Starting From Scratch
Cal State Bakersfield building a program from square one
When Bill Kernen wins his first game as the head coach at Cal State Bakersfield in 2009, he will become the winningest coach in program history.
Unlike UC Irvine and Oregon, two programs that decided to revive dormant programs this decade, Bakersfield has no baseball tradition whatsoever. It's an unusual setting for the construction of a program that has a chance to be one of the most compelling college baseball stories of the next decade.
"A lot of people kind of had a big question mark when I told them—'Bakersfield? What the heck are you thinking?' " said Kernen, who left his job as Cal State Fullerton's pitching coach to start building Cal State Bakersfield's fledgling program in May. "But there's a half-million people out here now, this place has grown up a lot. The last 15 to 20 years, the population has gone from 70,000 to 400,000. It's the fastest-growing city in America with a population over 200,000. People have a vision of it being where Buck Owens grew up, and it's an oil town, a cow town. But it's gotten more sophisticated."
A little sophistication goes a long way with Kernen, who took five years off from coaching to become a playwright in New York in the late 1990s. But it's Kernen's baseball roots that make him a great fit for the Roadrunners, and vice versa.
A Lengthy Transition
Cal State Bakersfield has long been a Division II powerhouse in other sports, but it has never fielded a baseball team. When Dr. Horace Mitchell became president of the university in 2004, he unveiled a plan to shift the athletics program to Division I. The creation of a baseball program was one prong of that plan.
The Roadrunners began their transition in the 2006-07 academic year, and by 2010-11 they will be full members of Division I and, they hope, the Big West Conference, although the league has yet to vote on that issue and currently says it is not looking to expand. All nine current Big West schools started out as D-II athletic programs, and Kernen has been involved in the early stages of D-I competition for two of them.
He began his collegiate coaching career at Cal State Fullerton in 1978, just three years after the Titans left the Division II ranks. He was the pitching coach when Fullerton won the 1979 national title, and after leaving college baseball in 1982 to run the family business when his father fell ill, he returned in 1988 to follow former CSF coach Augie Garrido to Illinois.
The next year, Kernen became the head coach at Cal State Northridge, which was still a D-II school at the time, and led the Matadors to the D-II title game in 1990. Northridge made the transition to Division I in 1991, and in the Matadors' first season at that level, Kernen piloted them to a 44-18 record and an appearance in the West regional championship game.
Kernen knows it will take Cal State Bakersfield a little longer to become a regional-caliber club since it is starting from scratch and not a successful D-II program, but he has been impressed by the commitment to baseball demonstrated by Mitchell, the university and the community. The Roadrunners raised $6 million in one year to take the program to Division I, and a third of that was dedicated to baseball.
The board of trustees of the Cal State system have already approved a state-of-the-art baseball complex for the Roadrunners, who will play their first season in 58-year-old Sam Lynn Ballpark, the home of the high Class A Bakersfield Blaze. Construction will begin in January on a training facility that Kernen said will be like a major league spring training complex, with a playing field and a tunnel with batting cages and bullpens. The stadium complex adjacent to that is scheduled for completion by 2010, the program's second season of competition. The entire complex will be on campus.
"That shows you the commitment that's being made," Kernen said. "For the university to make a commitment like this of land use is pretty unprecedented."
The Roadrunners anticipate large crowds and great interest from an active community that lacks the myriad distractions of the Los Angeles area, and there was early discussion about building seating to accommodate 7,000-8,000 fans. But Kernen is pushing for a capacity closer to 5,000.
"I'm trying to get it to be a state-of-the-art, beautiful, top-quality facility, but it's not necessary for it to be a stadium where a Triple-A team would play," he said. "I think we'll have big crowds, but I'd like it to be a full stadium as opposed to 6,000 people and it look half full."
Kernen has been heavily involved in the planning for the stadium, but that's only one reason he's been working 16-hour days—if he's lucky. In the summer, he constructed Cal State Bakersfield's 2009 schedule, a competitive slate that includes trips to Nebraska and Missouri, five Big West opponents and Fresno State.
He's working on designing the team's uniforms and has already come up with the hat design: a simple Dodger blue hat with a white button and a white "B" on the front. The school colors include gold, but Kernen opted to remove that color in order to stand out from all the UC-system schools that use it.
Of course, most of Kernen's time this fall was spent recruiting. Like all of his other responsibilities, Kernen has shouldered the recruiting duties on his own, since he has yet to hire any assistants—a major distinction from the building effort at Oregon, where George Horton brought assistant coach Jason Gill with him and hired UC Riverside's Andrew Checketts this fall.
"I'm not looking for any medals for doing this myself; I actually chose not to have assistant coaches yet," Kernen said. "I have some people who will probably apply for the positions when they open up, and I don't think those guys are actually available right now. I'd rather wait for the right people. Coach Horton had the advantage of having guys with him at Fullerton who went with him, and I probably would have done the same thing."
A Different Approach
Kernen also approaches recruiting differently than the Ducks, who have secured commitments from 10 junior college transfers among their 21 signees with an eye at fielding a team that can compete in the Pacific-10 Conference in Year One. By contrast, Cal State Bakersfield will not be a full-fledged member of the Big West eligible for postseason play until its third season of play.
With making a splash in 2011 as a target, Kernen put together a 14-player early signing class that is composed entirely of freshmen who will be around when the Roadrunners have something tangible to play for in three years. His plan is to augment that initial group with another, smaller, freshmen-dominated class next year, but don't expect Bakersfield to approach the 35-man roster cap.
"My roster the first year is certainly going to be under 25, which I think will probably make us the only Division I program in the country that has a roster that size," Kernen said. "Even when I was the head coach at Northridge, I didn't go above that. I plan to keep it there—I want everybody to travel, I don't redshirt, I want everybody to play.
"The question is, 'Aren't you vulnerable to injury?' And, 'Somewhat,' is the answer. But I'm very careful to bring in athletes with more than one skill, so oftentimes that means two-way guys that can pitch. Several of these guys are also pitchers in high school, so even if they don't have a major prominent pitching role on the staff, they may have some role."
Nine of the 14 players in the class are two-way players, led by 6-foot-6 first baseman Brandon Van Dam, third baseman Robbie Mousselli, outfielder Mick Gaston and utilityman Martin Medina—all of whom double as righthanded pitchers. Kernen also wanted to emphasize defense—particularly up the middle—and a balance of righties and lefties, making switch-hitting catcher Jeremy Rodriguez and slick-fielding middle infielder Matt Akiyama key pieces of the puzzle.
Although Kernen comes from the Garrido/Horton coaching tree, he does not share their coaching style.
"We don't play little ball or whatever you call it these days," Kernen said. "Not that that isn't in our arsenal, but we're not afraid to hit the ball out of the park. It's about pitching and playing catch, but our offense is more balanced—you won't see us with 150 sacrifice bunts or something like that. That means the way you recruit has to do with the kinds of things you want to do.
"The Big West is a place where the ballparks are pretty big, generally speaking, so you have to be able to play a balanced game. But when you get to Omaha, you better be able to hit and pitch and play catch, because that bunting game isn't going to hold up. You saw Oregon State the last couple of years—that's the best model you can have. They can hit, and they're strong up the middle."
So Kernen has a blueprint, he has the experience, and he has the backing of a committed university and community. It shouldn't take long for people to stop asking him what the heck he was thinking by going to Bakersfield.
"I think five years from now, a lot of coaches will look back at this and say, 'Wow, I wish I had applied for this job,'" Kernen said. "There's a bit of a commitment to come in here and have a vision to see that and live through that for the early years, but I have a lot more to work with here than I had at Cal State Northridge. I think potentially, when we have the stadium here, and the interest level from the community, it'll be an advantage for us. The games are going to be on TV. There are a lot of things happening here."