From onboarding a new coach, supporting a successful and tenured coach or adjusting to new recruiting legislation, the role of a sport administrator can be varied. In this Experts’ Roundtable, ADU asked for insight into the intricacies of doing the job for the sport of baseball.
Given your program’s high-profile success this season, what are the key elements of leadership from Coach Bragga, his staff & the overall administration contributing to the run?
The Tennessee Tech Baseball program under Head Coach Matt Bragga’s leadership has been very good for many years, and I personally would not say the success is just this season. Coach Bragga has built a highly sustainable, successful program by recruiting young men who are truly student-athletes and embody everything that is great about college athletics; these are young men who fit our institution and the coaching philosophy of the program. They work hard, respect others, and are highly accountable to one another. The key elements are commitment to academic success, playing for each other and the greater good of the team, excellent team leadership from the student-athletes, being positive and believing in one another and the coaching staff.
Coach Esquer is back on The Farm for his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant from 1991-1996. Strategically, how did you onboard a new skipper given his previous familiarity with the institution? Was Esquer’s onboarding abnormally different than a head coach with no previous connection(s) to the university?
The onboarding for Coach Esquer was a bit different from the onboarding of a coach without experience at Stanford. Typically, key among the issues involved in onboarding a new coach are acclimating the new coach to the unique culture of Stanford Athletics, and educating the new coach on admissions standards. In my experience it generally takes coaches more time to get comfortable with these issues than it does just about anything else. When engaging in the search last year for a coach it became readily apparent that Coach Esquer possessed a keen understanding of Stanford in both of these areas. Because Coach Esquer was a both former Stanford baseball student-athlete and a former Stanford baseball assistant coach, he had first-hand insights into Stanford Baseball, Stanford Athletics, and the broader university, including admissions. This made our job of onboarding much more streamlined than would have been the case with just about any other coach. Nonetheless, even though Coach Esquer was familiar with Stanford, he had been away from the University for over 20 years. Therefore, we still needed to go through all of the steps of we would go through for a new coach (compliance, communications, HR, facilities and the like), even though in some areas it was more of a refresher
As a first-year sport administrator for Baseball alongside a head coach with a number of years of experience at UF, what steps did you take to become hyper familiar with the program & quickly become an asset for Coach O’Sullivan?
I had a fairly strong relationship with Coach O’Sullivan prior to moving into my role as sport administrator, so the transition was not a difficult one. We would talk very frequently and most of the time not about baseball or the athletic department. There was a friendship there and high level of trust between us and I remember telling him I didn’t expect our comfort level of open and honest conversations to change. Looking back the past year, that has not changed. Coach has the ability to be candid, address issues and make decisions that are in the best interest of the program and the athletic department.
What tenants do you operate by when administering a sport program? Are you hands-on or hands-off? Do you commonly meet on the HC’s turf or in your office? How often do you stop by practice? Are there any unique elements of overseeing Baseball compared to another sport?
Wilson (Tennessee Tech): The administrative philosophy at Tennessee Tech for programs like baseball and Coach Bragga are quite simple: provide them the most we can afford, support them behind the scenes and let the coaches run the program. So with that, I am really fairly hands off. Coach Bragga and his staff have my trust and the trust of the administration. Coach Bragga and I meet where most convenient on any given day with each of our schedules, and we meet as needed with no set schedule. I am not an athletics director who watches a lot of practice for any of our 14 sport programs. We empower our coaches to lead our programs and Coach Bragga does an exceptional job! I feel like overseeing most of our programs is similar to baseball. Set clear expectations of programmatic goals and the desired experience for our student-athletes, educate the coaches on important institutional items, provide them the autonomy to lead their programs, be their biggest cheerleader and help the head coach/staff if there are challenges they face. Coach Bragga is a veteran coach and performs at an extremely high level in all these areas.
Dunkley (Stanford): In my view, being a sport administrator is a support role intended to serve student-athletes and coaches. The objective is to contribute to their goals to achieve the highest level of success possible in the classroom, on the field and in their college experience in general. This includes assisting both our student-athletes and our coaches in creating an environment that results in a positive student-athlete experience, a culture that facilitates growth and development, and ensuring that, to the extent possible, they have the necessary resources. In serving in this role I cannot characterize my approach as either hands-on or hands-off. My degree of involvement is dependent on the needs of the program, or the issue at hand. If I am doing my job well I am as involved as I need to be, but no more involved than is necessary. Sometimes this requires walking a fine line. I find it helpful to meet with the coaches I oversee on a fairly regular basis, generally every other week. This regular connection allows me to build and sustain a relationship with the coach and understand the issues of importance to them. I find that these meetings create opportunities proactive collaboration with the coach and facilitate the coaches seeking advice and guidance. We most often meet in my office, however at times we meet in their offices as well. I do not have a regular schedule for dropping by practice, but do so throughout the season. One of the challenges with overseeing baseball is that the sport has a very long season, and when they are at home for a weekend series they generally play Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. For someone with a family, like me, this results in quite a bit of juggling on the weekend to attend games.
McClain (Florida): Really for me I don’t look at myself as the administrator of the baseball program, I look at myself is how can I help support all of those associated with the program to do what they need to do to be successful. I try to do a lot of listening and understanding everyone’s perspectives and let people do their job. I don’t pretend to be a baseball coach, academic counselor, equipment manager, trainer or strength coach, but I know how important it is for all those people to pull in the same direction for a team to be successful. I don’t have a standing meeting with Coach O’Sullivan or any of the support staff but we talk frequently and I always visit with them at the facility. I try to keep my presence casual, much like the sport of baseball.
How have you & the coaching staff strategized to build strong non-conference schedules to best position the program for post-season access & success?
Wilson (Tennessee Tech): A primary strategy is to take advantage of our location in the middle of the country and, being fairly southern, to schedule as many non-conference home games as possible. The Golden Eagles love playing in the friendly confines of Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex and find that our opportunity for success at home is excellent. We schedule many of the regional teams for midweek contests. The quality of baseball in this region is high, so with wins, we will build a quality RPI and national exposure for our student-athletes and program.
Dunkley (Stanford): I have been fortunate enough to work with baseball coaching staffs, with both Coach Esquer as well as the previous staff, that have a desire to play very challenging non-conference schedules. Collectively, we have an awareness that as a member of the Pac – 12 Stanford plays in a very challenging conference. We are on the same page that the best way to prepare for the conference schedule, and for a post-season run, is to play the best non-conference competition possible. Because we are in alignment on this objective, the biggest challenge in developing a non-conference schedule can be finding teams that have a similar philosophy. We have been fortunate to schedule games with several like-minded schools and this has also provided the added benefit of some consistency in our non-conference schedule over the years.
McClain (Florida): Coach O’Sullivan understands the value of testing his team early in the season, both at home and on the road to prepare for the rigors of the Southeastern Conference schedule. We also have an annual neutral site game in Jacksonville with Florida State that draws 9,000-plus. It is a great atmosphere for both the fans and teams and provides additional revenue to the program.
How do you expect new recruiting legislation, which allows student-athletes to begin official visits on September 1 of their junior years, to impact the flow of talent around the sport?
Wilson (Tennessee Tech): Coach Bragga and I have been focused on this season and have not yet have in-depth conversations regarding the new legislation. Our recruiting philosophy will not change even though the timing may. We will continue to identify young men who are great institutional and program fits – young men who are committed to academic success while having an opportunity to play for a championship level program and be active and engaged in our community!
Dunkley (Stanford): I think the new rules will make recruiting more challenging for schools that have strict admissions standards. Stanford falls into this category. The new rules will significantly limit the opportunities schools have to engage with prospective student-athletes earlier in their high school years. For schools like Stanford it is important for prospective student-athletes to understand admissions expectations at a time when they have the ability to add any necessary academic rigor to their class load. The ability to plan and adjust their schedules before their junior year can be critical to consideration by highly selective institutions. If prospective student-athletes do not have ample time to adjust to increase academic rigor, where necessary, they may not be likely to meet admissions requirements. This, of course, could result in some student-athletes who might otherwise be able to meet the admissions requirements at a school like Stanford to miss out on the opportunity, and make them available to other schools.
McClain (Florida): Legislation and rules continue to evolve and change. Anytime there is a change in the rules, there is a lot of uncertainty from coaches and staffs about how it will impact the game and recruiting. Eventually, the new rules will become routine and I don’t think the flow of talent around the sport will be impacted by it.