Updated Fri, Feb 15, 2013 7:05 pm
No sport relies as heavily on traditions, customs and superstitions as baseball. From the way players wear their socks to the songs fans sing during the seventh inning stretch, practically everything in the more than 200-year-old sport has to do with some long standing tradition.
The Ohio University baseball program is no stranger to tradition. From 1924 when the legendary Don Peden took over the reins of the program until Joe Carbone retired at the conclusion of the 2012 season, Ohio has had only four head coaches. All four of those men had something in common: they all had previously donned the green and white as a player before becoming the head coach. That’s a tradition dating back 89 years.
It looked destined to continue, as many figured Ohio pitching coach Andrew See was the obvious favorite to replace Carbone. See, a former Ohio player, finished his sixth season as the ‘Cats pitching coach in 2012 and was the fan favorite for the job. It appeared the tradition was destined to carry on for at least one more season. Then it came to a screeching halt on June 11, 2012.
In a press conference, Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus announced the hiring of Creighton University associate and pitching coach Rob Smith as the new Ohio head coach, ending the 89-year streak. It appeared that Schaus—who has seen new winning traditions rise up through the athletic department under his tenure—felt it was time for the tradition to end. Smith came to Ohio after six successful seasons at Creighton, helping lead the Blue Jays to three NCAA regional appearances and three MVC conference tournament titles (2007, 2011 and 2012).
Though Smith was more than qualified—he spent six seasons at Purdue before joining the Blue Jays’ staff in 2007—the hiring angered many alumni and fans. A visit to an Ohio athletics fan site produces plenty of disgruntled posts from former players and alumni who felt that hiring outside of the Bobcats’ coaching circle was a mistake. But Smith, a fierce competitor and fan of underdogs, like Dodgers pitching great Orel Hershiser, isn’t scared of a little challenge when it comes to winning over disgruntled alumni and fans.
“I think it makes it a challenge a little bit…with people wrapping their heads around having a non-Ohio University player running the program,” he said. “Ultimately programs aren't about coaches. They’re about players. And regardless of who's running the program, I think the support should be towards the players.”
Smith might not be concerned about everyone being happy with his hiring, but he knows he needs the support of the fans if he wants to succeed. Already he’s made great strides to reach out and get fans involved.
“We’ve reached out to the alumni three or four times…just to update them with what's going on in the program and make them aware that regardless of who the coach is, it's still their program and the players that are here appreciate and would like their support. I think we've made some inroads,” Smith said.
He’s also found support from a former Ohio coach who holds weight in the community with former players and fans. Jerry France, the Bobcats’ head coach from 1973-1988, has helped Smith introduce himself to the community and former players. France also has spoken to the team at practice, something Smith finds invaluable because, as he notes, winning the fans over isn’t the only challenge his staff faces, as their first season at Ohio starts Saturday. After 24 seasons under Carbone, the culture of the program is undergoing a transformation itself.
Ohio hasn’t found much success on the field in recent years. In fact, since 2004, the ‘Cats have won only 46-percent of their games. They haven’t won a Mid-American Conference championship or made it to the NCAA Regionals since 1997. Smith has worked hard to change the culture of the team, even going as far as redesigning the hats they’ll sport this season.
The new coaching staff brings quite a resume to Ohio, with a combined 13 NCAA Regionals and one College World Series appearance since 2000. While he admits that Smith can’t speak on the previous administration’s style, he’s confident that that winning mentality will spark a change in Ohio’s record over the next few seasons.
“That was important for me because I think if you’re going to take a team to that level, you've got to have some idea of how to get there,” Smith said on the importance of having proven winners on his staff. “And the fact that we've all been a part of conference championship teams and NCAA Regional teams, I think lends itself to us having some ideas and having some thoughts on approach in terms of what it takes. I think it allows us to share that with these players so that they can get exposed to some of those things that it takes teams to get to that level.”
One of the things that Smith says it takes to become a winner is a certain level of effort and execution. He prides himself on running high energy, up-tempo practices, something that might be seen by some as unusual in a sport known more for taking its time than moving at lightning speed. He expects his players to learn by executing things properly every time rather than the old fashioned way of learning from mistakes. As he puts it, “the more times we do it at a game-like speed, the higher likelihood that we're going to be able to do it in a game.”
He admits that many players might not be used to his coaching style, but says that the group on the roster now has approached it with open minds and a level of determination that will allow them to succeed.
But getting the guys to buy into his culture change is only part of the battle. Ohio lost its three starting pitchers from 2012. Jason Moulton and Brent Choban graduated and Seth Streich isn’t returning for his senior season after being drafted in the sixth round by the Oakland Athletics.
The three were important pieces to a staff that finished second overall in the MAC in team E.R.A. (3.73) for the 2012 season. Together they led the ‘Cats in E.R.A., strikeouts and innings pitched. Ohio also lost some valuable pieces on the offensive side, leaving Smith with some gaping holes and an overwhelmingly young and inexperienced roster.
Nearly 60-percent of the roster are underclassmen. In fact, the ‘Cats’ three best offensive players to return were all true freshman in 2012. Jake Madsen, Cody Gaertner and Tyler Wells were freshman studs for Ohio last season, finishing first, second and third in batting average, respectively. What it results in is an incredibly young team.
Heading into their double header Saturday, Ohio’s starting pitchers will have a combined one career start, belonging to Marck Paliotto. Paliotto, a lefty senior moving from a career in the bullpen to a starting rotation slot as the team’s number two starter, is accompanied by true freshman righty Jake Miller. The third starter has yet to be named.
Still the youth and inexperience aren’t a concern for Smith. The three freshmen from last season are poised to once again lead the team offensively, and he’s confident in the ability of his pitching staff to pick up their end of the load. Overall, the coach is pleased with the way his team has handled everything and expects them to battle every game this season and not worry about any long-term goals.
“We're not putting any slogans on our locker room. We're not talking about certain things. What we're talking about is practicing hard, playing hard and going about things a certain way. If that means we end up in an NCAA Regional, great. If that means we're just competitive in our conference, we can live with that…If we can keep our focus on that (playing hard), I think the results will come,” Smith said.
He admits it won’t be easy, and in order to succeed, the team will have to remain focused and not get ahead of themselves. The biggest challenge Smith says the team will face this season isn’t the changes or their youth but their own expectations.
“They've worked extremely hard. They've given incredible effort throughout the fall. I think that early on they're going to want to see some pretty quick results, and I think the challenge for them is to just be patient and understand that everything's not just going to happen in one year,” Smith said.
But he thinks they’re in for the challenge because after all baseball is a game of tradition, and Ohio’s long overdue for a new one: winning.