Dispatches From The Heartland: Oklahoma

NORMAN, Okla.—Sunny Golloway grew up in Oklahoma, went to high school and college there, spent eight years in Tulsa turning Oral Roberts into an annual NCAA tournament team, then spent nine years in Norman rebuilding the Sooners into a national power. But last summer, Golloway made up his mind that it was time to leave. He went on a visit to Auburn, and when he got back he turned his phone off—he wasn’t even going to give Oklahoma a chance to match Auburn’s offer.

Pete Hughes

Pete Hughes is off to a great start in Oklahoma. (Photo by John Williamson)

The Sooners didn’t tap another native Oklahoman to replace Golloway. Instead they injected some Northeast flavor into the program, hiring Virginia Tech’s Pete Hughes, a native of Brockton, Mass., who started his D-I coaching career at Boston College. Hughes and his pitching coach, fellow Massachusetts native Jamie Pinzino, might stand out for their accents in the middle of Oklahoma, but otherwise they have blended right in with the locals. Winning breeds trust quickly, and Oklahoma has gotten off to a strong 18-8 start.

“We get a lot of comments on the accents and things, and there are a lot of words that I don’t know what people are talking about,” Pinzino said. “You go to Dunkin Donuts and try to order a cruller or something and they don’t know what you’re talking about. But it’s been a great transition. The place is great, the administration on down, everything’s been first class. It’s a great place to work.”

Before and after his departure, Golloway expressed frustration with the difficulty of pushing through upgrades to L. Dale Mitchell Park. He loathed the chain link and barbed wire fence outside the stadium, and he said he had to fight tooth and nail to get it replaced with a wrought-iron fence—and that was the only facility upgrade OU made since its 2010 trip to Omaha.

But Hughes radiates excitement about the administration’s commitment to the program and its plans for the ballpark. He talks of a $5 million renovation project in the works for next year that would extend the seating bowl onto the berms down both baselines and improve facilities for players. Hughes came from a big-time football school in Blacksburg, but he sounds almost awestruck when he talks about the tradition and atmosphere of Oklahoma’s football program, and the athletic department as a whole.

L. Dale Mitchell Park

L. Dale Mitchell Park (Photo courtesy OU Athletic Communications)

Oklahoma already has a good home-field advantage, even on chilly, windy days like Sunday where the crowd isn’t particularly large. A unique feature of L. Dale Mitchell Park is the protective screen behind the plate, which extends right down to the ground, so fans sitting behind the plate are at field level, giving them a feeling of being right in the middle of the action. Players on the other side of that screen must experience a similar sensation, because those fans aren’t shy—and neither are the rowdy hecklers standing on the concourse above the seating bowl, whose howls reverberate off the overhead awning and ring through the stadium.

Those fans love a winner—who doesn’t?—and Golloway gave them one. So Hughes doesn’t have to overhaul anything, he just has to maintain the program’s high standard.

“As far as changing a culture, I’m not going to do much to change things around here,” Hughes said. “There’s only five teams in the country that have won 40 games in a row five straight years, and Oklahoma’s one of them. Three super regionals in the last four years. So Pete Hughes is not going to come in here and start changing the formula.

“The thing that attracted me to this whole school is the tradition of winning, and there’s a lot to be said for that. But it’s important to have your staff’s fingerprints and personality involved in the program. I think the kids have really adapted to that and enjoyed it. I think we’re just a little different philosophy offensively than they’re used to around here. I think a lot of small ball was played, and you know what, they won a lot of games doing it, but it’s just not my style. I do think players enjoy playing the other way, swinging the bats a little more. We do pick our spots with the small ball, but I think these guys, when you let them free, let them be who they are offensively when they swing the bat, guys can get a little more out of their ability.”

Mac James

Mac James is hitting .429/.491/.637. (Photo by John Williamson)

Catcher/first baseman Mac James is one player who has really thrived in Hughes’ system. James earned just nine at-bats as a sophomore last year after transferring from the junior-college ranks, but he has been Oklahoma’s best hitter this year, hitting .429/.491/.637 with three homers, 10 doubles and 22 RBIs in 91 at-bats.

“I just think it’s confidence,” Hughes said of James’ emergence. “Sometimes when you get in a new atmosphere, get a new set of eyes on you, it kind of gives you a new lease on life. That’s definitely invigorated him and given him some confidence coming out to practice. He’s a really good player. And sometimes when you’re in a rut and you’re not playing well, you’re a victim of your own atmosphere and how you’re defined. I think it couldn’t have come at a better time for him in his career, to get re-evaluated and get a new set of eyes on him.”

Oklahoma has four new sets of eyes with impressive track records on its coaching staff. Hitting coach Mike Anderson led Nebraska to Omaha in 2005 as the head coach. Pinzino also has head coaching experience—at Bryant, where he quickly built a new D-I program into the class of the Northeast Conference, and William & Mary, where he guided the Tribe to a regional just last year. He left that head coaching gig to become the pitching coach at OU after the Sooners parted ways with Jack Giese (a holdover from the Golloway era) late in the fall.

“The timing made it tougher too as far as leaving William & Mary,” Pinzino said. “But this thing was just too hard to pass up from a family standpoint, getting a chance to come out here and work with Pete. Pete’s great, what he’s proven as a head coach over the last couple stops he’s been at, and having known him for a long time, I knew what I was getting into with him and how he’s run his program. But to get a chance to work with coach Anderson, the experience he has—the whole game, not just coaching hitters but some of his view on things from a head coaching standpoint, some of the input he gives from the pitching side of things, I feel like I’m learning a lot myself. And hopefully I’m bringing something to the staff as well.”

Pinzino also got to know Ryan Connolly on the recruiting trail in the Virginia area, where Connolly served as Radford’s recruiting coordinator. He left that job for a volunteer position on Oklahoma’s staff, and Hughes thinks so highly of him that he made Connolly his recruiting coordinator, even as the volunteer.

“He might be the only volunteer in the country who’s a recruiting coordinator,” Hughes said. “You watch, he’s going to be a big-time head coach. It’s an awesome staff.”

After joining the staff in the winter, Pinzino moved in with Connolly for the spring until his wife and 7-month-old son can come to Norman this summer. His wife is the head softball coach at Division III Tufts (Mass.), where she won a national championship last year. Being away from his family isn’t easy for Pinzino, but he went through the same thing at William & Mary for two years, so he knows he can handle it.

Connolly and Anderson work together with the hitters, and the offense has usually been potent this spring, as evidenced by the team’s .300 collective batting average. The Sooners ranked third in the nation in doubles, 14th in slugging and 19th in scoring through six weeks. Hughes said that more than any change in philosophy, a key to the team’s offensive success is that a number of his players have simply taken typical jumps in their second year at the Division I level, such as sophomores Hunter Haley (.340/.406/.596, 5 HR, 24 RBI) and Anthony Hermelyn (.327/.384/.408). The Sooners sport a 105-118 walk-strikeout mark, which has also been a major key.

“The thing that’s made us a better offensive team is our two-strike approach, and that’s all Mike Anderson,” Hughes said. “Our strikeout numbers are way down, if you compare them to last year. Compare them in the league. Whenever you have a team that doesn’t strike out, has a high number of walks, balls in play, productive outs, cheap hits, good things happen. So our strikeouts are way down just because they’ve bought into that philosophy.”

The pitching staff is still a work in progress, as it lost 44 starts from a year ago, led by stars Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton. But the bullpen has been a strength, and it has gotten stronger since the Sooners moved sophomore lefty Jacob Evans back into a relief role, where he thrived last year. Evans allowed a run in three strong innings in Friday’s win, then threw four innings of one-hit, shutout ball Sunday. Pinzino and Hughes said they will leave Evans in the ‘pen for the foreseeable future.

The coaches are figuring out their personnel and putting them in the best positions to succeed, which is one of the most important tasks for any coaching staff. There will be bumps along the way, as there were Sunday and Tuesday, when the Sooners were shut out in back-to-back games. This is still a young team, with 22 underclassmen on the roster, but they are talented and hungry.

“That’s a ton of inexperience out there, but they’re good players offensively, and I think the young guys are pretty talented,” Hughes said. “And the depth of our bullpen is where we’re veteran, so we’re going to try to lean on those guys for the majority of our outings, and not necessarily lean on a seven-inning or eight-inning start.

“These are good kids, and they want to be great in baseball, so they go right along with my values and my approach to the game. So it’s been a really easy transition.”