Clemson Baseball Coaching Search, Job Profile And Candidates
Clemson on Tuesday announced that it had fired coach Monte Lee after seven seasons at the helm. Lee went 242-136 overall in his time at Clemson and 102-86 in ACC play.
Lee’s time with the Tigers really comes off as a tale of two tenures. In his first three seasons at Clemson (2016-18), the Tigers won 44, 42 and 47 games, respectively, were a combined 55-35 in conference games and in all three seasons hosted a regional.
The fact that the Tigers lost all three of those home regionals was a point of frustration for fans, but it was at least impossible to argue with the regular-season success at that point. The 2019 team took a step back in going 35-26 overall and 15-15 in the ACC but it was still a regional team.
Then things took a turn. Rather than being able to fully get things turned around, a 2020 season that was off to a promising 14-3 start was canceled due to the pandemic. Then, the last two teams missed regionals altogether, which marks the first time Clemson has had back-to-back postseason misses since the mid 1980s.
Clemson is thought of as a power in college baseball, and if you go back far enough, there was a time when Clemson defined cool in college baseball. Whether it was the “Clemson cut” baseball pants or just that it had fun players like Kris Benson and Khalil Greene, there was no doubting that it was a program with real cache.
But while Clemson might still be perceived as a national power by longtime college baseball observers, it has been a long time since the Tigers performed like one in the postseason. It hasn’t been to a super regional or the College World Series since its last trip to Omaha in 2010, which might as well be ancient history, especially to recruits who might be considering Clemson today.
Clemson’s decision to move on from Jack Leggett and hire Monte Lee after the 2015 season was a move to stop a slide in performance and return the program to a place among the elite, and after a promising start to the Lee era, the Tigers are back in a similar spot seven years later.
Previous Head Coach
Monte Lee: 242-136, seven seasons
There’s not a lot holding Clemson back from still being an elite program in college baseball. Doug Kingsmore Stadium is a good facility, even if it lacks some of the bells and whistles associated with the newly built palaces in college baseball. At-large bids in the ACC are also plentiful, as are hosting opportunities. Clemson’s national brand is on the uptick thanks to its success on the football field and the hotbed of Atlanta is a short drive away. The Tigers have recruited well for years and recently have taken a more national approach to those efforts. With the right hire and the right players, the path back to prominence for Clemson isn’t all that complicated.
Will Clemson want to pay like an elite program?
According to 2021 data from Athletic Director U, Lee made a total of just over $534,000 that year, which put him fourth among coaches at public institutions in the ACC, behind Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor and Louisville’s Dan McDonnell. As Clemson looks to get back into rarified air in college baseball, though, it’s just as important to compare compensation with the rest of the country, and in that regard, Lee was 24th, and that’s just among schools that reported salaries. Clemson’s administration wants to make a home run hire, but will it be willing to increase compensation to the point where it can be more sure that it’s making one?
Does Clemson stay inside the family?
Clemson looks up to few programs in terms of coaching trees, as longtime coach Jack Leggett had a famously good eye for assistant coaching talent. Some of those assistant coaches are now out of reach, like Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, but others might not be. Lee was a hire from outside the Clemson coaching tree, although he had extensive experience coaching in the state of South Carolina both at South Carolina as an assistant and at College of Charleston as the head coach. Does Clemson now swing back the other way to bring in someone from inside the family? Or does new athletic director Graham Neff, who took over for longtime AD Dan Radakovich last winter, look for a big fish elsewhere?
The bad news for Clemson’s next coach is that he won’t have ACC player of the year Max Wagner, who is expected to be a high draft pick this summer, and the same might be true of top starter Mack Anglin. The good news is if the new coach is able to keep the roster out of the transfer portal, there is a lot of young talent to be found. Rising junior slugger Caden Grice had a down season in 2022, but is one of the best power bats in the country when he’s swinging it well and last year played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Utility player Cooper Ingle and infielder Blake Wright, the two best hitters other than Wagner, are also due to return for third years, and the middle infield duo of Benjamin Blackwell and Tyler Corbitt both have eligibility left despite coming in as graduate transfers in 2022. On the mound, key relievers like Ricky Williams, Casey Tallent, Ty Olenchuk, Jackson Lindley, Ryan Ammons, Geoffrey Gilbert and Jay Dill can all return, as can Billy Barlow, who established himself as a steady starter as a freshman. Remember that the 2022 team wasn’t that far off from being a regional team, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the new coach has a very good team on his hands in 2023.
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When Clemson fired Leggett in 2015, then-athletic director Dan Radakovich made the program’s objectives clear. In moving on from a coach who made the College World Series six times from 1995-2010 but hadn’t won a regional in five years, the Tigers were setting their expectations near the top of the sport. "After my evaluation, it came down to this: I think we can be better," Radakovich told reporters at the time.
Seven years later, Clemson still hasn’t won a regional since 2010 and, so, it is once again looking for a coach after missing regionals in back-to-back years. Radakovich won’t be the man making the hire, he left Clemson for Miami in December. The expectations are still generally the same, however. Clemson wants to compete at the top of the ACC and for Omaha bids. Sources have told Baseball America that the Tigers are willing to step up their salary structure to make that happen.
Leggett famously employed both Tim Corbin and Kevin O’Sullivan as assistant coaches from 1999-2002. They are not coming back. But the Tigers can still tap into that magic with Michigan coach Erik Bakich, who was the volunteer assistant on the 2002 staff. He left with Corbin for Vanderbilt after the season and since has gone on to great success as a head coach, first at Maryland (when it was still an ACC member) and now at Michigan, which he led to a runner-up finish at the 2019 College World Series. Bakich, 44, is well established (and compensated) at Michigan at this point and he’s turned down interest from South Carolina and Stanford in the past. Might a return to Clemson be what finally tempts him to leave Ann Arbor?
Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett, 50, has impressed in his three seasons in South Bend, to say the least. He last year led the Fighting Irish to their first ACC title since joining the league and came a win away from reaching the College World Series. The Fighting Irish this year are 38-14. He also is familiar with the area from his seven years as coach at UNC Greensboro, which he led to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years, and his time as an assistant coach at East Carolina. He’s in a good spot at Notre Dame, but there are structural challenges to working at a Northern school in a mostly Southern league. Could Clemson persuade him to make an in-conference shift?
East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin has been a hot name in previous years but so far no one has been able to lure him away from his alma mater, including Alabama and Mississippi State. He very much wants to get East Carolina to the College World Series for the first time in program history. Would he be more open to leaving if the Pirates reach Omaha? He has a good thing going in Greenville and in 2020 signed a contract extension through 2025, but Clemson has the resources to make an earnest run at him if it wanted.
Clemson interviewed John Szefc seven years ago when he was at Maryland and it should give him a call again this year to see if he’s still interested now that he’s at Virginia Tech. He’s led the Hokies to a breakout season this spring that’s already included the program’s first ACC title and trip to super regionals. He’s won big everywhere he’s gone. At Maryland, he took the Terrapins to back-to-back super regional appearances, and he led Marist to four NCAA Tournament appearances. Having now broken through in his fifth season in Blacksburg, it won’t be easy to hire Szefc away. But he won the ACC at Virginia Tech and took Maryland to two super regionals. It isn’t a stretch to see him winning a lot at Clemson.
If Clemson looks to pro ball for its next coach, a route that several schools have taken in recent years, it will likely set its sights on Rochester, N.Y. The staff at Triple-A Rochester includes two prominent Clemson alumni in Matthew LeCroy (manager) and Billy McMillon (developmental coach). Both played in the big leagues after starring at Clemson and have experience managing in Triple-A. Neither has college coaching experience, but both are well regarded in the pro ranks.
Clemson kept it local when it hired Lee seven years ago from College of Charleston and there are several coaches with a similar profile to his in the area. Wofford’s Todd Interdonato, Liberty’s Scott Jackson, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shawn Stiffler and Charlotte’s Robert Woodard all have built exciting resumes. Jackson and Woodard both have ACC experience as assistant coaches and have taken teams to the NCAA Tournament as head coaches. Stiffler took VCU to a super regional in 2015 and has the Rams back in a regional final this year. Interdonato has built a consistent winner at Wofford, just an hour up the road from Clemson.