First-Year Coaches Steve Holm, Jordan Bischel On Different Paths To Success
Illinois State and Central Michigan have a lot in common, and not just that their weekend series in Normal, Ill., last weekend was the first time this year either had been able to play a series north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
They’re also both breaking in new head coaches in ISU’s Steve Holm and CMU’s Jordan Bischel, and they’re each off to good starts.
Illinois State is 13-6, including a win against top-ranked Vanderbilt, with an offense hitting well over .300 as a team and a pitching staff with an ERA that is nearly two full runs lower than it was at the end of last season.
The Chippewas, meanwhile, are 13-6 with a win against Pittsburgh and a couple of wins in their season-opening series against Troy, which last season made regionals. Their offense is hitting at a clip more than 30 points higher than last season, and their pitchers have an ERA about a run lower than 2018’s season-ending figure.
Where the two programs diverge is the route they took to find these first-year coaches whose hires seem to be paying early dividends.
Both coaches followed what could be described as reasonably traditional paths to leading programs in Midwestern mid-major conferences, but they certainly come at the job with different experiences.
Holm, an alumnus of a college baseball powerhouse in Oral Roberts, worked his way to the big leagues as a catcher for the Giants and Twins. Upon retiring in 2012, he jumped into college coaching in his hometown as a pitching coach under Reggie Christiansen at Sacramento State. Then, he followed fellow West Coast native Mark Wasikowski to Purdue, where he served as a pitching coach for two seasons before landing the job at Illinois State.
The path from some level of pro baseball to various assistant coaching stops to a post as a head coach is well-trodden in college baseball, but college coaches with experience in the big leagues are rarer, and that’s part of what makes Holm unique in his position.
For a player like ISU outfielder John Rave, that experience is a particularly big sell, as he’s the most likely of the 2019 Redbirds to become a big leaguer himself. Rave was drafted in the 35th round out of high school, and he now ranks No. 127 on the Top 300 Draft Prospects list.
Going back to when he was coming out of Oral Roberts, Holm has lived through everything Rave will have to deal with as his junior year continues,. That makes him a valuable resource not only for his outfielder’s development as the centerpiece of this ISU team, but also in preparing him for the draft process and his entry into professional baseball.
“We’ve had a couple of conversations about it (the draft process),” Rave said. “He’s great at keeping me in the game at the collegiate level right now, but he’s also a great shoulder to lean on. He’s a guy that’s been there. He’s struggled, but also succeeded. He’s a guy that kind of keeps my head on my shoulders and makes sure I’m on the right path to that success for the best possible outcome in the draft this year. And he’s really a guy that I can lean on to point me in the right direction for that.”
Even for players who don’t match Rave’s prospect status, there is a benefit to Holm’s MLB career. It wasn’t that long ago when Holm was in the dugout as an active player, which makes it easy for him to relate to his players, many of whom aren’t much younger than guys Holm played with in his last stops in pro ball.
“He’s a very knowledgeable guy and he connects really well to his players,” said outfielder Jordan Libman, who came out of the series leading the team in hitting at .406. “Everyone wants to go out and win for a guy like that. He’s a very personable guy, he’s a player’s coach. When you have a player’s coach, the sky is the limit.”
Holm’s experience as an assistant prior to taking his first head coaching gig might not be altogether lengthy, just six years total, but it included a couple of very different stops at the Division I level.
Sacramento State is a program not altogether different from Illinois State, at least insofar as the Hornets have to battle with the bigger programs of the Mountain West and Pac-12 for players just as the Redbirds do with the Big Ten and other major programs such as Louisville that make a living recruiting players from the Midwest.
And in coming on at Purdue, he was part of a coaching staff that came in after the Boilermakers had gone 10-44 the year prior. At least early on, it was simply a grind to get players to believe that they were going to win games in West Lafayette.
So, for those keeping score at home, that’s experience as a player in the South, time spent as a minor leaguer and big leaguer in multiple organizations, a stop as an assistant out west, a stop at a major conference program in the Midwest, and a head coaching gig at a mid-major school in the same region.
In less than 20 years, Holm’s career as a player and coach has covered a lot of ground, at places big and small, all at the Division I college level or higher.
“I do think that when you have that background, you understand how kids grow up,” Holm said. "Up here (in the Midwest), there’s a lot more arm strength and there’s a lot more power hitters because kids are indoors for six months out of the year, and there’s no way around that. In California, you can go out and find a middle infielder every day of the week. You can drive home and pass 15 of them that are going to play Division I baseball because the kids are outside 12 months out of the year.
"I think that’s the one part that you start to understand is if it’s hard to find in this geographic area, you know where you can find it in a different geographic area.”
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For Central Michigan coach Jordan Bischel, his time with the Chippewas is his first stop in Division I.
He played his college baseball at St. Norbert College (Wisc.), a Division III school, and that doubled as his first assistant coaching stop after his playing career ended there in 2003.
From there, he had stops as an assistant at Division III John Carroll (Ohio) and Division II Northwest Missouri State before serving as the head coach at NAIA Midland University (Neb.) and Division II Northwood (Mich.).
While this might be his first exposure as a coach to this level of college baseball, he does bring with him six seasons of head coaching experience. To a large degree, no matter the level of baseball, being a head coach is being a head coach, and the challenges aren’t always all that different.
“When you get to this part of the season and you take the field, it’s really a similar setup,” Bischel said. “I think it helped me that coaching at the Division II level, there are some pretty darn good teams, so it’s not like it was a low level of baseball. It’s kind of a hidden gem, some of these teams that you play at the Division II level, and it hasn’t felt like a drastically different game. Guys are a little bit bigger, guys are a little bit stronger, there’s more power, there’s a little more speed, the velocity is higher, but it's really, in terms of coaching these games, it’s felt like a very similar game.”
Mid-major Division I college baseball might not have the palatial facilities that major conferences enjoy and the support of thousands of fans at each and every home game, but on average, it’s a step up just by virtue of being Division I. And on top of it, it’s nice as a head coach to not also have to be the head groundskeeper, the traveling secretary and about a hundred other jobs, which is often the case at lower levels of the college game.
“Having somebody that can help you book the hotel rooms and do those things, it does free you up to really focus on the student-athletes," Bischel said. "In my shoes, you probably really appreciate it because you have seen the other side of it where you’re doing a million different things trying to keep 100 balls in the air, and to have so many more people to help you out with those things is really a nice luxury to have."
What these coaches do have in common is that they are both clearly reaching their players effectively. Illinois State, which took two out of three from CMU in the series in Normal, is seeing their talent on the field translate into wins in a big way, and the Chippewas, with that 13-6 mark, are already far ahead of where they were last season, when they were 3-15-1 in their first 19 contests.
Finding the right head coach is all about finding the right fit for a particular program. There are many different ways a program can go about finding their guy, and Bischel and Holm are a great reminder that there’s no one path to being someone’s right fit.