Coaching Confidential: What’s The Most Important Quality For An Assistant Coach?

Image credit: David Pierce (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Over the next several weeks, we’ll post the results of that survey.

This is the time of year that the coaching carousel typically starts to heat up. With the regular season coming to an end, coaching changes follow. There are expected to be fewer changes this summer due to the abbreviated 2020 season, economic downturn and chaotic roster situation caused by the extra year of eligibility every spring sports athlete was granted.

But every head coach, no matter whether they are new to the position or have been on the job for more than a decade, must hire assistant coaches from time to time. Getting those hires right is one of the keys to running a successful program.

What is the most important quality head coaches look for when they evaluate candidates for openings on their staff? We put that question to our panel of coaches.

Quality Votes
Loyalty 33
Work ethic 20
Recruiting ability 14
Integrity 5
Knowledge 4
Player development 4
Trust 4
Passion for the game 3


Previous Coaching Confidential questions

  1. Who is the most underrated head coach?
  2. Which assistant coach will make the best head coach?
  3. What should the next proposal for a third full-time assistant coach entail?
  4. What program has the best player development facilities?

Loyalty was a clear winner in the poll, coming in well ahead of work ethic and recruiting ability. In a profession where coaches often have to change jobs to get ahead that may seem unusual. But as the coaches explained, loyalty leads to trust, which creates a strong working relationship.

“The more and more I’m in a coaching position, whether it’s as an assistant or a head coach, being able to have day-to-day trust, knowing you can share everything with the people beside you and knowing through thick or thin they’ll be there is important to me,” one coach said. “There will be disagreements, that’s how you get better, but if you’re on the same page, that’s what’s best.”

When taken from that broad definition, loyalty can mean having each other’s backs and sticking to the organizational plan set in place. For an assistant coach, that might mean going along with a decision that he doesn’t necessarily agree with. For a head coach, it might mean giving an assistant the latitude to do his job and then backing up his decisions.

Loyalty can also be read more narrowly. Coaching can be a transient profession. While there’s generally less job hopping in baseball than in basketball or football, coaches often still have to leave a job to advance their careers, whether that means taking another assistant job at a bigger school or at a place that will give them more responsibility or moving up to the head coaching ranks.

So, if a head coach can find assistants who will be loyal to him that is valuable. It creates continuity in the program, and everyone knows what to expect from one another.

Perhaps the best example of that kind of loyalty in college baseball was at Stanford, where Dean Stotz spent 37 years as Mark Marquess’ top assistant coach before his retirement in 2013. The pair led the Cardinal to nearly 1,500 wins, two national championships, 14 College World Series appearances and 12 Pac-12 titles. Their success as a duo will likely never again be seen in college baseball.

Even in today’s game, however, there are still coaching combinations that have withstood the test of time. Missouri State’s Keith Guttin and pitching coach Paul Evans have worked together for 32 years, making them the longest-tenured active duo in the country. Also notably, North Carolina’s Mike Fox and assistant Scott Forbes have worked together for 19 years and Virginia’s Brian O’Connor and assistant Kevin McMullan have worked together for the past 17 years.

Before Karl Kuhn left Virginia last summer to become the head coach at Radford, the whole Virginia full-time coaching staff had been together for 16 years. The trio was the longest tenured in college baseball’s six biggest conferences.

Texas’ David Pierce also has a good idea of what loyalty on a coaching staff can do. He spent nine years as an assistant coach at Rice under Wayne Graham before starting his career as a head coach. Now, his assistants Sean Allen and Philip Miller have twice changed jobs with him, going from Sam Houston State to Tulane and then to Texas.

When Pierce was named 2018 Coach of the Year, he said his assistant coaches were like family to him.

“This coaching staff has been special and they’re special because they understand the respect from each other and for each other and the love for each other,” Pierce said. “We feed off of each other.”

Finding that kind of chemistry is rare, but the success Pierce and his staff have had together shows why head coaches prize the loyalty that makes it possible.

“Loyalty is really huge when it comes to not only a coaching staff but also the corporate world or the business world, as well,” another said. “We’re in a business in some ways. It plays not only on the academic side, but also the coaching side.”

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