Peers pick Savage, Trapasso as future star coaches
To many of his peers, Turtle Thomas may as well have invented the job of assistant college baseball coach.
Thomas, 47, has worked as an assistant for almost 25 years at four of the nation’s top college programs–Clemson (1978-1985), Georgia Tech (1986-87), Miami (1988-99) and Louisiana State (2000-present). In that time, Thomas has overseen the development of future big league catchers Jorge Fabregas, Charles Johnson and Danny Sheaffer. He’s worked as a hitting coach. He’s recruited players ranging from John Pawlowski to Pat Burrell, who used college as a springboard to the big leagues. He’s been a central figure on two different College World Series champions the last two years.
But he’s still an assistant coach.
It’s not completely for a lack of trying. Thomas says he has applied seriously for just three or four head-coaching jobs. But to no avail.
"I’ve been happy to serve the people I’ve worked for over the years," says Thomas, "and I’ve worked in great situations. But at this time of my career, I need to turn up the volume on my job search a little."
Thomas isn’t the only veteran assistant coach who aspires to taking a head job, but most of his peers who are his age aren’t turning up the volume. Dean Stotz, Baseball America’s inaugural Assistant Coach of the Year in 1999, will serve his 25th season at Stanford in 2001 working under Mark Marquess and laughs when people ask him about leaving the school.
Brent Kemnitz has served as Gene Stephenson’s right hand man for 22 years at Wichita State, through good times (1989 national championship, Darren Dreifort’s career) and bad (the 1999 Ben Christensen incident). Texas A&M’s Jim Lawler has spent 16 years with Mark Johnson in College Station after previously serving as a head coach at Gonzaga and Texas-El Paso.
Those assistants could step into head jobs at a number of Division I programs and likely have them competing for regional spots in short order. But they have chosen to stay put.
However, there are a number of younger assistants who are regarded as top head coaching candidates at major schools. That’s what the athletic directors at schools such as California, UC Irvine and the College of Charleston went looking for when they hired assistant coaches in the last year to take over their programs.
Cal’s Dave Esquer replaced the retired Bob Milano after being an assistant at Pepperdine. UC Irvine chose John Savage, an assistant at Southern California, to lead its resuscitated program. And Pawlowski, who followed a short major league career with assistant stints at Clemson and Arizona State, took over in Charleston.
"Those are guys who have broken through," Thomas says. "They make us all smile."
Just as often, though, ADs go the safer route and look for proven head coaches when they need to make a hire. It happened in 1994 at Miami, where Jim Morris was lured away from Georgia Tech to regenerate the Hurricanes’ program. And it happened in 1998, when Nebraska picked Northwestern State coach Dave Van Horn to take over a program with a new commitment to winning.
Baseball America has surveyed a number of coaches around the country to find the next breakthrough college coaching candidates. We’ve ranked 20 of the top coaching prospects in the nation (see chart).
Because there are two paths to coveted head coaching jobs in power conferences–the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pacific-10 and Southeastern–we present two lists. First, the list Pawlowski would have been on two years ago, the top assistant coaches who want to be head coaches. Second, the top mid-major coaches in the nation, who are younger than 40 and likely have not reached the pinnacle of their coaching careers.
The 10 assistants on this list look like the best candidates to take head coaching positions with major programs, much like the West Coast has seen recently with ex-assistants like John Savage (UC Irvine), Dave Esquer (California), Frank Cruz (Loyola Marymount) and Frank Sanchez (Pepperdine). Savage, Cruz and Sanchez were all former assistants at Southern Caifornia.
1. Mike Trapasso, Georgia Tech. Why would he leave before Mark Teixeira and talented 2001 team does?
2. Turtle Thomas, Louisiana State. Only age and questions about abrupt Miami departure sully his résumé.
3. Tim Corbin, Clemson.2000 Assistant Coach of the Year was head coach at D-II Presbyterian.
4. Bobby Moranda, Wake Forest. Recruited, mentored first-round RHPs Seth Greisinger, Mike MacDougal.
5. Jon Prather, Rice. Played for Wayne Graham at San Jacinto JC, Cliff Gustafson at Texas.
6. Brian O’Connor, Notre Dame. Just 29, his Irish pitchers set program strikeouts records from 1997-’99.
7. Jim Schlossnagle, Tulane.Maryland native has recruited well for expensive, academic institution.
8. Bill Mosiello, Oklahoma.Stopped run as Cape Cod League coach to focus on Sooners recruiting.
9. Dave Serrano, Cal State Fullerton. He’s top West Coast assistant left; noted for strength as pitching coach.
10. Mark Machtolf, Gonzaga.Member of Stanford’s ’87 CWS champs has reputation for teaching hitters.
These head coaches of mid-major Division I programs have either proved they can make a program a regional contender or were rising stars as assistant coaches who are trying to prove they can do it as new head coaches. In trying to identify the cream of the crop among the up-and-comers, we focused only on coaches younger than 40.
1. John Savage, UC Irvine.Must bide his time with recruiting until UC Irvine begins play in 2002.
2. Keith LeClair, East Carolina. No. 1 regional seeds the last two years, but Pirates had to go on the road.
3. Rayner Noble, Houston.Has built his alma mater, with a showplace ballpark, into a national power.
4. John Pawlowski, Charleston. Ex-big leaguer’s path has included top assistant posts (ASU, Clemson).
5. Rich Maloney, Ball State.Has produced two first-round picks: OF Larry Bigbie, LHP Jeff Urban.
6. Ty Harrington, SW Texas State. One-time Texas infielder; successful JC coach; future Longhorns coach?
7. Tony Robichaux, UL-Lafayette. Born for the Bayou, 39-year-old led the Ragin’ Cajuns to Omaha in 2000.
8. Doug Schreiber, Purdue.Former ASU assistant and Indiana native turning around Big 10 program.
9. Brian Cleary, Cincinnati.Bearcats’ 35 wins in 2000 brings hopes of first regional berth since ‘74.
10. Dave Schrage, Northern Illinois. Chicago native ended Division I’s longest losing streak in first season.
"I think some assistants hold out for that big-time job," Pawlowski says, "but everyone’s situation is different. You have to take your own path to that big-time job, and sometimes that involves a job at a mid-major school."
Veteran assistant coaches such as Kemnitz, Lawler and Stotz would seem to be top candidates for such a list. So would assistants such as Florida State’s Chip Baker and Jamey Shouppe and South Carolina’s Jim Toman. On their skills and talents as coaches, they certainly would.
Yet they have remained assistants. Many of them have found a comfort zone at their current schools, and leaving wouldn’t make much sense financially–when some top assistants are earning more than $80,000 a year–or even professionally.
"The toughest thing to do as an assistant is to leave a comfortable position," Pawlowski says. "At that point in your career, the timing and the situation has to make a lot of sense, and there just aren’t a lot of quality head coaching jobs open every year."
And for many top assistants, just becoming a head coach isn’t enough.
"I was in the stands watching the late game at the Disney Blast tournament," says Wake Forest assistant Bobby Moranda, "and I sat down next to (Clemson assistant) Tim Corbin and his family. His wife (Maggie) turned to me and said, ‘So when are you going to be a head coach?’ And I said I didn’t want to be a head coach just to be a head coach.
"And Tim almost jumped out of his chair and said, ‘That’s how I feel. Why should I have to take a step or two down just to be a head coach?’ That’s why all of us were so happy for Esquer and Savage."
Moranda has served as an assistant for 15 years. His dozen years in the ACC puts him third in seniority in the league behind his boss, Wake Forest coach George Greer, and his former employer, Virginia coach Dennis Womack. His track record as includes recruiting future big leaguers like righthanders Pat Daneker and Seth Greisinger, who led Virginia to its 1996 ACC championship, as well as helping lead the Demon Deacons to three straight 40-win seasons.
But when a top head coaching job becomes available, Georgia Tech assistant Mike Trapasso figures to be the first to get a phone call. Trapasso tops BA’s list of assistant coach prospects, edging Thomas because of his relative youth (he’s 37) and lack of baggage. For all his talents and accomplishments, Thomas will always have to answer questions about his stormy departure from Miami, which he and Morris prefer not to discuss.
Trapasso has served as Danny Hall’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for six seasons at Georgia Tech. He pitched at Oklahoma State under Gary Ward and won a 1984 CWS game against Maine, outdueling Billy Swift. He also served as an assistant at Missouri (1989-91) and South Florida (1991-94).
Trapasso’s timing may never be better. The Yellow Jackets won 50 games last season and return almost their entire club, led by the reigning College Player of the Year, third baseman Mark Teixeira. Trapasso played a major role in assembling the nation’s most talented team.
"It would be tough to walk away from that," Tulane assistant Jim Schlossnagle says. "Trap’s created a monster. But he would make a great head coach."
"Trap is a fantastic recruiter, and nobody works harder," Moranda says. "He just does a great job. Turtle is more like the founding father for assistant coaches, because he’s the one who started recruiting for baseball the way you recruit for basketball or football. It’s his fault that now to be a great assistant coach, you have to be able to coach and to scout."
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When scouting for those top coaching candidates, several people pointed out the backgrounds of current top head coaches. From Clemson’s Jack Leggett (Western Carolina) to Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall (Kent) to Arizona State’s Pat Murphy (Notre Dame) to Florida’s Andy Lopez (Pepperdine), many of the nation’s top coaches were successful head coaches at smaller programs–with Lopez taking the Waves to a CWS title in 1992–before taking a job in a power conference.
"Danny Hall is kind of like the patron saint of coaches in the Midwest, because he got a chance," Ball State head coach Rich Maloney says. "He’s from our neck of the woods and he got a chance to go to a Southern school in a power league.
"A lot of us up here don’t even give any thought to jobs in that part of the country, though. It’s kind of a dream world. You wish opportunities like that were more open to you, but it’s hard to get into those circles."
Maloney isn’t necessarily in a hurry to leave Ball State, but he dreams big. As he talked, he admired a model in his office for a new on-campus baseball stadium. The program he has rebuilt hasn’t reached a regional since 1969, but the Cardinals have won 76 games the last two years.
It’s an example of how the number of stepping-stone programs has increased. More jobs are worthwhile as places to start a head coaching career, Pawlowski says, because more schools are willing to make a significant commitment to baseball. A generation ago, only a handful of colleges would make that commitment.
"When more money is invested, athletic directors seem to be a little more reluctant to trust an assistant coach for some reason," he says. "For some reason in baseball, there seems to be that extra step of experience necessary, moreso than in basketball or football."
That’s why we expect to see Savage, 35, as a head coach in the Pac-10 down the line. Savage played at Santa Clara and was an assistant for five seasons with Nevada before landing at USC, where he was pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for four years.
At UC Irvine, he will have a unique and coveted opportunity. The Anteaters, who won a pair of Division II championships in the 1970s under current UCLA coach Gary Adams, are restarting their program after it was shut down in 1991. The program will have a stadium capable of playing host to a regional, membership in the Big West Conference and a plentiful local talent base from which to draw, one Savage knows well. His first recruiting class–18 players in the NCAA early signing period in November–already ranks among the nation’s best.
"That was just a great match," Schlossnagle says. "Good league, unbelievable commitment from the program, excellent choice to start the program. John’s in a great situation."
The number of great situations keeps growing. And it’s clear there are more than enough willing candidates to fill them.