Back in November, we asked coaches and scouts to weigh in on a simple question: 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 top assistants we also identified. As the American Baseball Coaches Association convention gets underway in Chicago, we present our list below.
1. Josh Holliday, Oklahoma State (Age: 36)
The Skinny: With experience as a recruiting coordinator at three top national programs (Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt), Holliday is firmly established as one of the nation’s premier recruiters.
What They’re Saying: “He’s been around a lot of good people. Obviously his family, for one—his brother (Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday) and dad (N.C. State associate head coach Tom Holliday), all that experience and information. And then certainly at ASU, the success he had there. And I think the years he was with Corbin (at Vandy) were invaluable. I think whenever you’re with a guy like Corbin, you’re only going to get better every day, in every phase.”
—UCLA coach John Savage
2. Casey Dunn, Samford (Age: 36)
The Skinny: Dunn, a former catcher at Auburn and in the Royals system, was just 27 when he took over as Samford’s head coach in 2004, and he has gradually built the Bulldogs into a Southern Conference power, culminating in their first-ever trip to regionals in 2012.
What They’re Saying: “Casey Dunn is special; he’s really good. His dad was a (high school) coaching legend, he played really well at Auburn, played pro ball. He knows how to get it out of them. He’s tough, but tough in the right way.”
—An NL crosschecker
3. Erik Bakich, Michigan (Age: 35)
The Skinny: The uncommonly personable Bakich helped build Vanderbilt into a national power through his tireless recruiting efforts, then helped Maryland’s program take a step forward during his three-year stint as head coach before leaving for Michigan this summer.
What They’re Saying: “He’s a younger guy, and the way he gets after it, the work ethic, the game management—I was impressed by that, even at Maryland in a tough situation with the ACC. And I was impressed with the communication skills. I think he relates well to people.”
—An AL crosschecker
4. Andrew Checketts, UC Santa Barbara (Age: 37)
The Skinny: An Oregon State product, Checketts made a name for himself by turning hidden gems into quality pitching prospects as an assistant at UC Riverside and Oregon, then made a splash with his first recruiting class as UCSB’s head coach this fall, ranking No. 12 in the nation.
What They’re Saying: “I think Andrew is an extremely diligent worker, he’s very bright, and he’s willing to look at what he’s doing on a yearly basis and make sure he’s doing the right things. He’s willing to learn and make adjustments. There are certain places that if you win and develop guys consistently, it’s beyond the fact that you can recruit, and he’s certainly proved that he can do it.”
—Kentucky coach Gary Henderson
5. Dan Heefner, Dallas Baptist (Age: 35)
The Skinny: Heefner made an immediate impact on the DBU offense upon joining the staff in 2004, and he has elevated the program to new heights since taking over as head coach in 2007, including its first three trips to regionals and a 2011 appearance in super regionals.
What They’re Saying: “He’s as good a hitting instructor as there is out there. He has passion, and he’s such a level-headed, good person, he’s such a natural fit for that institution. He’s definitely a rising star, there’s no doubt about it. He’s well balanced, too. There’s no knee-jerk reactions with Dan. He’s going to deal with whatever situations come up, he’s going to give himself time, he’s going to think through it, he’s going to be incredibly fair to players. He’s got this coaching stuff figured out as a young coach.”
—Creighton coach Ed Servais
6. Monte Lee, College of Charleston (Age: 35)
The Skinny: The first position player ever drafted out of CofC, Lee spent six years learning under Ray Tanner at South Carolina before returning to his alma mater as head coach and guiding the Cougars to two regionals in his first four years.
What They’re Saying: “I think the world of Monte. He’s a great coach, a great guy, a great recruiter, he works hard and he’s really well connected. Players love playing for him; he’s got a great temperament, and he’s a darn good hitting guy too. He was the hitting coach for some of those really good South Carolina teams. He’s very happy at the College of Charleston, it being his alma mater, but it would be smart of an AD in the ACC or SEC to hire him, because he’s a great one.”
—South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook
7. Chris Pollard, Duke (Age: 38)
The Skinny: Pollard quickly transformed Appalachian State from a doormat into an annual contender in the SoCon, then guided the Mountaineers to their first regional since 1986 last year before taking the head job at Duke.
What They’re Saying: “When he went to Appalachian State, he had a vision for what he wanted to get done in that time span. To go to a program like App State that had won 10 or 11 games before he got there, and last year they’re a 40-win team, that’s the proof in the pudding right there. To recruit quality players to go to a cold-weather school, you’re doing something right. That’s why he got the job at Duke—he’s an up-and-coming guy.”
—An NL area scout
8. Mervyl Melendez, Alabama State (Age: 38)
The Skinny: Bethune-Cookman had been to just one regional before Melendez led it to 10 MEAC titles in 12 years as head coach. He left for a new challenge at Alabama State prior to the 2012 season, when he guided the Hornets to their first 20-win season in a decade.
What They’re Saying: “He did a heck of a job at Bethune, and they’ve been getting out there aggressively recruiting at Alabama State. I’ve always liked Mervyl. He’s confident and he works his tail off. He’d come to our regional every year, and we could never pitch off when we played them—we always just had to throw our best guy. And they could always run. It’s a different style of play in the SEC. His teams play tough, they weren’t intimidated. He’s always done a good job with those guys.”
—Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan
9. Darin Erstad, Nebraska (Age: 38)
The Skinny: A two-time all-star during his 14-year big league career, Erstad carried his hard-nosed approach to his alma mater and led the Cornhuskers to their first 35-win season since 2008 in his debut as head coach last year.
What They’re Saying: “I was very impressed with his approach to the game, with how his players approach the game. They’re very businesslike; they get their work in before the game. To me, how a team does before the game starts tells me a lot about a program. I can’t see how other teams practice, so I look at how they approach their pregame work. I thought there was a dramatic difference in what they did, whether it be their infield work, their outfield work, their BP. They really emphasized a lot of things people are looking at, the speed component.”
—Creighton coach Ed Servais
10. Justin Blood, Hartford (Age: 33)
The Skinny: After joining UConn’s staff in 2005, Blood recruited future stars like Mike Olt, George Springer and Matt Barnes, helping the Huskies host one regional and win another. He took on a major challenge at Hartford after the 2011 season.
What They’re Saying: “He was the recruiting coordinator at UConn, so obviously he had a huge hand in bringing all those guys in. I never went to a tournament or a showcase and he wasn’t there. He’s going to turn things around at Hartford; I already see how hard he’s working. He brought some kids in there last year with his first class, and that’s going to make them better. I know he’ll do the same things at Hartford he did at UConn, just in terms of work ethic and preparation.”
—An NL area scout