability side, we wanted toolsy guys with bat speed, foot speed, arm speed. We're not going to deviate a lot from that. The Cal State University system provides access academically to a lot of kids. You're still able to recruit junior-college kids when appropriate, but we want to take this from the ground up. We're certainly going to dig in, and I've had good conversations with the guys that are there, the returning student-athletes. It's a group that wants to play hard. Over the long haul, we want to build a program that's able to sustain success. We'll focus on our local area—the San Fernando Valley, Ventura County. Recruiting, no matter where you're at, you've got to work. I'll put a staff together that's going to outwork people. At fresno, to a certain extent just because of our location outside of Southern California and Northern California, we had to turn over rocks sometimes. You have to do that and develop them on the baseball side of things."
What will you tell recruits to sell them on coming to Cal State Northridge?
"You've got to demonstrate a system and a track record, which I think I've done, of developing guys and putting them out in pro baseball. So you talk about Matt Garza, Casey McGehee, Tanner Scheppers, Doug Fister. You talk about Tommy Mendonca, who's not far behind them, and Richie Robnett, who was a first-round pick. You demonstrate an opportunity to come in and develop your physical skills while getting your degree and showcasing yourself in one of the best conferences in the country. You tell them, you're going to get exposure. I think you demonstrate an understanding of what it takes to not only have a winning college experience—which I believe I can demonstrate coming from a program with five conference championships in a row and a national championship—and also the track record of developing guys into profressional prospects. Those are the two selling points. For a lot of kids, Southern California is a place they like and a place they like to stay. We attack them first and make them a priority. Usually anytime a new coaching staff comes in there's an opportunity to play right away, which appeals to kids. But recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint. It's a full-year process."
It took a full two months for the school to make this hire. Was that frustrating for you, and did you get an explanation for it?
"Operating in the CSU system, there's processes that you have to go through that I've been accustomed to because I've been at a CSU school at Fresno. They have human-resources policies they have to follow for good reason. Sure, you'd like it to move faster, but I tried to just respect their process. I was in such a great situation at Fresno that was harder to leave than I could probably explain because I played there and coached there for 10 years, I'm just so invested. While I wanted to get going, I was anxious and hopeful that I was going to be the guy, but because my situation was so good, I was patient with it. It makes it a little challenging to put together a staff in such a short window, makes it challenging to move my family down there and move my daughter down there. But we'll make it work. Recruiting, we'll bust our tail, we're going to catch up. We're going to approach it with enthusiasm and we'll have a product to sell. I'm just excited and ready to go."
How do you evaluate the facilities you are inheriting, and did the administration give you an assurance that it wants to upgrade its investment in the program?
"Obviously the facility has been a bit of a challenge there. It's certainly a better facility than when I played in 1996 and they won the Western Athletic Conference. It's been much improved since that time, and they've continued to move forward since 2002 when Coach Batesole won the Big West Conference there. I think there's some things to work with. There's some excitement within the department, there's some things on the horizon to do some things there. There's some talk about getting lights in the near term—I wouldn't say short term, but in the next two or three years. As far as the resources go, if you're not in a BCS conference or in the South where maybe it's a revenue sport, for everybody else resources are always a challenge and fundraising is part of the deal. But I know the university is behind baseball, and they want to see a successful program."
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