Kansas State Coach Pete Hughes on His 2020 Wildcats, Coaching College Football
There's an alternate universe where Kansas State coach Pete Hughes is a head football coach rather than a head baseball coach, and it's not even that far off from reality.
A baseball and football player at Davidson, Hughes began his coaching career in both sports at Hamilton College in New York before moving to a similar dual role at Northeastern.
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It was there that he was roommates with Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone, got to know former Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and recruited against UCLA head coach Chip Kelly when Kelly was coaching at New Hampshire.
As a young assistant at what was then a Division I-AA football program, he was admittedly on the fast track to being a head coach in college football. But he realized when he was given a chance to interview to be Harvard's head baseball coach in his 20s that baseball was going to afford him the opportunity to be a head coach, and enjoy everything that came along with it, much sooner.
"I wanted to lead my own program, and I knew I was going to have a big family, and back then, football guys and families were jumping around all over the place," Hughes said. "I wanted a little consistency, I wanted to run my own program, and at the end of the day, I wanted to work really, really hard and be able to compete 56 times, not just 10 or 11 days out of the year."
It worked out well for Hughes. After a couple of years at Division III Trinity University in San Antonio, he became the coach at Boston College before moving on to Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, and now Kansas State.
He led both the Hokies and Sooners to regionals, and although this was just year two for Hughes in Manhattan, things are moving in a very positive direction there as well.
The entirety of college baseball was disappointed to see the 2020 season come to an early end, but it had to be particularly disappointing for this K-State team, a group that was just starting to find its stride.
At the time the season stopped, the Wildcats were coming off of their best weekend result, winning three out of four at Stanford. At 10-7 overall, things were looking up as they were set to begin Big 12 play, but they never got a chance to make good on that promise.
"We had a lot of momentum going, our guys were feeling great about our program, and it stung a little bit," Hughes said.
The biggest catalyst for that success was the pitching staff. Coming into the season, it was clear the group had a high ceiling.
Lefthander Jordan Wicks was coming off of being named the Big 12's pitcher of the year, and transfer righthanders Carson Seymour and Connor McCullough had outstanding summers on the Cape. Righthanders Kasey Ford and Caleb Littlejim have both thrown a ton of innings in the program, and lefty Eric Torres was a standout reliever in 2019.
But if anything, things were going even better than expected for this unit in 2020. Through four weeks of play, Kansas State had a 2.07 ERA. Wicks (3-0, 0.35), Seymour (2-2, 3.92), McCullough (2-1, 2.25) and Ford (1-1, 2.45) provided quality innings in their starts, and great relief work came from righthanders Brett Lockwood (0.00, 7.1 IP) and Zak Herbers (0.64, 14 IP) in particular.
Hughes had some really good pitching staffs in his previous stops, but he doesn't mince words when he talks about how special this group is.
"I've been around a lot of high-end pitching, and I don't hesitate in saying that this year, and especially next year, is the most talented pitching staff that I've ever coached," Hughes said.
The offense got off to a slower start, but was coming on strong, scoring 28 runs in four games against Stanford. A 10-run outburst against South Dakota State in the last game of the season was a positive sign as well.
"We just didn't start off with the bats like we were capable of doing, and that is baseball in a nutshell," Hughes said. "We were just waiting for the bats to come around, (and) we thought that finally happened and some of our guys that had a lot of success last year were getting more comfortable, being more productive."
The good news for Hughes and his Wildcats is that all of that positive progress made in 2020 can now be rolled into optimism about the 2021 season.
It was already a relatively veteran club, and it will be to an even greater degree next season. That could pay dividends when you consider that there may not be any summer ball and there's a chance that fall competition isn't quite the same in college baseball. The teams that are older and have been around the block, like K-State, might be able to take advantage.
"We have everybody saying they want to come back, and (when) some seniors that are worthy to be solid free agent signees say that they want to come back and be a part of it, you know your program is headed in the right direction," Hughes said. "When those kids, they're not even going to think of pro ball right now as an option because they want to be a part of what's going to happen here next year, that makes you feel a little bit better, it lessens the sting."
Adding to the excitement on campus is the presence of a newly renovated Tointon Family Stadium, which includes a brand-new clubhouse facility that was a hit right away with the current players.
In the immediate term, facilities upgrades mean that Hughes and his staff will be able to compete for high-end recruits in a way that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise. Hughes refers to the upgrades as Omaha-quality, and he's clear about that being the goal for the program.
But in the bigger picture, Hughes sees the upgrades as being a sign of an athletic department that is all-in on trying to be a major player in college baseball.
"It (the new facility) was a huge part of me coming here, just because I knew what a special college community it was," Hughes said. "And as soon as they got serious and caught up to the rest of the landscape in the Big 12 and in the region with their facilities and resources, and with the right AD, (Kansas State AD) Gene Taylor wants to win at baseball, so you put $21 million into your baseball facility and that certainly proves you want to win in baseball."
Kansas State is serious about baseball, and with the way things are beginning to trend on the field, the Wildcats could do some serious winning in the not-to-distant future.