College Baseball’s Cradles of Coaches: Kent State, Northwestern State Enjoy Impressive Coaching Lineage

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If you’re from the midwest, and in particular, the state of Ohio, you know “Cradle of Coaches” to be the nickname of the Miami University football program.¬†With coaching alumni like Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Ara Parseghian, and Jim Tressel, the label fits.

But the catchy name comes from more than just moving coaches up to bigger jobs. The program has won a ton of games. Sixty percent of their games all-time, to be exact. And the program leans into the moniker. In fact, in 2004, they put up Cradle of Coaches Plaza at Yager Stadium, their home facility. In a world where football programs are often afraid of being labeled a stepping stone program, Miami proudly touts that their coaches have not only done great things in Oxford, but in the places they’ve gone after leaving the idyllic southwestern Ohio campus.

Perhaps no college baseball program quite stands out in the way that Miami does in college football, but that’s not to say there aren’t prime examples in the sport’s modern era.

One such example resides in the same conference as Miami, and that’s Kent State. A quick roll call of KSU’s most recent head coaches includes Bob Todd (1984-1987), who went on to become the winningest head coach in Ohio State history, Danny Hall (1988-1993), whose 981 wins (and counting) are the most all-time at Georgia Tech, Rick Rembielak (1994-2004), who led Wake Forest to a regional appearance in 2007, and Scott Stricklin (2004-2013), who just led his Georgia team to a spot as a regional host. And with four division titles and two regional appearances in five years under his belt, current head coach Jeff Duncan already seems well on his way to continuing that tradition.

Another example is Northwestern State from the Southland Conference. Their coaching alumni include Jim Wells (1990-1994), the winningest head coach in Alabama history, Dave Van Horn (1995-1997), who has gone on to lead both Nebraska and Arkansas to College World Series appearances, John Cohen (1998-2001), who is now the athletic director at Mississippi State after leading the Bulldogs to Omaha in 2013 and leading Kentucky to the first regional host selection in program history in 2006, Mitch Gaspard (2002-2007), who had a successful seven-season run as the head coach at Alabama (succeeding Wells), and Lane Burroughs (2013-2016), who has led Louisiana Tech to 75 wins in two seasons at the helm, a program record for a coach’s first two years in that job. To top it off, in 2018, current head coach Bobby Barbier led the Demons to their first regional appearance since 2005, when Barbier was the team’s first baseman.

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So how do these “cradles” come to be?

The answer most might jump to is on-field success. The thinking goes that when one coach has success and then leaves for a bigger program, his successes will attract a high-quality candidate to replace him, whose own success will in turn attract an even higher-quality candidate, and at some point, the reputation as a cradle of coaches becomes largely self-sustaining.

That certainly plays a role.

At Kent State, during this period of time we’re examining, the Golden Flashes have been to 13 regionals, and none of the five most recent coaches (including Duncan) have winning percentages lower than .598 while at the helm. They’re annually the class of the MAC, and only the unpredictable nature of conference tournaments has kept them from being an annual regional team, even if they are essentially always of regional quality.

“We’ve got principles, we’ve got tradition,” Duncan says. “We don’t let our guys come through that clubhouse and not know what this tradition is about and making sure that we play the game the right way on a daily basis and we practice extremely hard on a daily basis.”

Northwestern State has had their moments as well. Between 1991 (Wells’ second year on the job) and 2005, the Demons won nine Southland Conference regular season titles. Like KSU, defeats in conference tournaments held them to just three regional appearances during this time, but they were the clear best program in the league during this run.

“A successful program obviously attracts good coaches,” Barbier says. “When Jim Wells came here and kind of turned this thing around and made it a successful program, well then it attracted good coaches.”

But now NSU finds themselves working to build that reputation back up. After not suffering through a losing season from 1990 through 2006, they had six seasons with records of .500 or worse between 2007 and 2014. Burroughs, despite not getting through to a regional in four seasons, got the program back on track with three seasons of 31 or more wins overall and 19 or more wins in SLC play in his last three seasons in Natchitoches. That set up Barbier to take the ball and run with it, culminating in last season’s Southland Conference Tournament championship, which, believe it or not, is a first for the NSU program.

The gravity of that accomplishment, given the statistical anomaly of not having achieved it before, is not lost on Barbier, or those coaches who came before him, for that matter.

“I got texts from every single one of those guys who have come through here,” Barbier says. “They all know the town and how much it meant to them when they were here. They knew how much it meant to me to hear from them.”

So on-field success is clearly a big factor, and it’s likely a prerequisite for any program that might become a cradle of coaches, but there’s more to it than that.

The importance of assistant coaches can’t be downplayed. As a head coach, it’s inevitable that you will suffer some coaching turnover along the way as assistants move on for other opportunities. The most successful of programs are the ones led by head coaches who show a good eye for coaching talent and continually make inspired hires or the ones that are fortunate enough to have continuity on staff, which is precisely what Kent State has enjoyed, particularly among pitching coaches.

The Golden Flashes have only had two men lead the pitching staff since 1990. From 1990 to 1996, Dick Schoonover, the brother of Hal Schoonover, for whom KSU’s stadium is named, was in the role. Since then, it’s been Mike Birkbeck, a coach universally lauded as one of the very best in the business. Together, they’ve coached and developed the likes of future big leaguers Dustin Hermanson, Matt Guerrier, John Van Benschoten, Dirk Hayhurst, Andy Sonnanstine, Andrew Chafin, and Eric Lauer.

“There’s been a lot of great coaches,” Duncan says. “As far as pitching coach goes, you go back to Schoonover. Dick Schoonover was here as a pitching coach, and then Mike Birkbeck came in here and replaced him, and Mike Birkbeck has been here 23 years.”

Lane Burroughs, during his time as an assistant at NSU, was part of an incredibly star-studded coaching staff that contained what are now some of the biggest names in college coaching.

“In 1997, Dave Van Horn hired me as an assistant, and our staff was Dave Van Horn, Rob Childress, and me, and I replaced Matt Deggs, who had left to take the Texarkana (College) job,” Burroughs says.

On that single coaching staff, that’s two men who have been to Omaha as a head coach, Van Horn at Nebraska and Arkansas and Childress at Texas A&M, with Burroughs replacing Deggs, the current head coach at Sam Houston State, who is just two years removed from leading that program to its first super regional appearance.

That’s to say nothing of other notable assistants who have passed through the two programs. Current Ohio State head coach Greg Beals, for example, served as an assistant under Rembielak at KSU between 1994 and 2002. At NSU, current University of Mississippi head coach Mike Bianco was an assistant in the early-90s under Wells, current Austin Peay head coach Travis Janssen served under Gaspard, and current Little Rock head coach Chris Curry was on Burroughs’ initial staff.

Assistant coaches are vital, after all, because they play a key role in player development, and that’s another recurring theme. In these programs, it’s clear that player development, the type that will bring with it sustained, steady success over time, rather than the quick-fix approach that might lead to flash-in-the-pan results, is valued.

“You win by recruiting the right people, and as a head coach, I look at having the right people in place to develop them as well, and I think we’ve had a lot of success, and in talking to my peers who have been head coaches here before, that’s been a big part of their method to madness as well,” Duncan adds.

Having the right tools, in addition to personnel, is also key.

“We’ve got really good facilities here for you to develop, especially in the north,” Duncan says. “We’ve got a 13,000-square-foot indoor hitting facility, along with just an awesome indoor football facility where we can intersquad and get ready to go down south. Everything that you need for development, we have.”

Suffice it to say that there are layers to a program being this successful through the decades and crafting this type of coaching lineage. Good head coaches taking over in these places comes after previous head coaches have provided a proof of concept. These same head coaches have success and maintain success with the help of talented assistant coaches. Those assistant coaches are helped in player development by the tools they have at their disposal.

The investment needed to hire quality assistants and those tools don’t just appear, however. The winning might help justify their existence, but someone behind the scenes has to green light those projects, and that’s where support from key off-the-field personnel comes into play to help round out the equation.

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“Danny (Hall) comes in, shows it (winning) can happen. Laing Kennedy as an Athletic Director then puts an infrastructure together,” Beals says as he recounts the groundwork laid at Kent State. “If you look at the infrastructure of Kent State University’s baseball program, compared to the MAC, it’s built to succeed. I was one of the guys that reaped the benefits. I’m not taking anything away from anybody, but it’s built to succeed in that conference. The infrastructure is very strong with the facilities, the budget, the salaries, and just the things that they have from an equipment standpoint. They’re in great, great shape.”

Another way to look at these programs is that the players are receiving more than just the coaching provided by their current head coach. They’re receiving knowledge that’s been passed down through the program, particularly at a place like Northwestern State, where so many of the coaches overlapped each other at different points in time.

Current head coach Bobby Barbier, for example, coached under Lane Burroughs and played under Mitch Gaspard at NSU. Burroughs was an assistant to Dave Van Horn, while Gaspard coached under Jim Wells. Pick any head coach in this program over the better part of the last 30 years, and you can seemingly draw a line to any other head coach with no more than two or three degrees of separation. From the players’ perspective, they get coaching that is the sum of all the coaches that have come before in the program, not just that of their particular head coach.

“Hopefully they (the players) get the benefit of (coaches) all having learned from each other,” Barbier says. “I know I do things that Jim Wells and Mitch Gaspard do, but I promise you I got some things from Van Horn and Childress and Cohen, and all those guys, just because it’s been passed down through the years.”

In the end, perhaps it’s the cradle of coaches atmosphere itself that sustains these programs through multiple coaching changes. These guys have pride. Pride in their work, pride in the university for which they work, and pride in being part of a storied coaching lineage.

“I guess the best way to put it is it’s kind of a unique fraternity and you feel obligated, if you get that job or you’re working there, that you have to put in the extra hours and extra work,” Burroughs says.

“A lot of those guys are friends of mine,” Barbier adds. “Rob Childress to Jim (Wells) to Mitch (Gaspard), a lot of those guys are friends, and you don’t want to let them down. (There is) pride in that regard, but also pride in the fact that you built the mound with your bare hands. You weeded the flowerbed with your bare hands. And when you are sinking that much into a program, it’s going to give you that sense of pride that you work so hard for it that you don’t want to let your team down and your fans down, but also the guys that came before you.”

It’s no different for Duncan at Kent State.

“We’ve got a saying in this program,” he says. “It’s built on grit, trust, and pride. We play with grit, we’ve got trust, we trust everybody around us in the locker room, and then the pride part (is to) play for the name on the front, not the back. There’s a lot of pride in Kent State. There’s a responsibility that you’ve got to uphold. That’s how I look at it, and I want to make sure that we keep building off of it.”

About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.