Washington State Coach Brian Green On Coaching Nick Gonzales, Year One in Pullman
Not long after Brian Green took over as head coach at New Mexico State, he engineered a sharp turnaround. In his first year at the helm, the Aggies went 11-38-1, the fewest wins for the program since 1969, when they won nine games in a 36-game season.
Beginning in 2016, his second season, it was a different story. The Aggies went 34-23 overall and 20-7 in the WAC, good for second place. The next year, they went 35-22 and 19-5 in the league, again good for second. And all of this came before he got Nick Gonzales on campus.
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There were a lot of reasons that New Mexico State broke through with a 40-win season and a regional appearance in 2018 and then finished tied for first in the WAC standings in 2019, but there’s no getting around the impact the superstar second baseman had.
In 2019, he hit .432/.532/.773, and after a standout summer spent on the Cape, he vaulted up draft boards to become the first-round pick he is today. It was at that point that Green didn’t have to convince anyone that Gonzales was the real deal.
“When he got to the Cape, I finally didn’t have to say a word,” Green said.
The stats tell the story of the type of player Gonzales is, but for Green, what makes him great can’t be quantified in the numbers. It was all in how he carried himself and the way he prepared, even early in his New Mexico State career.
“Friday nights, when the freshmen were out at the movies and out to dinner, he’s on the tee by himself because he’s got something to prove,” Green said. “He’s going to make the team, he’s going to make the travel roster, he’s going to find a way to start.”
Gonzales will be gone from New Mexico State and off to pro baseball in the matter of a couple of weeks, where he will begin to work toward achieving his long-held goal of reaching the big leagues.
About a year ago, Green also left New Mexico State and took the job at Washington State, where he will try to engineer a rebuild similar to the one he pulled off at NMSU.
There are already signs of progress. In 2019, WSU went 11-42-1 and won just three Pac-12 games. The 2020 Cougars never got the chance to prove themselves against Pac-12 competition, which would have been the surest barometer of where they were as a team, but it finished the season 9-7 and winners of seven out of the last nine.
That left Green feeling good about the way his team was developing and confident in the program’s momentum heading into 2021.
“When I look back, it is a ton of pride,” Green said of his lasting feeling toward the season. “I’m just proud of the players, I’m proud of the coaches, and it gives us a lot of confidence moving forward that we’re sending the right message, and the players are interested in following suit. It just feels really good right now, so we are kind of sky high going into year two.”
But that progress didn’t just happen overnight. Green and his staff worked hard to change the culture and attitude around the Washington State program, and earn the trust of players who were evaluating the new coaches as much as the new coaches were evaluating them.
“What we saw was a group in the fall who was committed to wanting to get in, but I didn’t feel like they were comfortable or wanted to or didn’t know how to or maybe just flat-out didn’t trust us as a staff,” Green said. “I think come late January, you just saw a shift in the body language and a shift in the buy-in. When we’re talking in the meetings, maybe some more heads are shaking or maybe a player just simply laughs when we tell a joke. It was silence for two months, and I think that’s where you started to see it shift, and then you saw a much more confident team on the field.”
Building a program is hard work, and it can be especially tough at a place like Washington State that hasn’t seen much recent success. It will be helpful, then, that a new clubhouse facility will be ready for the 2021 season.
The $10 million project, which broke ground back in October, will provide fans with a new entrance plaza along with new restroom and concession areas, and more importantly, will help WSU keep up with the Pac-12 when it comes to clubhouse and player development facilities.
It’s precisely the kind of shot in the arm that can really help a new coach get his program off and running, especially when that coach values building relationships with players, as Green does.
Right now, the WSU baseball coaches’ offices are across the street from the stadium. In the new facility, they will be on the grounds of the stadium, connected to the player facilities, which provides many more opportunities for coaches and players to interact, beyond meetings and practices.
“The thing that most excites me that I think we saw this year is you lose that interaction with your players when they come into the locker room, and I think when you’re connected, you have a lot more of your kids coming in and just hanging out in the office with you a little bit. It strengthens relationships, it enables communication to go,” Green said.
Suffice it to say that it’s been a year of good news for the Washington State program. The new facility will remove a limitation from the program’s growth, the product on the field was improved and momentum is clearly moving in the right direction.