Colleges Find Coaches In Pro Ball

Former Yankees scout D.J. Svihlik Vanderbilt went outside the college game to hire D.J. Svihlik, a crosschecker for the Yankees.

Travis Jewett’s decision this offseason to leave Vanderbilt, where he had been the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach for four years, to become the head coach at Tulane, created a rare job opening. For just the fourth time in 14 years as head coach of the Commodores, Tim Corbin had to hire an assistant coach.

Being Corbin’s recruiting coordinator and hitting coach is one of the best assistant jobs in the country. Not only has Corbin built Vanderbilt into one of the best programs in the country, he has also fostered a successful coaching tree. His last three recruiting coordinators are all currently head coaches—Erik Bakich at Michigan, Josh Holliday at Oklahoma State and Jewett.

Corbin could have again looked for a talented assistant coach in the college ranks, as he had done previously when he had openings on staff. Instead, he went outside the college game to hire D.J. Svihlik, a crosschecker for the Yankees.

Svihlik said he would not have left the Yankees for any other job in college baseball. But he was drawn to Vanderbilt by the opportunity to work with Corbin.

“I have a deep amount of respect for coach Corbin and what he built here,” Svihlik said. “I saw it as an area scout and then transitioned to a national crosschecker. I saw all these (Southeastern Conference) programs and I saw Tim take a program that was virtually nothing a little over a decade ago and build it to what it is today. It’s been very rewarding to me thus far.”

Svihlik’s hiring continued a growing trend that has seen more scouts and coaches from the professional ranks move to the college game to coach. While there has always been movement between coaches in college and the pros, it has typically flowed from the college game to pro ball. Those moves still happen—the Dodgers hired Ball State pitching coach Chris Fetter in November to be their minor league pitching coordinator—and the scouting ranks are full of former college coaches. But it is becoming more common for high-profile coaches and scouts to leave professional baseball for the college game, especially in the SEC.

Corbin said he didn’t set out to replace Jewett with someone from pro ball. Corbin has known Svihlik for several years and got to watch how Svihlik evaluates players as he scouted the Commodores for the Yankees.

“He has tremendous evaluation skills and doesn’t make decisions quickly—they’re thought-provoked and insightful.” Corbin said. “He understands Vanderbilt and, rather than go out and get any player, he looks for a player that’s a fit or a match. That’s always been important for Travis and Josh and Erik and the guys we’ve had inside the program. I always thought he did that well. That was one of the components in wanting him here.”

With Svihlik on board, six SEC schools now have at least one coach on staff with experience coaching or scouting in pro ball. And, while the SEC has been at the forefront of the trend, they are far from the only schools dipping into the pro ball ranks. Holliday and Jewett both made hires from pro ball in the last 18 months, as James Vilade joined Oklahoma State after coaching at Double-A Frisco (Rangers) and Tighe Dickinson went to Tulane after a stint as pitching coach for short-season Mahoning Valley (Indians). Texas Christian associate head coach Bill Mosiello, a longtime manager and coach in the Yankees system, also was Mike Trout’s manager at Double-A Arkansas.

While every situation is unique and there are many factors behind the trend, the influence of coaches from pro ball is beginning to be felt around the college game.

Baseball Guys

Kevin O’Sullivan knew who he wanted to be his assistant coaches when Florida hired him as its new head coach following the 2007 season. He moved quickly to bring Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel, both of whom were area scouts, to Gainesville, even as some observers were surprised he was looking to the pro game for his assistant coaches.

“I think I got a lot of, ‘What?’ and ‘Who?’” said O’Sullivan, who also spent one season as a minor league coach with the Twins. “But I knew that they were the right guys. I didn’t hesitate one second.

“The misnomer with them is that they were scouts, but I knew that they were baseball guys to begin with, so I knew they could teach as well.”

Bell and Weitzel have proved O’Sullivan right. A decade later, Florida is one of the best programs in the nation, with five College World Series trips and three SEC championships in nine years. The staff has remained together and is the longest-tenured trio of coaches in the conference.

As is the case with many of the coaches who leave pro ball for college, Bell and Weitzel were drawn in part by their relationship with O’Sullivan. Weitzel and O’Sullivan have known each other since Weitzel coached O’Sullivan in American Legion ball. Bell and O’Sullivan got to know each other while O’Sullivan was at Clemson, which was a part of Bell’s coverage area.

Bell said he wouldn’t have taken the job if it hadn’t been O’Sullivan offering it.

“Pro ball is awesome,” he said. “If I didn’t have a job in college baseball tomorrow I’d be looking for a job in pro ball. I had a great time as a pro scout, especially if you work for great people, and I did. But I get to work for Sully and get back on the field a little bit more.”

Many of the coaches who came to the college game from pro ball share similar sentiments. But beyond getting to work with elite coaches in comfortable situations, the college game has several attractive selling points.

For scouts, college baseball offers an opportunity to get back on the field—hitting fungoes, throwing BP—and return to a competitive environment, while continuing to use their evaluation skills during recruiting. It also enables them to be a part of a player’s development, rather than just turning them over to the organization’s coaches and coordinators after drafting and signing them.

The college game offers pro coaches an opportunity to work with players over a few years, in contrast to the transient nature of minor league rosters. They also have a chance to play a greater role in a player’s off-field development.

Beyond those factors is the financial advantage college offers. How much more a job as a college assistant coach pays depends on a variety of factors, including the school, the pro team and what job the coach held in pro ball. But with Power Five conference schools flush with cash from TV deals and the college football playoff, salaries for head coaches and assistants have, on average, surpassed pro ball, especially for area scouts and minor league coaches. Additionally, pro coaches and scouts typically work on one-year contracts, while college coaches are increasingly signing multi-year deals.

The trend of hiring coaches from pro ball also is partially a response to a flaw in college baseball’s traditional path for coaches. NCAA rules limit schools to three coaches who can recruit off-campus, which usually leaves the entry-level volunteer assistant coach unable to participate in recruiting.

Bigger, more successful programs are generally unwilling to hire assistant coaches who have minimal experience in talent evaluation, making it difficult for volunteer assistants to gain traction at the outset of their career. That makes scouts more attractive, as head coaches already know they can evaluate talent and will be able to learn the NCAA rules regulating recruiting.

“Because there’s not a lot of windows of opportunity for people to get in, then you start looking for guys that have evaluative skills—at least I did,” Corbin said. “There’s just not a lot of opportunities for a young man to get a lot of evaluative experience (in the college game).”

Quick Rise For Cannizaro

Andy Cannizaro stepped to the podium in November and rang the cow bell athletic director John Cohen had just given him. “Hail State,” he proclaimed.

Cannizaro was being introduced as the new head coach at Mississippi State, where he was replacing Cohen, who had been promoted to athletic director the week before. It was the culmination of a meteoric rise for Cannizaro.

Little more than two years before, Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri hired Cannizaro as his hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. At the time, Cannizaro was 35 years old and was only five years removed from the end of his playing career. Since retiring, he had served as the Yankees’ area scout in the Deep South, where he quickly became known for his keen eye for talent. The Yankees have already gotten seven big leaguers out of the five drafts Cannizaro was on their scouting staff.

The son of a former college assistant coach, Cannizaro took to coaching just as quickly. He assembled back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes for LSU and helped the Tigers reach the College World Series in 2015 and super regionals in 2016. His immediate success and infectious energy made him one of the rising stars in college coaching, despite his short time in the college game. He impressed Cohen, who moved quickly to hire the 37-year-old as his first move as athletic director.

Cannizaro said he had long wanted to be a college coach and he believes his time in pro ball helped him quickly achieve his goal.

“You’re talking about trying to prove yourself to young players that have a lot of ability and you have a resume that says you can help young players achieve their goals,” he said. “The biggest thing guys are trying to do is show players they can help you get where you want to go and if I can speed up that learning curve for you, to kind of eliminate that acclimation period to pro ball.”

First a part of the increasing number of assistant coaches to come from pro ball, Cannizaro is now a part of the growing number of head coaches with experience in pro ball. And while the trend of assistant coaches coming from pro ball has been concentrated in power conferences where the pay scale makes such a move more attractive, the same is not true for head coaches. More and more mid-major programs are able to be competitive in pay with pro ball, and some have taken advantage. Programs as varied as George Washington (Gregg Ritchie), Grand Canyon (Andy Stankiewicz), Long Beach State (Troy Buckley), Mississippi State (Cannizaro) and Richmond (Tracy Woodson) all have head coaches with extensive pro ball experience.

While there are more head coaches with pro ball on their resumes, Ritchie’s path to the college game is unique. After his playing career ended in 1995, he worked his way up the coaching ranks in pro ball. The Pirates hired him as minor league hitting coordinator in 2006, at the same time they hired Buckley away from Long Beach to be their minor league pitching coordinator. Five years later, the Pirates named Ritchie their major league hitting coach.

Just as minor league players are working to reach the major leagues, most coaches in pro ball have similar dreams. Ritchie, having reached the game’s largest stage, was not looking to leave. But after two seasons, the George Washington job became available, which Ritchie said was a “perfect storm.” He and his wife are both GW alumni, and he saw an opportunity to restore pride in the program and spend more time with his family.

“I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do those things, to go back to the schools they played at and be the guy that runs it,” Ritchie said. “Especially an MLBer or a coach, I don’t think there’s a lot of that happening. It wasn’t something where I just went, ‘I’ll go because I’ll get more money over here.’ It was kind of a life judgement and a life change for me.”

Ritchie is making progress improving the program. When he took over, the Colonials had endured seven straight losing seasons. They snapped that streak in 2015, going 32-22, and he is 102-117 in four seasons at GW.

Ritchie said the biggest challenge in adjusting to the college game is the NCAA limits on the amount of time coaches are allowed to spend instructing players. And, while he said he misses being in the major leagues, he is pleased with his decision.

“There’s a different adrenaline rush to it, it’s the major leagues, I mean, c’mon,” Ritchie said. “But at the same time, I’m impacting some very young guys and working to turn young boys into men. The added piece is that I made the decision for is family. I was able to reconnect with my family at a critical time.”

More Than Coaching

No matter whether a coach spends his whole life in the college game or not, the basic work of coaching and evaluating players remains the same. In college, however, coaches are involved in much more than just coaching or scouting.

Many college coaches, whether they were scouts or coaches in pro ball, said they work more hours in college. In pro ball, they were able to focus on coaching or scouting, but in college they are also responsible for fundraising, facilities improvements, scouting, scheduling and more.

Buckley worked as both a coach and pitching coordinator in the minor leagues. He said one of the biggest differences between pro ball and college is that in college he has his hand in every part of the program, while in pro ball he could focus on player development. Because he has to oversee all aspects of the Long Beach program, he said it is difficult to ever completely stop working. He believes that leads more coaches to burn out in the college game than in pro ball.

“The way I explained it to my kids is ‘I’m physically here for you, but emotionally and mentally, I’m not here sometimes and I’m sorry for that,’” he said. “There’s so much going on.”

College coaches also have to incorporate the whole college experience and help their players develop off the field and in the classroom, rather than just teaching baseball.

“Depending on what you want personally, there are different areas you can go in,” Corbin said. “In the collegiate game, it’s a holistic approach to baseball and using baseball to teach lot of different things. In the pro game, you’re using baseball to teach baseball in a lot of ways.”

Since his playing career ended, Stankiewicz has been a minor league field coordinator, manager, scout, assistant coach at Arizona State and, now, head coach at Grand Canyon. Having spent so much time in different jobs in both pro ball and college ball, he has seen many of the pros and cons of both levels.

“I have friends on both sides,” Stankiewicz said. “Both sides kind of looking over the fence trying to figure out which one is better. Both are great ways to make a living.”

Svihlik is just beginning his transition to the college game, but he said he enjoyed his first fall with the Commodores. He is enjoying developing relationships with the players, as well as having an on-field role for the first time since his playing career ended 15 years ago.

“Now that I’m on field, that’s most rewarding thing,” Svihlik said. “I was a little nervous how I was going to feel about that. But I absolutely love it.”

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