February 11, 2014

Nine Innings with Valpo's Brian Schmack

Nine Innings with WSU's Greg Lovelady

CBI Horizon Preview

A New Horizon

By Chris Webb

Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com


They’re home to the Horizon League’s past three NCAA Tournament appearances, each with two over past five seasons. Both campuses rest 90 minutes from a Big Ten program with a much more recognizable name, though they have a more recent Regional win.


They’re Valparaiso and Wright State, two Horizon League programs whose similarities carry over into new head coaches, both of whom already were on the staff and driving forces behind the highs the programs have achieved.


Wright State hired Rob Cooper in 2004, and over the next nine seasons saw seven 30-win clubs, two Horizon League championship teams and three NCAA Tournament outfits. Gone were the downtrodden days when the Raiders posted losing records six of the seven seasons before Cooper’s arrival.


Valparaiso hired Tracy Woodson in 2006, and in three seasons saw their first above .500 record in a decade. Three years after that, the Crusaders ended a 44-year NCAA Tournament drought, the beginning of back-to-back tournament appearances highlighted by a win over Florida in last year’s Bloomington Regional, the program’s first NCAA victory since 1966.


On July 23, 2013, Woodson was named the head coach at Richmond. On Aug. 9 Penn State tabbed Cooper its head coach.


After building their respective programs, the pair became hot coaches, names mentioned in several vacancies at programs within conferences that possess more than the Horizon League before finally being plucked.


But it’s not back to Step 1 – the coaches next in line were selected to keep their program’s moving right along.


“We had conversations over the last probably three years, that if something like this were to happen,” said Wright State head coach Greg Lovelady on Director of Athletics Bob Grant naming him Cooper’s replacement. “When Brad [Brownwell] left for Clemson, when Billy [Donlon] took over the basketball program, that may have been the first time he came up to me. It obviously showed me good things knowing they gave it to the assistant.


“The decision I had to make was go with Coop or stay,” Lovelady said. “I didn’t have to put a lot of thought in it. It was just a better situation for me and my family. I felt like there were a lot of things we could still do, that I felt I could do as the head coach.”


There wasn’t such a contingency plan in place at Valparaiso as Brian Schmack emerged as the top candidate.


“It wasn’t a situation where it was a slam dunk and ‘If he leaves, you’re going to take over and we’re going to do this,’” Schmack said.


“I had to interview. I was fortunate enough to do that before other candidates came in; Director of Athletics Mark LaBarbera said I earned the right to have a conversation with him first. But I treated it as an interview, presentation, the whole nine yards, because it was something I wanted to get and show him in that.”


The proof was present for both administrations to trust the former assistants as the new guides of their programs. Two weeks after Cooper was hired to lead the Dayton, Ohio program, Lovelady, a former catcher at the University of Miami, joined him on the Raiders staff. Though it was Cooper leading the program, Lovelady was instrumental in its shaping.


“We didn’t have another paid assistant when we got here, it was just me and him,” Lovelady said. “We sat in a room and thought ‘How are we going to do this,’ ‘How are we going to teach this,’ ‘How are we going to do those type of things.’ So a lot of the foundational stuff, the scheduling, although his program, I had a huge voice in that.”


The ability to draw on what occurred in the past, and the crux of the unmatched success, spearheaded Schmack’s candidacy.


“I think [LaBarbera] knew that,” Schmack said. “He knew pitching was a big part of our success, and I was responsible for that. He wanted that to continue, and I definitely used that. From talking to him, and even Tracy mentioning that the athletic director wanted to keep the continuity, keep this going, I felt good.”


But the past is in the past; going forward neither can rest on his laurels.


At Wright State, the Raiders have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2011. Though the Crusaders have earned the past two Horizon League bids thanks to winning the conference tournament, last season’s end resonates. Both Lovelady and Schmack believe changes they can bring to their programs and the players reflecting their lead will help build upon what they helped establish.


“I was able to be successful as a player as a walk-on because I was a high-energy, hard worker,” Lovelady said. “I think that rubs off a little on our players now that I’m the head coach. It’s not that we didn’t work hard before, that’s not the case, it’s just a little more high-energy.”


Having a little more energy throughout games and practices at Nischwitz Stadium could be a remedy for what has ailed Wright State of late.


“I think we have had problems the last couple of years with guys trying to be All-Americans, or hit .400 with 10 home runs,” Lovelady said. “You don’t have to be that, just go out and be yourself, go play and have fun. I think the last couple of years we have lost that.”


Any change of course for Valparaiso under Schmack may not be visible to the common fan, but there is an area Schmack feels there is a difference.


“I’m going to try to hold the guys a little more accountable, where there are no excuses,” Schmack said. “I think early on, and because of where we play with the weather, we’re going to go down to Samford and it’s literally the first time we’ll see green grass. I don’t want the guys to use that as an excuse, I want them to be held accountable and find a way to get through that stuff.”


Providing a message of finding a way to get through was one first things the former Detroit Tigers pitcher did as the new head coach.


He has a photo of the scoreboard from Valpo’s Regional opener against College World Series participant Indiana – the Crusaders led 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth before the Hoosiers rallied for a 5-4 win.


“Underneath, I wrote ‘What are we going to do to make that a zero, instead of the four?’” Schmack said. “It’s actually my screensaver, too. When I first log in every day, I see that and it gets me to think ‘Listen, we’re close, but we haven’t done anything on a big scale.’”


(photo courtesy of Valpo Media Relations Office)