"Clearly, I'm not a professional journalist," me to Baylor head baseball coach Steve Rodriguez as I walk in with my 8 year old son who loves Baylor and Baylor sports so much there is no way I could make the 4 hour drive to meet the new head coach without him. We laughed, made introductions, and exchanged pleasantries. And with that, Coach Rod graciously welcomed me into his office and unhesitatingly opened up for what turned into roughly an hour long conversation including the tour of the facilities.
When the Baylor Baseball job opened up, there was a lot of speculation surrounding who should and would get the job. Naturally many in the Baylor fanbase assumed that when Athletic Director Ian McCaw said there was a nationwide search for the right candidate to replace arguably Baylor's most successful baseball coach in school history, what he really meant was we are searching for the best coach in Texas to replicate the success that Art Briles has brought to the football program. It became clear that the search truly was national, however, when potential candidates' names started leaking out. One of those names, that I almost immediately dismissed as being unrealistic, was Steve Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spent 16 years at Pepperdine where he won a national championship as a player. As a coach, he won 5 conference championships and earned a regional berth in 8 of his 12 seasons. Being number 2 on his alma maters' all-time win list and working in one of the world's most beautiful locations overlooking the Pacific ocean, it struck me as unlikely that Coach Rod would have any interest in moving his family half-way across the country when he was enjoying so much success in southern California. After all, he met his wife, Kim, and raised his family there.
What I did not know at the time of the search was that Coach Rod had already been intimately introduced to Baylor before the prospect of him becoming Baylor's coach was even on the radar. As he revealed at a football tailgate before the WVU game, Coach Rod was visiting Baylor with his daughter, a prospective student then and current student now, the weekend TCU came to town for a top 10 showdown in the Fall of 2014 (some of you may remember that game). That experience and his personal connection to President and Chancellor Ken Starr made Baylor an attractive destination:
You know, I spent 16 years at Pepperdine. 3 years as a player, met my wife there, my kids grew up there, and it is an absolutely amazing place. And, I will always consider that my Alma Mater. But, I just think that from a professional standpoint, and to be honest kind of from a personal standpoint, I needed to get out. I was very selective with the schools that I really wanted to be a part of. I've been approached by other schools, and I made it very clear. I said, "I don't want to waste your time, I don't want to waste your money. You don't need to fly me up, I'm just not interested." When this job opened up and they called me, you know I expressed a lot of interest because I knew Judge Starr was here, and I had very high regard for him when he was at Pepperdine as dean of the law school. And when I had a chance to come here and visit the school with my daughter, meet some of the professors, and just kind of understand the community and what it was about. And, to be honest, after being in Malibu and California for those amount of years you know you come here and the relaxed nature, the community, the values, the morals... And when you see all that, and you combine it with the fact I get to coach baseball in something similar... Even when my wife got here, she kinda knew that if this job was (offered) that we were going to take it. And so it was a very nice, welcoming thing for my wife because there was no convincing involved. It was something she was going to be happy with as well.
Coming from California, naturally there are many differences. From climate to recruiting, I asked what some of the biggest changes are that he has noticed in the transition:
You know, the biggest transition, to be honest, has a lot to do with Baylor. Just simply because the amount of support that they give you. I mean I come here, and the weather, people say, "oh my gosh the weather changes!" I'll tell you what, my family has enjoyed every bit of it. You know, when it's downpouring and rain or the cold. I mean, we are embracing it because it's something nice. We've never had that, you know. Even rain, we just don't get rain! And so when we got it here we were just walking in it, and everything and it was just fun. Like being a little kid. And so we enjoyed it.
Those are the kind of things we are taking in stride with what we are learning about with the state and the city and then the community here. But, I think the biggest changes have been from what we have here at Baylor just with the support staff, the things that people want to do. You know, I did a lot of what a lot of people do here. I was the equipment guy. I was the business guy. I was the person doing fundraising. I did a lot of that at Pepperdine. I didn't have a problem with it because I enjoyed it. But here, they have people who are willing and wanting to do that part of it, so I just get to coach, I get to recruit. From the recruiting aspect, I don't think there has been a big change. I mean, Pepperdine is a very expensive school and Baylor is an expensive school. Not as expensive as Pepperdine, but Baylor has some amazing academic scholarships that you are able to bring kids in on that kind of supplement the cost of it in regards to the athletic scholarship as well. But, I just think the overall community and just how embracing they have been. Just walking through HEB and having someone from the deli department go "hey coach, glad to have you here". My wife and I were actually in Chicago O'Hare airport walking through, and someone walks up and says, "Coach Rodriguez Sic 'Em Bears". It was the funniest thing because my family is looking at me like "that is really weird". And I just think "how special that is that people have that deep rooted desire for the Green and Gold that they are aware of all those things. It just makes you feel special. It really does.
Referencing Art Briles' well documented Texas ties, and the success that he's brought to the program, I asked how he handled the need for Texas ties in the program during the hiring process:
During the process, it was very clear that I needed someone from Texas who has a little more insight into the landscape of this state. It's big, you know. There are a lot of schools, and a lot of players. I would say 75-80% maybe even higher will be from the state of Texas. So, I had to be well aware of that. Just by looking at the history of the Baylor rosters. And when I was going through a bunch of different options, Coach Taylor's name came up quite a bit. I knew Mike from when he was at Rice, and then he was at Houston, and I just knew that he had great resources and the ability to coach. The thing is you have to ask people you really trust. Everybody is going to recommend their friends and give you all sorts of different options that they would love to happen. So, I asked some people that I thought highly of and they put his name in with a couple other people. When his name kept coming up, I knew I needed to talk to this guy because there's something there. So, I talked to him, and this was something that he wanted to do, and it really worked out. He's been amazing for us with his connections here in Texas, his ability to coach and help our hitters. He's been a great addition to our staff and he compliments me really well.
How have High school coaches welcomed you, and how have the recruits responded? Do you feel like you're fighting an uphill battle?
The interesting thing is I have always felt like I've had to go with an uphill battle, even when I was at Pepperdine because you're not the USC, you're not the UCLA which are really the predominate universities in Southern California. We were always battling against them just like you would the Texas and Texas A&M type of thing. But, you know from my standpoint, Baylor is in a great place right now with its athletic program. So when people hear you're from Baylor even though people have said the baseball program hasn't had what it had in the past, I don't really view that. I say "if people want to come here, we're going to find the right people to be here." I think the university speaks really large volumes when you're recruiting. It's like I've told everybody. I want to find the people who want to be here, and if they don't want to be here, that's OK. We're going to find the people who want to be Baylor Bears on this baseball field. If it takes a longer time to recruit then it takes longer to recruit. That's our job.
As anyone who follows recruiting knows, facilities matter in big time athletics. TCU just unveiled a new baseball locker room facility that was pretty incredible. So, I asked Coach Rod if he had seen them, which he had and commented on how nice they were, but he also had this to say:
When I got here, they talked about "hey you know, we have to update the facilities a little bit". Coming from where I came from, the facilities are nothing near this, so I was like, "OK, if you really think you need to that's fine. But, we have plenty here." I do know that there is going to be a campaign starting pretty soon. They've hired a company, the same one who did the football stadium to create some renderings for a couple of the facilities around here. I'm excited to see what they put together because Baylor doesn't do anything mediocre. That's nice to see, so I'm excited to see what the renderings are going to look like.
Again, I referenced Coach Art Briles', this time his introductory press conference where he outlined his expectations of contending for Big 12 championships before going out and doing it, I asked what his plan was to get back in contention and if he had a timeline in mind. At this point, the noise outside the office was starting to get loud, and he closed the door with some remote mechanical feature, "I'm not a big fan of that feature, Gavin (my son's name). It's the only way to close the door. I nearly ripped the door off the baseboard when I tried to close it before."
You know I think a lot of things really play into that. My biggest thing is just teaching the game of baseball the way it's supposed to be taught. I want these kids to play with excitement because when you do that it creates a different environment. You know an enthusiastic environment. My biggest thing here is I just want to see for the first year, "how are we going to be". With our new coaching style and how everything is going, how these guys adapt and adjust to what we are trying to coach to them. And with recruiting. How hard is it going to be. With pitching is it going to be a big deal and making sure we have a great defense. I don't know that I would put it into years in regards to what I would expect cause I did that at Pepperdine. I said if I can't do "this" in 3 to 4 years, then I shouldn't be here. The next thing you know, it happened the next year, but then a lot of things are dependent on that. Especially when you are at a private school where you are dealing with depth issues. You have injuries. What if fluke injuries happen. A kid's diving and breaks a finger or hand or whatever it is. So many things happen and I just realized that one of my best years at Pepperdine was when we just stayed the healthiest. You know trying to stay healthy is a big deal. Then not losing some of your best recruits in the draft. That's always an issue to. So, just recruiting the right kids, getting them here, and just trying to get them all to buy in to something we believe in. But I think, just like anybody, you want to happen sooner than later is the best answer I can give.
In that question he referenced two things that caught my attention. The first was his reference to how kids were adjusting to his coaching. So I asked what we should expect to see perhaps differently from a coaching standpoint and style of play:
I don't really know too much about what was here in the past. I really don't. I just know that I'm a pretty active coach. I like being out there with our guys. I like doing things with the guys. Whether it's bunting or hitting or doing stuff like that. Defense work. I tell our guys, "Look I'm very active in the dugout and I talk a lot because I want to be able to coach as we are playing". I want kids to hear. So, you'll see me pretty active. Our team will really determine our style of play. Everybody's like, "are you a big running team or a big power team" I tell them it really depends on our guys. If I want a big running team but I don't have the guys that can run, then it's hard to be a big running team. So you have to be really creative at certain times. When pitchers are dominating you, you have to find a way to score some runs. You know, so that's something we're going to have to be creative with along the way. I just think that the style of play is just something... I just like being aggressive. I like kids making aggressive mistakes. I don't want them to be passive. I don't want them looking over their shoulder to see "oh my gosh, did I do that right". I just want them to be aggressive. I tell them it's like a kid, when he's out playing in the water puddles in the rain but he has an umbrella. Go do that, but you're going to be under the umbrella of what we are trying to coach. Because I think that's when you get the best out of kids, when they're able to play free and with the imagination that some great athletes have. When you try to make them do everything a certain way, you kind of inhibit them a little bit. So I want them to play free. We're going to make mistakes. We're going to make aggressive mistakes, and everybody's going to be like "what are you doing?" But I want the kids to be able to do that because that's the best way to learn. I think those are better coaching techniques than literally walking them through everything in the game.
I've seen pictures of you out coaching. Seems like personally being involved in player development is very important to you.
I just think every kid has... I spoke at a leadership committee yesterday, and I said I don't think we stop learning. I mean even as a coach, I'll ask other coaches, "What do you do really well? What's your big thing?" I listen to it, and I go, "Oh I kinda do something like that", or "I might try or I can try that". My biggest thing is trying to be the best coach I can be and be able to give as must instruction without throwing too much at them. But physically just being able to show them how to do something so they can feel it is one of my favorite things to do. Because, you can say it, but once they feel it, now it's their job to hopefully try to repeat that. Whether it's pitching, hitting, defense, whatever it is. I just think that it's a lot easier to be able to help them and show them how to do it than just say it. I can show them pictures and all that, but when I'm out there doing it with them, I just think it creates, one a better bond with the player, but two I just think it's a better learning opportunity. I really do. Then I will ask them to explain it to me and teach it back to me so they have to put themselves in my shoes as well.
The second was the importance of trying to stay healthy and what he did from a strength and conditioning standpoint:
The Strength and Conditioning program was the biggest thing for me. As soon as I got hired, I had a meeting with the S&C people. So, they hired another S&C coach who really specializes in baseball who I had a big part in hiring. He has been wonderful, his name is Kale Igboh, and he has been an amazing asset to our program because he has the same energy I do. He has excitement about trying to do things right and doing it properly. That has been a big part of it because during the season your body has a tendency to break down, and the stronger you are the better able you are to fight some off those things, whereas before, if you don't have that strength you are kind of at an injury's whim really. But the nutrition department has been absolutely one of the most amazing things I've seen. With the amount of food and how they really take care to instruct and teach the kids what they should eat, how much water they should be drinking, and really lining up food for them. It is truly one of the most amazing things. We have a new nutrition center where they can go eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's all run by our nutritionist. And she's doing everything in there. The amount of food, it's all you can eat, there's no lack of food, I can tell you that. One of the greatest things I've seen is they're investing in their athletes. It's visible, and I'm glad that I'm able to make sure our athletes get to experience that as well.
Additional innovations include a new "Pitching Lab" coming soon to the area behind first base dugout:
We have an area over there that used to be a double tunnel batting cage. It's big enough to put 2 or 3 mounds in. So we're going to create a pitching lab so even if it's raining you can still get your work in. We're going to have cameras and computers lined up. It's just like anything, you can tell a kid he's doing something, but until they see it, they don't believe you. So, it's just another tool for them to be able to go in, get some work done, but at the same point be able to have a coach who says you're doing "this", be able to stop what he's doing in that moment, show him the video, and have him go, "oh OK now I see what you're talking about," and get it fixed immediately as opposed to throwing it in the bullpen, getting it on video, having to put it to a computer. The access is immediate, and I think that's going to be a big help to the kids. We are still getting the camera system, the software system, and everything.
The lab will include high speed cameras with the software that allows the staff to break down mechanics in a frame by frame sequence similarly to Chris O'Leary who makes incredible "flip books" where he can really analyze the player's mechanics.
This conversation brought to mind Vanderbilt, who has a similar lab, but is also one of the private schools with a large endowment like some others who are able to provide some financial assistance. So I asked what kinds of challenges he faces recruiting against those types of schools:
Their endowment is such to where kids get a certain amount, every kid, not just athletes, but every student. And that's one of the blessings of having one of those large endowments. Kids are able to benefit from that. I'm just a big believer that every school has its challenges. I really am. Just like at Pepperdine. We had a large cost. we didn't have a financial aid system and it was hard to get academic money. And you deal with state schools where there is a large population; where there's a large population and a lot of kids in each class. I tell our guys I don't believe in complaining. It's very easy to complain, but it's hard to find answers. So, I just know that every school has its challenge. If that's one of our challenges, then for me, I'm used to that. I really am. Everybody says "well it's going to be hard to compete," and I say "yea it is, it's going to be hard. But, it's not impossible". I've seen schools who are able to defy the odds and go on to be successful. It's a challenge that we are going to have, but at the same time I'm not afraid of it.
This answer led me to point out that many Baylor baseball fans were first introduced to him when he went into Fort Worth and almost advanced to the CWS. "3 outs away", he interrupted as I try to get to the point of my question. He clearly had the players on that team to compete, but I wondered if the type of atmosphere that comes with big time college baseball in the south might introduce some additional challenges that he may not have anticipated in his earlier answer. They do not have the types of raucous crowds in California that come with highly competitive teams in the Big 12 and other programs:
I think the biggest difference between California and Texas kids, is that in Southern California most parents went to SC or UCLA. So you are battling that a little bit. And Pepperdine is very small, very private. There's no football. You have to really want to go to get there. The team that went to the super regional against TCU, I think we were at 9.5 scholarships because we had some violation issues from our university. So a lot of those kids were walk-ons that we recruited that we just didn't give scholarships. It's just about finding the kid and seeing something in him that you can benefit from. There's kids here in Texas that are just amazing athletes. Southern California kids get seen a lot. They really do. By scouts and by coaches. It becomes to where they are almost over seen to where they have high regards for themselves. Trying to get a kid that slips through the draft is nearly impossible. Here you might be able to find a kid who some people see a little bit, who get drafted fairly high but still find a way to go to school. I've seen that more here than I do in California. I don't think the recruiting aspect has changed for me how we do it. It's just finding the right kids who want to be a part of your belief system and what you are trying to do."
In terms of the athlete, I asked what kinds of kids he looks for in addition to just wanting to be here and buy in. The reason is because I have seen tremendous players end up at smaller schools because they didn't have a particular build:
I like tall pitchers. I want pitchers who have deception and have some angle to it. Where they are releasing the ball a little farther out front. That's one of the things Coach Strauss is a fan of. With pitchers, the taller they are, it's just harder to hit 'em. It just really is. But, I've had some guys who were 5'11, 6' who have great deception, can spin a curveball, and are great athletes on the mound. That makes it a lot of fun as well that they are able to do that. I think you need a little bit of a mix.
Up the middle, I'm a fan of infielders who have great instincts. Who are able to be coaches on the field. I like fast outfielders who can shag balls down. If they can't run, they better be able to hit. There better be something in there. I just don't want to put guys out there that can play the position. They better be able to play that position with some of the best people in the country. That's the thing, just finding the right spots for those guys. Some kids are like "I've always played this". Yeah, but you're better over here for our team. You may want to play this, but you're not playing it better than that guy is. It's just finding the right spots for the right kids.
One of my best first baseman was a SS. One of my best catchers, who led us to a regional championship was a 3b. It's just finding guys who really want to compete who go "I don't care where I play." Perfect, let me absorb it. Body wise, body just allows you to make some mistakes and still get away with some things. I tell kids velocity is great, it allows you to make some mistakes. If you don't have that velocity, you better be able to pitch a little bit better. If you're not going to have that kind of velocity, you need to be able to pitch a little bit better. 95 up in the zone is probably going to be fouled off. 85 up in the zone is going to go a long way. You know, a shorter pitcher doesn't have that angle so he needs to be able to pitch down in the zone.
"11.7 [scholarships]... that's obviously the challenge," I said referencing trying to get those guys he just described:
I would love to see more money. Just like every other coach would. But you know, like I said, I'm not going to sit here and complain about what we don't have. It's just like when they were changing the ball, "my gosh don't you hate the ball", but I said everyone is playing with the same baseball. If it's 11.7 that's what I have to work with. I don't want to say what if we had 17. Well, I don't. One day if we do, then great. We'll be able to do something differently. As of right now, all it does is put me in a bad mood if I think about what would be or could be or should or what I want because truthfully I don't know if that will ever happen. I think it will in the future, but I think baseball needs to make itself a better product too.
He said that ignoring the conversation about schools with large endowments and schools in states like Louisiana who have student aid programs that give them a competitive advantage.
Coach Rodriguez has been a fixture at Baylor events from football to Equestrian. On the importance of supporting other programs:
As a player, I loved it when people were in the stands. I did. So, I have a great opportunity to meet some of the athletes here in the weight room or nutrition center or just walking around and going to some of the events and having a chance to talk to them. I want to go watch them play. I mean they are some of the best athletes in the country, and I want to be able to witness it and see it and watch them compete because I know them. I mean there is a legitimate relationship where I can talk to them, and they say "Hi coach, what's up?" I love being able to do that. I tell our guys that this is what college is all about. Being able to go to all of these events and enjoy it. As an athlete you want people in your stands as well. If you have time and you have the ability to go and watch someone else, especially when they are really good like they are here, then why wouldn't you?
We did the same thing at Pepperdine. We went to basketball games, volleyball games, soccer games. I mean, I'd stop practice and have our guys go out and support our soccer team just because I thought that's what we are supposed to do. I think that's a great thing to be able to support other teams. Everybody knows what we all go through. From time constraints to early mornings to late nights and recruiting. And, I want these kids to be able to benefit from all of that. I think I owe it to all the athletes here to go and support them.
There are a lot... Like today, our coaching staff is going over to watch the acro and tumbling team. They invited us over, and our whole staff is going because I'm not aware of everything they do. I know they do certain things whether it's gymnastic or acrobatics, and I want to see it, and I want to understand it. So when I go to an event I will know what I'm watching. Same thing with equestrian. I got here and met the Equestrian coach, and it was just like 'oh you have to come watch us'. So I went, and I had a chance to see it and was like, 'this is really cool'. Cause we never had that and so you know I like learning about different sports and different things, asking a bunch of questions, and seeing how they go about it. It's just really neat to be able to learn new things about different sports.
About this time, I realize just how engrossed in the conversation I had been, and how time was getting away from me, so I had to get to some questions about guys on the field. I asked who he expected to have big years from
-Kameron Esthay, he has some of the quickest hands I've seen, and he does a really good job. We've really worked on being a complete hitter and he's bought in pretty well.
-Matt Manard has really transformed his body really well, and he's worked really hard. I think he does a good job behind the plate. He's probably one of the best catch and receive guys I've had. And not to mention, offensively, he's done an amazing job for us.
-Daniel Castano on the mound is like a poor man's Andy Pettitte. He's not as tall and big, and he doesn't have the velo just yet, but there is a lot of similarities in his actions.
-Drew Tolson, he just finds a way to compete. I just think he's the guy where you look up at the scoreboard in the 7th inning, and you have a chance to win. That's one of the greatest things about that guy.
I have 2 other guys that I think may have some interesting years for us. Levi Gilcrease and West Tunnell. Those are the two I'm hoping... because I think they have a great ability on the bases with their speed. They do some great things defensively, and if they can catch up offensively to their defense, they are going to be pretty good all around players for us.
Wrapping up, I asked if Coach was familiar with ODB because after all I mentioned the site to him at the football game in the fall, and after all he did graciously agree to visit with us:
No not really, but I will. To be honest, I don't go on the internet a lot. I don't research, I don't see what people are saying. I learned that about 8 years ago, when the internet became very full of information whether it was with blogs, fan boards or whatever about what people said and didn't say. I'd kind of get upset about certain things. They have no idea, and I just said, you know what, I'm just not going to do it anymore. Because the truth is I know what happened on that field. I know what we are doing to try to get better. I know the truth about that and that's all I can really worry about.
I look at the clock, and say something like, "you have given me far more time than I deserve", but I have to ask one more question. Pancakes or Waffles:
Pancakes. I'm a big pancake guy... Aww I love pancakes.
And with that we laughed a little more and embarked on a facilities tour and shared a few more stories that are beyond the scope of this piece.
The next day was the first of his annual alumni games. I had little in the way of expectations of who would come. The turnout was incredible with former players coming from hours away and others who were unable to already making plans for next year. In the fall, when we met, Coach Rod made reference to how important he felt it was to include the former players in the program and to help the current players to understand the legacy they are living up to thanks to those that came before him and them.
I just have a couple of final thoughts on the encounter. The first thing that stands out is the energy and passion Coach Rod brings to Baylor baseball. It's infectious. The second thing is just how much he's bought in to the Baylor community and trying to fit in right away. Finally, no matter what challenge was discussed, there were no hint of backing down from the challenge.
Coach Rod's efforts seem to be paying dividends already. About halfway through the alumni game, which was really well attended all things considered, a Baylor classic chant of "BAY-LOR! --> BEARS!" broke out. Witnessing that again from field level was pretty cool. But, as the chant morphed into "STEVE! --> RODRIGUEZ!" I couldn't help think that he is truly an adopted son.
Sic 'em Coach Rod. Thanks for the time. We are looking forward with great anticipation to this season and many more to come.