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Coaching Confidential: Which Assistant Coach Will Make The Best Head Coach?

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.

Last week, we asked coaches who the most underrated head coach in America is. Here's what they said.

This week’s question is one that Baseball America has periodically asked over the last two decades: Which current assistant coach will one day make the best head coach? We first surveyed head coaches on the subject in 2001, compiling a list that included future stars like Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor and Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle. The survey was again conducted in 2012 and 2018.

This spring, we asked our panel of coaches the question again. Respondents were allowed to list up to three assistant coaches, excluding anyone currently on their staff.

Chris HartNC State8
Kevin McMullanVirginia8
Scott BrownVanderbilt6
Jake GautreauMississippi State6
Nick SchnabelMichigan6
Nate YeskieArizona6
Dan FitzgeraldDallas Baptist5
Scott ForbesNorth Carolina4
Kevin SchnallCoastal Carolina4
Chad CailletTexas A&M3
Josh JordanDuke3
Skylar MeadeSouth Carolina3
Karl NonemakerAuburn3
Jeff PalumboEast Carolina3
Eric SniderLouisville3
Bryant WardUCLA3
Roger WilliamsLouisville3

For the third straight iteration of this survey, Virginia’s Kevin McMullan, the 2009 Assistant Coach of the Year, topped the list. This time, however, McMullan shared the top spot with North Carolina State’s Chris Hart.

Following the top-two vote getters there was a four-way tie for third between Vanderbilt’s Scott Brown, Mississippi State’s Jake Gautreau, Michigan’s Nick Schnabel and Arizona’s Nate Yeskie.

The coaches cast a wide net in voting – 78 assistant coaches received at least one vote and 36 were named on multiple ballots. The top vote getters were almost all from major conference schools. Dallas Baptist’s Dan Fitzgerald and Coastal Carolina’s Kevin Schnall, who both made the top 10 in 2018, were the lone exceptions.

Hart and McMullan are both longtime ACC assistants – Hart has been on the NC State staff for 16 years and associate head coach for six, while McMullan has been at Virginia for 17 years and associate head coach for 13 years – and have built impressive resumes. It’s also difficult – if not impossible – to find anyone who has anything bad to say about them.

“Mac’s a very nonconfrontational person, always very respectful,” said one coach who voted for both Hart and McMullan. “Chris, he’s a good baseball guy, detailed, a very respected person in the business.”

Hart, 40, has spent nearly his entire career with the Wolfpack. After one season as an assistant coach at St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC in 2004 after graduating from Florida State, where he played all over the diamond, he joined Elliott Avent’s staff at NC State.

Hart became the Wolfpack’s recruiting coordinator in 2010 and signed a top-five class in the country the following year, a group that was headlined by Brett Austin, Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner. Recruiting is one of the things that stands out most about Hart, especially his ability to find under-the-radar players like Turner and Will Wilson, who both developed into first-round picks at NC State.

“They’ve been really consistently good for a long time in a tough league, where other schools have advantages and in a state with a ton of Division I schools, and he finds players in a bunch of areas,” a coach in another major conference said. “In these leagues, it’s hard to be good consistently unless you’re in one of the top 2-3 places. They’ve been good a long time and he’s a part of it.”

McMullan, 51, has long been considered one of the best assistant coaches in the country. He played a key role in helping the Cavaliers become one of college baseball’s premier programs and win the 2015 national championship. He’s played a key role in recruiting and developing seven first-round draft picks.

McMullan previously coached at East Carolina, St. John’s and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, as well as in the Braves’ system. At every stop, he found success and commanded the respect of his peers.

“Kevin has been a mainstay as one of the top assistants for forever,” another coach said. “He’s very professional, very knowledgeable, very smart, he has a great personality. He can recruit and also is a great teacher.”

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This year’s results look very similar to the 2018 version of the poll. Six of the nine coaches, including McMullan, who received at least four votes in this year’s survey also ranked in the top 10 in 2018. Ben Orloff is the lone coach who ranked in the top 10 that year who has graduated to the head coaching ranks. He was promoted to head coach at UC Irvine following the 2018 season.

Three coaches have ranked in the top 10 in each of the two previous iterations of this list – McMullan, North Carolina’s Scott Forbes and Coastal Carolina’s Kevin Schnall (who first made the list in 2012 when he was at Central Florida).

The coaching staff at Mississippi fared especially well in this year’s polling. Recruiting coordinator Carl Lafferty, hitting coach Mike Clement and volunteer assistant Marc MacMillan – all three of Mike Bianco’s assistants – received at least one vote. Ole Miss was one of 12 schools that had multiple coaches receive at least one vote. In all, coaches from 65 schools received votes.

History suggests that most of these coaches will become head coaches over the next several years. Half of the 2012 version of this list were head coaches this spring, including East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin (then at Ole Miss), Auburn’s Butch Thompson (then at Mississippi State) and Oregon’s Mark Wasikowski. When you combine that with the holdovers who were again highly rated in this year’s survey, it’s clear that current head coaches have an eye for the next big thing.

This year’s top vote getters should have a similarly bright future. They include some assistants who like Orloff could earn promotions at their current schools in coming seasons, while others will undoubtably be hired away in future iterations of the coaching carousel. The sport’s shutdown this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic means significant coaching turnover is unlikely this summer, but when the next major job does come open, these are all names to watch.

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