Picking The Rising Stars Of College Coaching

Truly special talents typically stand out on the baseball field; it was obvious to anyone who set eyes upon an amateur Bryce Harper that stardom was in his future.

Special coaching talent is similarly apparent to those who spend their lives around the game. Some coaches just have the right blend of recruiting savvy and personality traits to become great head coaches when given the opportunity.

In 2001, Baseball America surveyed college coaches to compile a list of 10 assistants with bright futures as head coaches. Eight of those 10 are now Division I head coaches, and four have already carved out places among the elite: Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor, Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle and Tennessee’s Dave Serrano. All four have taken programs to Omaha that had never been before.

Corbin and O’Connor have built perennial powerhouse programs in their first head coaching jobs, and other highly regarded former assistants have followed suit in their first jobs as head coaches, most notably Kevin O’Sullivan at Florida and Dan McDonnell at Louisville.

The success of that group has made programs in power conferences more likely to hire coaches who lack previous head coaching experience.

“Most athletic directors want to hire head coaches,” said Chad Holbrook, who took over as South Carolina’s head coach this summer following nearly two decades as a successful assistant. “It was a rare thing for me. If you dream of being a head coach, you might have to take a step back to a mid-major. What Tim Corbin has done and what Kevin O’Sullivan has done for assistant coaches across the country can’t be minimized. They created the blueprint. I think those guys created the opportunity for me. Them being successful, especially in our league, helped me.”

Knowing they can land a major-conference gig without prior head coaching experience has made some top assistants more willing to stay put and wait for the right opportunity to come along. There is also less urgency to find a head job because the growth of college baseball has led to rising salaries for assistant coaches. Assistants at many top programs—especially in the Southeastern Conference—are paid better than mid-major head coaches.

“If an assistant coach 10 years ago took on a head job, he oftentimes saw a significant increase in pay,” said Josh Holliday, who served as an assistant at Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt before becoming Oklahoma State’s head coach last summer. “I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. I think there are a lot of great opportunities out there as assistant coaches where you’re working for great people at great schools, and you’re comfortable and they take good care of you. I’ve actually seen some guys become head coaches, only to leave and come back as assistant coaches, because the quality of life allows them something more. Everybody’s looking at quality of life and the opportunity to compete for a national championship.”

Indeed, that career path is becoming more common. Jerry Meyers at South Carolina, Rex Peters at UCLA, Todd Butler at Arkansas and Rob Walton at Oral Roberts are among the coaches who left jobs as mid-major head coaches in order to become power-conference assistants. Meyers, Peters and Butler have all been to Omaha as assistants. But even successful mid-major coaches like Walton—who led Oral Roberts to regionals in each of his nine seasons before returning to his alma mater as Holliday’s assistant this summer—find it difficult to reach the College World Series.

Of course, there will always be assistants who are eager to run their own programs and willing to prove themselves as mid-major head coaches. The right coach in the right opportunity can succeed at a mid-major and go on to bigger things—just ask Serrano or UCLA’s John Savage, both of whom used UC Irvine as a springboard.

But accepting the wrong opportunity can take the shine off a rising star.

“Big-time jobs, they don’t come open that often. Some of these guys get these jobs and sit on them for a long time,” Holliday said. “If I go take a job at a mid-major and I don’t get any momentum, then what happens? Am I stuck there? If my first impression as a head coach isn’t strong, am I going to get another look again?”

“I really think to be ready, it’s a process. Young coaches have gotten to be head coaches too early, and it’s really cornered some of them,” Savage said. “I think you’ve got to put your dues in, put your time in, learn philosophy, you can learn the league. I like assistants that have miles on them, and I think athletic directors like those type of guys. They’re looking for guys that have put six, seven, 10 years in as a Division I assistant. That person’s pretty equipped.”

And the journey doesn’t end once coaches reach the heights of their profession. In order to sustain success, head coaches must surround themselves with bright assistants and delegate responsibility. But many of the most successful younger head coaches also continue to grind away on the recruiting trail.

“Our game is based around recruiting,” O’Sullivan said. “Coaches who have a good feel for the recruiting process, how it works, they’ve got a good work ethic—that’s paramount for building a good program. You’re only as good as the players you have. It’s an everyday part of the job—you can never take a day off from recruiting. I don’t care what time of year it is, there is something that needs to be done day in and day out on the recruiting side, 365 days a year. It’s not a one-man job anymore; it’s a staff job.

“I think all the people that have been successful at the head coaching level that were not head coaches before were probably all good recruiters.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that gifted recruiting coordinators dominate our updated list of up-and-coming assistants. We asked current Division I head coaches to list three prospects among the ranks of current assistants, excluding their own staffs. Seventy coaches responded, and we list the top 10 vote-getters here. We also consulted more than a dozen scouts because they make their living observing amateur baseball and offer valuable perspective.

Coaches and scouts alike weighed in on our second, more informal poll: Who are the best current head coaches under 40? Most coaches in this category currently lead mid-major programs, but they constitute the next wave of marquee coaches in college baseball, along with the assistants on our first list.

We are excluding assistants with prior Division I head coaching experience from our list of top assistants, which is why Butler does not appear on the list despite finishing second in our balloting. Peters, Walton, Meyers, Dan Spencer, Frank Anderson, Tom Holliday—these are coaches with established track records as head coaches. For this exercise, we are looking to identify the next big thing.

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