Top 10 Coaches Under 40
In an attempt to identify the top college coaching prospects, Baseball America periodically compiles a list of the top head coaches under 40 and surveys head coaches to compile a list of the top assistant coaches with bright futures as head coaches.
After presenting our list of the top 10 assistant coaches last year, this year it is time to revisit the top up-and-coming head coaches. The first list, compiled in 2001, included future stars such as UCLA’s John Savage (then restarting the UC Irvine program), the late Keith LeClair (East Carolina) and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Tony Robichaux. The most recent list, compiled in 2012, was topped by Oklahoma State’s Josh Holliday, who has since taken the Cowboys back to the College World Series, and also included UC Santa Barbara’s Andrew Checketts, Clemson’s Monte Lee (College of Charleston) and Duke’s Chris Pollard.
While there are still a few coaches at Power Five conference schools on this list, it is uncommon for coaches at schools in those conferences to be hired when they are still in their 30s. During the last five coaching carousels, Power Five schools have gone through 27 coaching changes (not including Oregon State, which has not named a permanent coach since Pat Casey’s retirement). The average age of the new head coaches when they were hired is 43.
While coaching is getting younger as longtime veterans such as Mike Martin, Mark Marquess and Jim Morris reach retirement, athletic directors are not all-in on a youth movement. While Martin (Florida
State), Marquess (Stanford) and Morris (Georgia Tech) had taken over powerful programs by the time they were 35 years old, only Indiana (Jeff Mercer) and Maryland (Rob Vaughn) have hired a head coach under the age of 35 in the last five cycles. Some of this may be attributable to increased salaries for assistant coaches, especially in Power Five conferences, allowing coaches to remain in assistant coaching roles longer.
But those trends haven’t stopped several up-and-comers from making their mark early in their careers. Age listed is as of press time at the end of November.
1. GREG LOVELADY
Central Florida (Age: 39)
Lovelady, the captain of Miami’s 2001 national championship team, is one of the brightest up-and-coming coaches in the country. In five seasons as a head coach (the last two at UCF and three at Wright State), he has averaged 40.6 wins and made three NCAA Tournament appearances, twice leading Wright State to the regional final. Lovelady has an energetic, magnetic personality that has played well both on the diamond and on the recruiting trail. He has quickly made an impact at UCF in the competitive American Athletic Conference.
2. JEFF DUNCAN
Kent State (Age: 39)
Kent State has a strong tradition of developing coaches, with a lineage that includes Georgia’s Scott Stricklin and Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall. Duncan is following in their footsteps and has guided the Golden Flashes to two NCAA Tournament appearances and three straight Mid-American Conference regular-season titles in five seasons. Duncan, a former big leaguer, is averaging a 37-19 record as a head coach.
3. MATT RISER
Southeastern Louisiana (Age: 34)
Riser was the youngest Division I coach in the country for the first couple years of his tenure at Southeastern and, at 34, he’s still among the youngest. Under Riser, the Lions have become one of the Southland Conference’s most consistent teams, and he has led them to three NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons. Southeastern’s worst finish in the Southland under Riser is fifth in 2014, his first season, and the Lions still won the conference tournament to advance to regionals. Riser’s .654 winning percentage ranks fourth in conference history.
4. SHAWN STIFFLER
Virginia Commonwealth (Age: 39)
Stiffler has spent the last 12 years at VCU, six as an assistant and six as a head coach. He led the Rams to super regionals in 2015 and two years later guided them to their first regular season conference title since 2003. Though VCU has only made one NCAA Tournament appearance under Stiffler, they have become a consistent contender in the competitive Atlantic-10 Conference.
5. JEFF MERCER
Indiana (Age: 33)
Kent State has a longer track record of nurturing baseball coaching talent, but Wright State is building a pipeline of its own in Dayton, Ohio. Mercer succeeded Lovelady at Wright State and after just two seasons in charge at his alma mater was hired away by Indiana this summer. He posted a 77-36 record in two seasons at Wright State, and in 2018 led the Raiders to the Horizon League regular season and tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
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6. JUSTIN BLOOD
Hartford (Age: 39)
Blood is the lone coach to repeat on this list from 2013. At that time, the former Connecticut assistant was entering his second season at Hartford, trying to turn around a program that had not had a winning season since 1992. Blood has since gotten the Hawks on track and won the America East Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2018, leading Hartford to its first NCAA Tournament appearance. The former pitcher also helped turn lefthander Sean Newcomb into the 15th overall pick in 2014, the first first-round pick in program history.
7. BEN ORLOFF
UC Irvine (Age: 31)
Orloff will make his head coaching debut on Opening Day, but he has a strong pedigree. He ranked eighth on the list of assistant coaches with the brightest future last year as a head coach, as voted on by current head coaches. He starred at Irvine, helping the Anteaters advance to the 2007 College World Series and finished his college career with several program records. After completing his playing career in 2013, he returned to his alma mater as an associate head coach and helped the Anteaters back to Omaha in 2014, his first season. Now, he takes over at his alma mater from Mike Gillespie, who retired following the 2018 season. He has big shoes to fill, but he is a well-regarded coach and recruiter.
8. T.J. BRUCE
Nevada (Age: 36)
Bruce came to Nevada in June 2015 after five seasons as an assistant coach at UCLA, where he helped the Bruins to the 2013 national championship. In 2018, he led the Wolf Pack to the Mountain West Conference regular season title, their second since joining the conference in 2013. He was a strong recruiter as an assistant coach and that has carried over to Nevada, which has consistently landed strong recruiting classes under Bruce.
9. JOSE VAZQUEZ
Alabama State (Age: 39)
Vazquez spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach under Mervyl Melendez, who made this list in 2013, and took over at Alabama State after Melendez was hired away by Florida International. Vazquez, a native of Puerto Rico, helped rebuild Alabama State’s program and as head coach has guided the
Hornets to back-to-back 30-win seasons and an appearance in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament championship game.
10. RUCKER TAYLOR
Davidson (Age: 34)
Like Orloff, Taylor is set to debut this season as a head coach after he was promoted to succeed Dick Cooke. Taylor spent six years as an assistant coach at Davidson, including the last four as associate head coach. He was instrumental in the revival of the program, which went on a Cinderella run to super regionals in 2017 and has won more than 30 games in each of the last two seasons for the first time in its history. He’s a respected recruiter and hitting coach.