Feb. 3, 2012

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Vanderhook ready to take over

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Over the past 24 years, Rick Vanderhook (left) has experienced just about everything in college baseball.


He’s been to the College World Series 11 times, leaving Omaha with two national titles. He’s coached alongside some of college baseball’s finest in Augie Garrido, George Horton and John Savage. He’s been a part of 1,026 wins.


But he’s never gotten to claim a win as his own.


His time has come.


In two weeks, Vanderhook will coach his first game as a head coach. He’ll do it at Cal State Fullerton, the school he seemed destined to lead one day. And soon after, Vanderhook will add another win to his tally, a win that will have special meaning.


“It will be different,” Vanderhook said. “It will be a first win for all of us.”


Vanderhook spent 21 of his 24 seasons as a Division I assistant at Fullerton, starting as a bullpen coach under Garrido in 1985. He spent the past three seasons as the hitting coach for Savage at UCLA, helping the Bruins to the national championship series in 2010.


When Dave Serrano left Fullerton for Tennessee, the door was open for Vanderhook to return home.


“When Cal State Fullerton decided to hire Rick Vanderhook, they made the right decision, absolutely,” said Serrano, who was an assistant along with Vanderhook under Horton. “Rick Vanderhook is Cal State Fullerton.”


Kirk Saarloos, who starred for the Titans and will serve as his former coach’s pitching coach, said, “This is something he’s seen himself being since he became an assistant at Fullerton. He’s living his dream.”


Vanderhook’s dream began when he played for Horton at Cerritos College. He became part of the Fullerton program in 1983 during a redshirt season then played on the Titans’ 1984 national championship team coached by Garrido. Vanderhook joined Garrido’s staff in 1985 and stayed until 1989, when he left for Cal State Northridge, then a D-II, to assist Bill Kernen.


When Garrido returned to Fullerton to replace Larry Cochell in 1991, Vanderhook came back with him and stayed for the next 17 years.


“To be a head coach, it’s an honor to at least say that someone thought that I did a good enough job as an assistant to help,” Vanderhook said. “To be at Fullerton, it’s about all I know. I spent more than half my life out here.”


That familiarity is a big reason why Serrano doesn’t think the switch from lifetime assistant to rookie head coach is a big leap for Vanderhook.


“He knows the strengths and weaknesses of Cal State Fullerton,” Serrano said. “He knows what he’s in for. He’s not going to skip a beat going from assistant coach to head coach.”


But Vanderhook knows each day as a head coach will provide a new learning opportunity.


The day before leading his first spring practice as a head coach, Vanderhook joked, “I need to figure out what to do.” He noted that when the Titans traveled to play Vanderbilt in a fall weekend series, that he figured out what to do. Saarloos said he told the freshmen after that weekend, “I know exactly what you’re feeling like.”


At times, the rookie coach has called on some of his mentors for suggestions or advice. And he’s relied on the experience of coaching with some of the best in the business.


“He’s done it for a long, long time,” Saarloos said. “He’s learned a lot from a lot of great, great coaches. He’s paid attention to things he liked and didn’t like because one day he knew he was going to be a head coach.”


Vanderhook said, “I’ve tried to take things from each of them. That’s my style. I don’t think I can change my style. That’s what I do.”


What Vanderhook does is prepare his teams, both mentally and physically. What Vanderhook does is motivate his players. What Vanderhook does is make his players better.  


“He wasn’t my coach directly, but some of the things I learned from him, I still use today,” Saarloos said. “He shaped me – not pitching wise – but the mental aspect of getting better every day.


“He challenged me in that way while I was there. As a player, you don’t get the method. Being on the flip side of it, I see why he does things and the ability to get the most out of his players.”


Added Savage: “He brings a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience. The guy has coached at the highest level, been a part of a lot of good teams, helped a lot of good players get better, has a tremendous passion for the game of baseball…he’s a baseball guy and certainly deserves this opportunity.”


The opportunity before Vanderhook is one that is nearly 25 years in the making.


His first edition will be young on the mound and seasoned in the everyday lineup. The nation will get an early read on Cal State Fullerton the first weekend as the Titans travel to meet consensus preseason No. 1 Florida. Not many coaches can claim their first win as one against the No. 1 team in the land, but for a guy who has been a part of more than 1,000 wins, not many coaches around the country would be surprised if it happens.


Either way, Vanderhook will be ready.


“He’s seen everything, he’s been around a long time,” Savage said. “I don’t think anything will surprise him. He’s just in a different chair now.”


Serrano added, “The only thing I’d probably say to Rick is to continue to be himself. His baseball knowledge is very well recognized. Enjoy the journey he’s about to go on with his players and his coaches. That program is the right fit for him…if he’s himself, nothing but success will come his way.”


(photos by Matt Brown)