On Monday afternoon, a moment that we all figured was coming at some point came.
Greg Lovelady, the head coach at Wright State, was confirmed to be heading to take the helm at a larger program, in this case, UCF.
His place among the top young coaches in college baseball is easy to defend and understand. He was an assistant under the highly-successful Rob Cooper (now the head coach at Penn State) at Wright State, and then after taking over the WSU program upon Cooper’s departure for State College, he took the program to the next level.
In his three seasons as the head man there, the Raiders have not only lapped their competition in the Horizon League, but they’ve also made quite the impression on the national scene.
They’re 124-56 overall under Lovelady and an astounding 69-18 in league play over that same time frame. In each of the last two seasons, not only has his team set and then reset the program record for wins in a season (43 in 2015, 46 in 2016), but they have also made some noise in the postseason and advanced to a regional final each time- against Illinois in Champaign in 2015 and against Louisville in Louisville in 2016. For this job in particular, the UCF administration also had to like his experience as both a player and a coach at Miami under Jim Morris, giving him ties back to an area that he will have to recruit heavily.
In short, Lovelady has more than proven that he’s ready for a new challenge.
UCF provides one, but not necessarily for many of the reasons that you generally see with a coaching change like this. It’s not as if this is a program in complete need of resuscitation. They’re not that far removed from having gone to back-to-back regionals in 2011 and 2012, at 36-23 and with an RPI of 50 in 2014, they were likely just a win or two shy of getting into a regional, and in 2015, the team moved into the top ten in many polls after a hot start throughout the first couple of months of the season, showing what they could be capable of, even if the team cooled down the stretch and missed the postseason at the end of the campaign.
But at the same time, it’s a bit of a unique situation in that it’s not as if Lovelady is taking over for a head coach who led his program to a string of wild successes, as is often the case with a coach moving onto another position with a different program.
Sure, previous UCF head coach Terry Rooney had success in Orlando, as detailed above, but Lovelady will not be stepping into shoes as big as those he’s leaving empty at Wright State, for example, or for a bigger picture example, those being filled by whoever takes over at Stanford after next season for the retiring Mark Marquess.
Rather, his challenges are going to come from things like the hyper-competitive recruiting hotbed that is the entire state of Florida, which is shared not only by in-state powers such as Florida, Florida State, and Miami, but also upstart programs like South Florida, and also just about every other SEC or ACC program looking to poach elite talent.
Perhaps his biggest challenge, though, will be getting UCF to a place where their results match the perceived potential of the program. Everyone looks at their great location in the center of that talent hotbed, their booming, vibrant campus community, their facilities, and place in a quality but not overwhelming baseball conference like the American Athletic Conference and assumes that UCF is a program that could rise up above being “just” a regional power to being a consistent top-20 program.
And maybe that’s unfair.
Certainly those advantages are real and they help when building a program, but a Coastal Carolina rising up from being a consistent regional team and a mere thorn in the side of the major programs in their region to being a national champion is an exception to the rule. Newly-minted players on the national stage outside of the top couple of power conferences are few and far between in college baseball, but perception is reality and that’s what many will hope, and even expect, Lovelady to do in his tenure with those perceived advantages in place, fair or not.
One thing is for certain. Lovelady has earned this shot, and with his resume, UCF has to feel pretty good about this being the right coach at the right time to lead them where they want to go.