When UT-Rio Grande Valley was in search of a new head baseball coach earlier this offseason, there was considerable interest in the opening.
There were some big names at least rumored to have some interest in the job when it came open, perhaps better names than you would have expected for a program like this one. No disrespect is meant to the UTRGV baseball program, but it’s a program that has only finished above .500 overall once since 2001, and given that they’ve gone from the Sun Belt Conference, to independent, to the now-defunct Great West Conference, to the WAC within 20 years, they’ve felt like a very transitory program for much of their recent history.
But as it turns out, the talk of big-name coaches in college baseball being interested in the job turned out to be much more than just talk, as former TCU, Texas State, and West Virginia assistant Derek Matlock ended up being named the head coach back in June.
From the sound of it, the challenge of turning around a team that hasn’t had a ton of success lately was part of the draw for him.
“I love a challenge, man, and it is going to be a challenge,” Matlock told Greg Luca of The Monitor after the announcement of his hiring. “But looking forward waking up every morning and trying to do something that hasn’t been done for 31 years. They have a 31-year drought for a regional. How fun is that? That’s exciting.”
He’s certainly not wrong about it being a challenge, but there’s more going for the UTRGV program than might meet the eye.
For one, this is an athletic department that is determined to put their teams in the best position possible to compete, particularly from a budgetary standpoint. On an episode of the College Baseball Central Podcast over the summer, Luca described the sharp increase in the athletic budget since the school’s move to the WAC. In 2013, the budget for the entirety of the athletic department was $5.7 million. Now, the department boasts a budget of $11.7 million, nearly doubling the figure in less than five years.
Matlock also has a quality facility with which to work, particularly compared to many of the other facilities in the WAC. UTRGV Baseball Stadium, which also played host to independent minor league baseball for a number of years, features chairback seating most of the way down each baseline, a recently-installed video board, ten luxury suites, and an entry plaza, dedicated in 2017 to former head coach Al Ogletree and his wife Joann, that makes the front gate of the stadium quite aesthetically pleasing.
There’s also some talent to be found in that area. Sure, Matlock will almost certainly use his recruiting ties to snag players from the various baseball hotbeds further north in the state of Texas, but the Rio Grande Valley is home to more than 1.3 million residents, making it a fairly large population center. Already, there are a smattering of players from the local area on the roster, including returning saves leader Luis Acosta and often-used reliever Zach Martinez, and as this area continues to grow, as it has in recent years, it stands to reason that this could become a very fruitful recruiting area for Matlock and his staff.
And finally, you can’t overlook that this is a program with some history to sell, even if it’s not recent history. Under Ogletree, who was the head coach of the program that was known as UT-Pan American at the time from 1969 to 1997, they were consistent winners, even if their status as an independent during much of that time made it difficult to get into the NCAA postseason. They did make the most of at least one postseason appearance, however.
As the program’s crowning achievement under Ogletree, they shutout Texas twice in Austin, 1-0 and 4-0, in the 1971 District 6 playoff, putting them into the College World Series, where they collected wins over Seton Hall and Harvard (it was a very different time in college baseball, mind you) before being eliminated by Southern Illinois in the semifinals. That’s been a while, no doubt, but it’s a level of success that not many other programs in a similar place can boast.
One of the great things about college baseball is that a program can be viewed as a struggling program, right up until it proves that it isn’t anymore. One instance of the right coach being in the right place at the right time can change all of that and turn a losing program into a winning one. We won’t know for some time whether this is one of those coach-program relationships, but given Matlock’s track record, it sure has the potential to be.