Feb. 20, 2009

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FAU Turns to ‘Mac’

By Christina De Nicola



Many coaches don’t usually get their start while hanging out at a friend’s house. But then again, first-year Florida Atlantic head coach John McCormack’s journey is anything but typical.


“I hired John initially to babysit a disgruntled senior, and I was afraid he was going to be moping around,” longtime Owls head coach Kevin Cooney said. “I put his best friend on the staff to keep his spirits up. I figured John needed some help.”


The year was 1991 and McCormack had just graduated from nearby Lynn University, where he often played fall ball against his future employer.


Eighteen years later, “Mac” leaves the ranks of assistant and takes over for Cooney, who retired after 21 years with the program.


“I had never really thought about the time until people asked me about it this year,” McCormack said. “The way coach had things set up, it was more we were in it together. I had a lot of responsibility. I never really kind of sat down and said, ‘Jeez, I’ve been an assistant for 18 years.’ He had always been very good to me to make me feel an integral part of it on an everyday basis.”


In his first season, McCormack and Cooney took a road trip to visit a recruit in southern Georgia while the team was playing in northern Florida. On the ride home, both were silent.


Neither thought the kid fit the program and realized the recruiting method wasn’t efficient. It was here that the newcomer proposed focusing on in-state recruits.


“He was insistent and persistent,” Cooney said. “The first 15 to 20 minutes of a game [in the stands with a recruit], he was explaining what was going on at FAU, sticking up for me, telling people I wasn’t a jerk, trying to build bridges.”


Now, Florida Atlantic is on a streak of 10 consecutive winning seasons and six NCAA Regional tournament appearances since 1999. The Owls have won 658 games under the two men, and 73 former ballplayers have been drafted or signed by professional teams.


With the success of the program, Cooney looked for ways to keep his assistant – from giving him a car when his broke down to making up jobs that would get him some extra money. 


“I never asked for a raise for myself until 2002, and it’s because I was constantly trying to get money for John and my other assistants,” Cooney said. “There were a number of times when pro baseball guys were trying to get John to become a scout.”


McCormack said that although he had a number of opportunities, he was always content at FAU.


“We had spent so much time together to develop this place,” McCormack said. “It wasn’t like a coach-assistant relationship. For the longest time it was just me and him.


“This was always home to me, and I’m a very loyal and stable guy. I grew up in Boca, and I met my wife at FAU. I went to high school here.”


Around eight years ago, when Cooney’s first son finished his baseball career with the Owls, he began to consider retirement.


“I knew that at some point I could walk away after that,” he said. “John was included in that all the way. I owed it to John. He really helped solidify my job at a very shaky time and we were a real good team.”


McCormack soon focused on coaching skills and was rewarded with the title of associate head coach and the third base coaching spot.


Despite their different personalities, both men claim it made the team better. At the helm, Coach Mac expects to follow the same basics that were instilled by his mentor. 


“The core ethics and morality of the program are going to stay the same,” he said. “It’s about the players and us creating a good atmosphere for them in terms academically, athletically and socially.”


Strategically, the recruiting guru would like to focus more on small ball.


“We’re going to put some guys in motion and put the other team on the defensive a little bit when they have to worry about more than just pitching to our guys,” McCormack said. “Our main focus every day at practice and recruiting is pitching. We’re going to develop a pitching first mentality.”


Senior left-hander Alex Pepe (pictured left), who was taken by the Texas Rangers in last year’s draft, hopes to get a large chunk of the bullpen’s work.


“I feel like a lot of it is the same, Coach Mac is just more on team chemistry: He wants our team to be one,” Pepe said. “I think we’ll be a lot better pitching team than hitting team this season, and I think a lot of people don’t think that.”


Three new assistant coaches – pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Jason Jackson, infield and outfield coach Brad Frick and hitting and outfield coach Ben Sanderson – all are under the age of 30.


“Pretty much all of our new assistants are around that same age and they’re really in tuned to us and the times,” senior second baseman William Block said. “They’re pretty much like friends on the baseball field, but they’re also our coaches.”


As for himself, McCormack hasn’t struggled with the transition.


“It’s been relatively easy,” he said. “It’s a lot of the same things that I’ve been doing in the past. Coach Cooney was always good about broadening our horizons as assistants. Now Friday night when the first pitch is thrown, I’m sure it will be a little bit different.”


Block added that McCormack’s approach hasn’t changed with his new status.


“He’s a very personal guy,” Block (pictured right) said. “He’s real in contact with the players in the way times are today. He’s the same way as when he was an assistant, he’s very serious, but he also has that joking side.”


When McCormack heads to home plate with the lineup card before Friday night’s season opener against Fordham, he acknowledged he will be feeling various emotions.


“I think every new head coach around the country is going to feel the same thing, but for me there’s a little difference because I’ve been here for 18 years, and so many people were rooting for me throughout the years to get the job.


“I know all of the fans and the season ticket holders. It’s kind of special because I grew up here and I grew up in front of them so I’m almost one of them who is out there.”


(photos courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)