David Pierce Named 2018 College Coach Of The Year
Replacing Augie Garrido, who finished his career as the winningest coach in college baseball history, was never going to be easy. Texas went through a protracted search following the 2016 season when Garrido retired before landing on David Pierce, who was then the head coach at Tulane.
The choice has been an inspired one. Pierce this season, his second at the program’s helm, led Texas to its first Big 12 Conference title since 2011 and to the College World Series for the first time since 2014. This wasn’t a vintage Longhorns team loaded with elite prospects. It was a team that had to grind out results, that fought back from a disappointing 9-9 start against an ambitious nonconference schedule and was tested emotionally early, when Garrido passed away in March.
In the end, Texas won, something with which Pierce is very familiar. Since returning to the college game in 2001 as an assistant coach at Houston, his alma mater, he has not missed the NCAA Tournament. In seven years as a head coach, his teams have never won less than 35 games and he has taken three different teams to regionals.
This year at Texas was one of the best coaching jobs. The Longhorns caught fire down the stretch to win the Big 12 on the final weekend of the regular season. They went on to win the Austin Regional and Super Regional and finished the year 42-23. For those successes, Pierce is Baseball America’s 2018 College Coach of the Year.
When Pierce arrived at Texas with his staff of assistant coaches Sean Allen, Phil Haig and Philip Miller, who have been with him since he was head coach at Sam Houston State, he knew they had to embrace the expectations and history of one of college baseball’s premier programs. In 2017, Pierce’s first season, the Longhorns reached the Long Beach Regional final, a strong first step.
The Longhorns pushed beyond that this year, returning the program to heights it hadn’t reached in recent seasons. They weren’t a team that was projected to reach Omaha and were just .500 going into Big 12 play. But they never gave in and continued to grow throughout the season before hitting their stride in the second half.
“You could see they were committed to each other,” Pierce said. “When we won the conference championship and some things fell into place for us, you knew this team was doing things right and they were playing at a level for each other, they were playing with confidence. When that happened, you saw them feed off each other.”
That attitude, the Longhorns say, starts with the belief their head coach has in them. Pierce works to stay even-keeled around the team and is encouraging when they’re in a tight spot. When Texas lost a series at Kansas State in late March, first baseman Jake McKenzie said the Longhorns expected a tough week would follow. Instead, Pierce didn’t pile on, understanding the team already had taken the loss to heart. Texas responded by winning six straight games, including a sweep of Baylor.
Pierce’s response to that weekend helped set the tone for the rest of the season. Two weeks later, Texas won a series at rival Oklahoma, coming back to beat the Sooners in each of the first two games of the weekend. It was then that Pierce said he thought the Longhorns had come together as a team.
Texas lost just one more series the rest of the season and shot up the Big 12 standings. Going into the final weekend, a home series against Texas Christian, Texas needed a series win and an Oklahoma State series loss to win the conference. The Longhorns swept the Horned Frogs and the Cowboys got swept, and Texas claimed the title.
“After that is when we got a full head of steam and we just started rolling,” DH Zach Zubia said. “We were faced with so much adversity in the early parts of the year. I credit coach Pierce with (our comeback) because he taught us it’s not over until it’s over. You play every inning like it’s your last.”
Pierce played at Houston and began his coaching career as an assistant coach at Rice in 1991. After one season he moved to the high school ranks in Houston before returning to his alma mater in 2001 under Rayner Noble. After two seasons, he moved back to Rice, joining Wayne Graham’s staff as an assistant coach. He spent nine years with the Owls and was a part of their 2003 national championship.
Pierce understood the importance of the Owls’ winning culture from the moment he arrived at Rice. So, he tried to discern what made them different and why Graham was so successful.
“I thought coach Graham did a great job of prioritizing an individual player and situations that mattered,” Pierce said. “We didn’t have a lot of tricks. We had a handful of bunt coverages and a handful of pickoffs and then we allowed the players to go out and compete with their talent.
“Understanding that these guys are good, and we have to maximize their talent. And how do we do that? We put them in the best position to succeed.”
Pierce has stuck to that philosophy throughout his career. The Longhorns appreciate how much attitude he gives them, as well as the detailed preparation the coaching staff puts into the game plans.
“Coach Pierce talks about it all the time, he says the Big 12 is a players league,” McKenzie said. “It all comes down to the players. For the most part, they let us do our own thing. Them having confidence in us and never losing sight of that and letting us play our own game is important.”
Pierce first became a head coach in 2012 at Sam Houston State. After three seasons with the Bearkats, he moved on to Tulane, where he led the Green Wave to the American Athletic Conference title in 2016, his second season in New Orleans. Following that season, he was hired at Texas.
Everywhere Pierce has gone as a head coach, he has followed one of the game’s greats. At Sam Houston, he took over from Mark Johnson, who spent 20 years at Texas A&M before taking over the Bearkats. At Tulane, Peirce followed Rick Jones, who was synonymous with Green Wave baseball. And, at Texas, he filled the biggest shoes of all, taking over from Garrido, one of the greatest college baseball coaches ever.
At every stop, Pierce has made it a point to try and keep the former coaches involved in the program.
“I think those coaches earned that to be a part of the program that they built,” Pierce said. “I felt like we embraced coach Garrido, embraced the winning traditions and embraced the alumni base. We can get a lot more done if we’ve got people in our corner. I just felt like we made a concerted effort that these people are a part of what Texas baseball traditions and history is about so we’re not going to run from that, we’re going to include that.”
College Podcast: 2019 Signing Day Special
Texas coach David Pierce, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis join the podcast.
This year, that mission became even more poignant when Garrido passed away in early March. He had recruited and coached many of the Longhorns and his presence was felt all over the program. Texas carried his legacy with them the rest of the season, wearing a badge with his No. 16 on their uniforms, painting his initials and number into the giant Longhorn logo that adorns the center field turf and hanging his jersey in the dugout.
In Omaha, Pierce took it a step further and wore Garrido’s No. 16 to honor the former coach at the end of an emotional season.
McKenzie, one of the many Longhorns who had played for Garrido, said Pierce did a good job taking over the program but continuing to honor the legendary coach.
“Everyone’s expecting a new coach to go 20 years because that’s what all the coaches have done here,” McKenzie said. “It’s a tough position to be in – paying respects to Augie, letting him be a part of the program, showing he respected coach Garrido and followed that legacy. Wearing the No. 16 in Omaha pretty cool tribute to him.”
Through all the twists and turns, Pierce has been able to lean on his trusted assistant coaches, who have been with him for seven years, spanning three jobs. The staff has had impressive staying power and their chemistry has been a big part of the reason they have been able to be so successful.
Pierce said his assistant coaches are 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.”
At the center of it all is Pierce, who has proven to have the right touch on and off the field. This year, he led Texas back to national prominence and has the Longhorns on track for another long stay in the spotlight.