When Steve Smith and Mitch Thompson were hired as Baylor’s head coach and recruiting coordinator in August 1994, they knew they had their work cut out for them.
|2005||Bob Wojick, Eastern Conn. State|
|2004||Dave Serrano, Cal State Fullerton|
|2003||Jim Lawler, Texas A&M|
|2002||Jim Toman, South Carolina|
|2001||Brian O’Connor, Notre Dame|
|2000||Tim Corbin, Clemson|
|1999||Dean Stotz, Stanford|
They inherited a substandard facility–a glorified high school facility, Thompson called it–and a program that had experienced occasional success under head coach Mickey Sullivan but had not been to the College World Series since 1978. In the early recruiting period that November, Baylor did not sign a single player.
But somehow Thompson brought 17 recruits to campus in the spring of 1995, a haul that would change the face of Baylor baseball. Included among the unheralded group were future All-Americans Kip Wells, Eric Nelson and John Topolski, as well as Freshman All-American Jeremy Dodson.
“In that bunch were the guys who laid the groundwork for our program,” Thompson said. “The thing that we could sell was playing time right off the bat. We were in the Southwest Conference, we were playing against all the big boys, and we’d say, ‘It’s obvious that the big boys don’t want you right now, but you’re a good player and you’re going to play for us as a freshman.’ That’s what we could sell, and that’s what we did.”
But even more than his salesmanship, Thompson showed an incredible knack for player evaluation in that first class. His eye for talent, ability to connect with players and unwavering integrity have made Thompson one of the nation’s most well-respected assistant coaches in his 13 years at Baylor, and his results speak for themselves. Thompson’s 2006 recruiting class ranks as the nation’s best, the latest accomplishment for the 2006 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year.
Closing The Gap
It’s a testament to the program that Smith, Thompson and assistant coach Steve Johnigan have built that Thompson’s ability to secure commitments from top talent has become even more vital than his ability to find diamonds in the rough. There was a time when elite players like Dustin Dickerson, Aaron Miller and Kendall Volz–the gems of the 2006 class–would not have even given serious consideration to Baylor.
“What we have to do here, and what we for sure had to do 13 years ago, was evaluate, because we weren’t going to out-recruit anybody,” Smith said. “This state was very loyal to the University of Texas when it comes to baseball, and rightfully so. All the kids growing up have read about the University of Texas every day since they were born, it was ingrained in them that the good players, that’s where they go. So being able to recruit was not the issue so much as being able to evaluate.
“Mitch hasn’t been afraid to make a decision. He’s not a guy that’s following the crowd. He sees things in kids athletically, he understands what it takes for somebody to be successful in our program, in terms of what kind of player they are and what kind of person and student they are.”
Thompson’s ability to identify talented players with academic or affluent backgrounds has been paramount in building Baylor into a power in the Big 12, which the Bears joined in 1997. Baylor faces a unique challenge as the lone private school in a conference filled with mammoth public schools that boast significantly cheaper price tags.
But Thompson can sell players on Baylor’s academic reputation and developmental track record. The Bears have had 56 players drafted since the inception of the Big 12, more than any other league school, and Thompson helped develop them in his duties as Baylor’s hitting coach. Thompson also has a nice recruiting tool in the 5,000-seat Baylor Ballpark, one of the nation’s best facilities, which opened in 1999.
“When we get kids on campus and they see our facility, it lights them up, and they understand that baseball is important,” Thompson said. “Getting to Omaha (in 2005) showed all the kids in Texas and around the country that you can win, you can go to Omaha, so basically you can get everything you’ve ever wanted at Baylor. Omaha was the last hurdle.”
Now, the Bears are finding that the gap with the Longhorns has closed considerably. Case in point: Midland (Texas) Christian High righthander Chris Withrow, one of the top arms in the Texas prep class of 2007. Withrow’s father pitched for Texas in the early 1980s, but Withrow himself decided to commit to Baylor in the early signing period.
“It was clearly a decision he struggled with–the kid’s growing up with burnt orange posters in his bedroom his whole life–it was a gut-wrenching decision for him,” Smith said. “We’ve been down that road with a bunch of kids in the last 10 years, and very, very rarely do we get them.”
That’s where Thompson’s down-to-earth personality, keen sense of humor and honesty come up big: helping him close the deal with the tough recruits.
“I’m going to be honest with them,” he said. “Baseball will never be the most important thing in my life, it’ll never be the most important thing in the lives of our coaches. I think we’re going to try to keep our perspective very well, and where wins and losses come into account. The thing I want to do is create relationships with these kids where 15, 20 years from now they’re still calling me up and saying, ‘Hey Coach, this is what’s going on in my life.’ If that’s not happening with our former players, then I don’t know if this job’s worth doing.”
Big Guns Reload In Signing Period
As the NCAA early signing period wound down, it was clear that many of the nation’s most powerful college baseball programs took advantage of their clout.
Arizona State, Cal State Fullerton, Clemson, Georgia Tech and UCLA, as well as last year’s College World Series finalists, North Carolina and Oregon State, were among the schools that secured commitments from multiple high-profile prospects from the deep and talented high school Class of 2007.
Whether the best of those players ever see campus is an obvious caveat when it comes to analyzing recruiting classes at this early stage in the process. Often, most of the nation’s best high school players sign with the professional team that drafts them, but some do wind up at college, and it’s too early to know which players will fall into which category.
“You’ve got to do your homework, got to have a little bit of a crystal ball, have a little luck,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “You win some, you lose some, just want to make sure you’re in that 90 percent range, keeping nine out of 10 guys, or eight out of 10 at the worst. You don’t want half the class to disappear in June.”
If everyone came to school, though, Arizona State would be in business. The Sun Devils’ class is loaded with several of the top pro prospects in the prep Class of 2007. Signees such as outfielder Michael Burgess (Hillsborough High, Tampa) and infielders Josh Vitters (Cypress, Calif., High) and Justin Jackson (Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.) all rank in the most recent top 10 of Baseball America’s Prospects Plus top 300 national rankings.
The Tar Heels have locked up commitments from a bevy of the class’ top pitchers, including the top two overall prospects–righthanders Matt Harvey (Fitch High, Groton, Conn.) and Rick Porcello (Seton Hall Prep, West Orange, N.J.). Lefty Madison Bumgarner (South Caldwell High, Hudson, N.C.) was ranked No. 20 in the nation and could join Harvey and Porcello in the first two rounds of the draft.
North Carolina recruiting coordinator Chad Holbrook said the Tar Heels were able to take more chances after landing a deep and talented freshman class in 2006.
“We were very aggressive, because they have expressed a desire to attend college,” Holbrook said. “Even though they have that first-round potential, they do have that chance of coming to college, or we wouldn’t have signed them.
“We wanted to seize the momentum from Omaha, and I think we did.”
Contributing: Alan Matthews.