Minnesota coach John Anderson likes to give assistant head coach Rob Fornasiere a hard time now and then about his off-field habits—or lack thereof.
“I tease him. I say that recruiting is one of his hobbies—he loves to get in the car and drive to watch kids play,” Anderson said of Fornasiere, who is entering his 24th year as the Golden Gophers’ recruiting coordinator. “I think that’s why he’s getting the award, for his love of baseball and passion for it.”
Indeed, Fornasiere is the 2008 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year because of his passion for the game, for recruiting and for teaching, as well as his dedication to making Minnesota one of the most successful programs in the Midwest year after year. In fact, prior to 2008, Minnesota had posted 45 consecutive winning seasons, the fifth-longest streak in the nation.
“My career has been aided by Rob’s dedication, loyalty, and the competency he brings to his job every single day,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a great tradition here at Minnesota in baseball, and he’s helped us grow that tradition during his tenure. It’s not very often you have somebody with his talent stay with you as long as he has, but it’s been our gain and others’ loss.”
Anderson took over the program in 1981 and worked without a full-time assistant until the fall of 1985, when he hired Fornasiere. A Wisconsin native, Fornasiere had gotten his start in coaching at Bowling Green State under Don Purvis, whom he credits with teaching him about recruiting and player evaluation. Fornasiere then spent five years as the head coach at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn., where he became friends with Anderson. Several of Fornasiere’s Normandale players went on to play for Anderson at Minnesota, and soon Fornasiere began working Anderson’s baseball camps. Finally, Anderson was allowed to hire a full-time assistant coach and jumped at the chance to hire Fornasiere.
“Rob came over for very little money, took a big chance,” Anderson said. “It took three years for him to be fully vested, so he took a gamble, and we were fortunate he took that chance.”
The gamble paid off for Fornasiere, also. Turns out, Anderson and Fornasiere were a perfect fit for each other.
“We’ve grown up as coaches together, coached together for 1,400 games,” Fornasiere said. “I understand his philosophy, we’re totally in tune with each other. He’s more a visionary guy, a big-picture guy, a CEO-type person, and I’m more the details-, day-to-day, grind-it-out-type approach. I’m the guy that still loves to hit fungos, throw BP, that kind of stuff.”
Minnesota’s entire staff has been intact for the last 11 years; Todd Oakes handles the pitchers, Lee Swenson works with the catchers, and Fornasiere focuses on the defense. His philosophy centers around stopping the big inning by emphasizing the ability to turn the double play, hit the cutoff man and prevent walks.
Fornasiere also makes sure his players are learning good habits. During fall practices, he spends a few minutes talking with them about lessons learned from the major league playoffs.
“Individually, to teach defense, it’s technique and repetition,” Fornasiere said. “We spend a lot of time talking about technique. There’s no doubt on defense if you have good habits, you can be a consistent defensive player.
“People kid me about my gray hair. I always tell them it’s all those errors by the shortstops. I’ve had gray hair for a long time, even when I was coaching at Normandale.”
On The Trail
All those hours on the recruiting trail might have contributed a few gray hairs, too. The Gophers get plenty of in-state recruits, but they have traditionally done very well in Fornasiere’s native Wisconsin as well, partly because there is no Big Ten competition in the Badger State since the University of Wisconsin folded its program in 1993, and partly because of an agreement between the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin that allows residents of either state to pay in-state tuition at the other. So Fornasiere scours Wisconsin as well as Minnesota and the rest of the Upper Midwest.
“I spend the bulk of my time going out to see as many individual games as I can,” he said. “I’ve been known for that—kind of old-time scouting. We may be a dinosaur in that aspect, we don’t just recruit out of showcases. We always try to go back and see kids play in person in a real game.”
For all that driving, though, Fornasiere’s favorite player that he’s coached was the easiest to recruit. His son Matt was a star second baseman for the Gophers who was drafted in the 12th round in 2005 by the Indians.
Fornasiere credits his supportive family for allowing him to thrive in his job despite the time commitments. His wife of 30 years, Ruth, is an elementary school physical education teacher who used to coach swimming and gymnastics, so she understands the demands of Fornasiere’s job. After all, it’s Fornasiere’s unwavering commitment through the decades is his hallmark.
“He’s very organized, very dedicated, he’s the task master; he loves to establish some goals and go after them,” Anderson said. “I love him because he’s a self-starter; I don’t need to tell him what to do every day. He brings honesty and integrity to the program.”