College Programs Turn To Alumni Working In Pro Baseball
Chip Hale and Willie Bloomquist had a lot in common this offseason.
Both took high-profile head coaching jobs at their alma maters, Hale at Arizona and Bloomquist Arizona State. Both arrived at those jobs with their experience coming exclusively in professional baseball.
Hale was hired straight off the Tigers’ major league field staff, where he was third base coach in 2021. He previously served as a big league coach with the Mets, Athletics and Nationals, and he managed the D-backs in 2015 and 2016.
Bloomquist’s experience comes in the front office. After retiring as a player in 2016, he spent five years as a special assistant to D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall.
This makes Hale and Bloomquist part of a larger trend in college baseball in recent years. College coaching jobs are increasingly being filled by coaches with very little other than pro baseball on their résumés.
Just this offseason, Houston Baptist hired Lance Berkman, who spent a year at Division III St. Thomas in Houston after coaching high school baseball in the city for several years; and Rice hired alumnus Jose Cruz Jr., who was on the Tigers’ major league staff with Hale.
In 2019, Oregon State hired program alum Mitch Canham, who at the time was a rising star in minor league coaching circles; and Wichita State hired alumnus Eric Wedge, a former MLB manager with stops in Cleveland and Seattle.
What Hale and Bloomquist also have in common is that neither is someone who has been interested previously in college coaching openings. Bloomquist admits that his interest in taking on something new like this began and ended with being at Arizona State at this moment in time.
“I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else,” Bloomquist said. “I wasn’t seeking this out. They sought me out from that standpoint. I wouldn’t have done another college job. I wouldn’t have done, really, another professional job, to be honest.”
The coaches who have jumped into college baseball without college coaching experience have seen spotty success—at best—even if Canham and Wedge, in particular, have shown positive signs so far in their short tenures.
The late Tony Gwynn helped develop Stephen Strasburg but ultimately led San Diego State to just three regionals in 12 seasons. Chad Kreuter took Southern California to zero regionals in four seasons. In six seasons at UC Riverside, Troy Percival led his team to just one .500 season in Big West play. Ed Sprague and Ryan Garko failed to take Pacific to the postseason in 14 combined seasons at the helm.
The biggest successes in this realm include Darin Erstad, who, like Gwynn at SDSU, took over at Nebraska after one season as a volunteer assistant. He steadied the program after a downturn and led the Huskers to four regionals in eight seasons. Former big leaguer Steve Bieser went from a St. Louis high school coach to the head coach at Southeast Missouri State. He led the Redhawks to three conference regular-season championships in four seasons before he took the job at Missouri.
But none of those aforementioned coaches, save for Kreuter at USC, was coaching in a place with the history and expectations of Arizona and Arizona State, and that makes them rare cases.
As Hale and Bloomquist head toward their first seasons at the helm, neither is shy about admitting that there are parts of these jobs that they aren’t familiar with. Chief among those unknowns is recruiting, which is increasingly accepted as the lifeblood of a college program. But it’s far from the only thing.
“A lot of the recruiting, learning that part,” Hale said in the fall of what aspects of the job had been an adjustment to that point. “The limitations on time and making sure that we’re on and off the field at the right times—and what I have to turn in if I go to dinner with somebody. There’s a lot of things that you’ve got to really watch and be careful.”
Despite the mixed success with college programs going this route in the past and the learning curve for first-time coaches, Bloomquist feels he can be successful in part thanks to having been through the entire experience himself, from recruit to college player to draftee to minor leaguer to big leaguer.
“I’ve lived this journey. Exactly what these kids are doing right now, I’ve lived it,” Bloomquist said.
“I came from a small town in Washington, branched out and went to arguably the best program in the country in Arizona State. I’ve lived this. I understand what it’s like to be away and go through this program, (and) what the expectations are in this program.
“And then I’ve gone on afterward and lived the journey all the way to the big leagues. (Everything) these guys will experience in this journey, I’ve experienced myself, including playing for Arizona State.”
And it helps as they get acclimated to their new roles that player development is universal at all levels of amateur and pro baseball.
“The actual teaching of the kids is all the same, and just the communication,” Hale said. “That’s been a really good part of it.”
As a way to bridge the knowledge gap that exists, each incoming coach put an emphasis on making savvy assistant coaching hires.
Bloomquist, in addition to hiring Mike Goff from the professional game, brought on as his pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Sam Peraza, a veteran college assistant who has spent time at San Diego State, Florida International, Cal State Northridge, Division II Cal State Los Angeles and Eastern Oklahoma JC.
Hale hired Trip Couch—whose lengthy and successful career as a college coach includes recent stops at South Carolina, Houston and Texas—and held on to pitching coach Dave Lawn, who had been on Jay Johnson’s staff in Tucson. Lawn has previous Pacific-12 Conference stops as an assistant at California and Southern California and came over to Arizona with Johnson after initially joining his staff at Nevada.
“He’s been very successful wherever he’s been, whether it’s Cal or USC or (Nevada) or here,” Hale said of Lawn. “He’s done really good things. He’s got great connections in the recruiting world, along with Trip Couch, my other assistant.
“Those are huge deals when I come back to the college game and have no clue. I know what I don’t know, and that was recruiting. So to have Dave and to have Trip out there grinding hard on this year’s (junior college) group, (class of) 2023s, 2024s, getting after these things, I had no idea about any of that stuff.
“(I’m) learning quickly, but those guys have a lot of experience.”
It’s easy to focus on the lack of college coaching experience Hale and Bloomquist bring to the table. That’s what sets them apart in a sport that has so often and for so long valued hiring coaches who have come through college coaching pipelines.
At the same time, it’s important not to discount the experience that they do have in college baseball.
Both played for national titles in college. Hale went to the College World Series as a player with Arizona in 1985 and 1986, winning a national title in the latter case. Bloomquist and the Sun Devils went to Omaha in 1998 and came up one win shy of a national title.
Both played for historic college coaches: Jerry Kindall at Arizona and Pat Murphy at Arizona State.
Kindall was in a class of coaches who helped push the college game forward into the modern age, and he stuck around the college game as a broadcaster after his retirement.
Murphy was seen as unconventional in his time at ASU, to say the least, but he won a ton of games in Tempe. He inspired fierce loyalty in a large swath of his former players, and his skills as a developer of talent and a leader have been borne out. He rose all the way to the big leagues, where he serves as bench coach for the Brewers.
“He did a lot of phenomenal things for this university and this program—and had a huge impact for a lot of people,” Bloomquist said of Murphy.
“He saw things in people that others didn’t and was able to get the maximum out of those players.”
Ultimately, that’s now also the task of both Bloomquist and Hale at two highly successful programs. Doing so will be a big step in carrying on proud traditions in both places.
In the bigger picture, perhaps that success, should it come to pass, opens even wider a pipeline of coaches returning to the college ranks after successful careers in the brighter lights of pro baseball.