What It’s Like To Follow A College Baseball Coaching Legend

Image credit: Matt Bragga (Photo courtesy of Rice Athletics)

We’ve all heard the old saying.

You don’t want to be the person who follows the legend. You want to be the person who follows the person who follow the legend.

This challenge will be taken on this year by Matt Bragga at Rice and Ben Orloff at UC Irvine. Bragga takes over the Owls from Wayne Graham and Orloff takes over the Anteaters from Mike Gillespie. Graham and Gillespie both won national championships and more than 1,000 games in their careers.

In the fall of 2007, I experienced the same kind of challenge. George Horton was three years removed from winning the national championship at Cal State Fullerton when he departed for Oregon. Horton was also my former coach and mentor. He was a legend in my mind after I had played and coached for him, because I saw all the success he had experienced.

When I was selected as the Titans’ new head coach, not only was I following Horton, I was taking over a program in Fullerton that was built from the ground up by the legendary coach Augie Garrido. I’ve experienced following legends, making change in a program and being accepted by players, alumni, fans and administration. I realize what the future may look like for both Bragga and Orloff.

Bragga takes over a Rice program after spending 15 seasons at Tennessee Tech, where he compiled a 446- 392-2 record, which is the second most wins in school history. His Golden Eagles were 53-12 last year and advanced to super regionals for the first time in program history after beating host Mississippi in the Oxford Regional. After winning the super regional opener, Tennessee Tech ended up losing to host Texas, ending their Cinderella season.

Soon after Tennessee Tech’s season ended, Bragga was hired to succeed Graham, whose contract was not renewed after the 2018 season. Graham had a spectacular career as a head coach, piling up 1,147 wins, a national championship and 21 conference titles in 26 seasons at Rice. He led the Owls to the postseason 23 years in a row, a streak that included 10 super regional appearances and seven trips to the College World Series.

Bragga said he didn’t feel any added pressure following a coach with so many accomplishments.

“If you believe in yourself and your system, then it doesn’t matter what the guy before you did—you go do what you do,” Bragga said. “Coach Graham has been phenomenal through the transition, which has made it much easier.”

Sometimes with transition and change like this you will see some pushback from players, fans and alumni who have gotten so accustomed to things being done a certain way. This is especially true for Bragga taking over the Rice baseball program. He is coming from a different region of the country, brought in a whole new staff—Paul Janish is the only returning member from Graham’s previous staff—and a different style of baseball.

Bragga feels the transition has been great.

“If there has been any pushback, I haven’t seen it,” he said. “My hope is that alumni will say, ‘We have a new guy in town. Let’s support him and not fight him.’ ”

Bragga is aware of what he has taken on at Rice, along with who he is following. His passion as a coach, along with his aggressive offensive mindset, should be a great fit for Rice.

Across the country at UCI, there is a similar kind of change in leadership. Orloff takes over for Gillespie, who retired at the end of last season. In his 30 years of coaching at the Division I level—20 years at Southern California, his alma mater, and 10 years at Irvine—Gillespie compiled a record of 1,156-720-2. He won seven conference titles, made 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, five trips to Omaha and won the 1998 national title with USC.

Whereas Orloff will have the same challenges as Bragga following a coaching legend, the familiarity with Orloff and UCI makes things a little different for him.

Orloff assumes the leadership role at Irvine after playing for the program from 2006-09. He was part of the 2007 team that played in the CWS and was named Big West player of the year in 2009. In 2014, he became an assistant coach under Gillespie and was later promoted to associate head coach. With most of his coaching staff being retained and a familiarity between players to coaches, the transition could potentially be smoother.

Yet, even with the familiarity with Orloff and UCI, the challenge of following a legend in Gillespie still doesn’t go away.

“I don’t feel (pressure),” Orloff said. “It doesn’t change our day to day on what we do. The standard doesn’t change around here.”

Orloff and Gillespie have remained very close and communicate by phone or text at least every other day and meet once a week for coffee. But Orloff made it clear that Gillespie, even though always welcome, has really been cautious of staying out of his way.

With the players’ familiarity with Orloff, because he was a part of their recruiting, and his familiarity with UCI, he believes the overall transition has gone well.

“Many things look the same, but I’m me and I can’t be Skip,” Orloff said.

I feel very confident in sharing what Orloff will bring to the Anteaters as their new head coach. In the summer of 2004, after I had just taken the head coaching position at UCI, Orloff, a middle infielder out of Simi Valley High in Southern California, became the first player to commit to me and my coaching staff. He wasn’t heavily recruited by many schools, but I sensed something special about Ben. While sitting in my office after he committed to us, I said to Ben and his father Mike, “One day soon we will be walking through the gates of Rosenblatt Stadium together.”

That dream become a reality two years later, but little did I know at that time that this young man would be given the opportunity to lead his own UCI program back to Omaha as the head coach. All while following in the footsteps of legendary coach Mike Gillespie.

As a player, Orloff was like having a coach on the field, back when I was his coach in 2006-07. He seemed to always be a step ahead of the next guy. UCLA coach John Savage said, “Ben was the ultimate college baseball player. He was every coach’s dream. That will translate into a great head coach.”

Being an assistant under Gillespie for the last five seasons should only help the first-time head coach prepare for this challenge. Orloff said the two biggest pieces of advice he has taken from his time with Gillespie are, “You can’t judge a decision by a bad outcome and you have to be your own book.”

Both Bragga and Orloff realize what kind of coaching legends they are following. Both are humbled, yet passionate, for their new positions. It looks like both programs may be “writing their own book,” and I think we are all excited to see how each of them write their own story.

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