Two years ago, then-Purdue assistant coach Steve Holm often spent recruiting visits being scoffed at by prospective players.
Why? Because he had the audacity to suggest that Purdue was going to win right away.
“The biggest detriment we had at Purdue was the fact that, when we first went out and started recruiting, they were like ‘well, the team won ten games last year.’ We told kids ‘hey, we’re going to win this year,’ and they sat there looking like we had a horn growing out of our heads,” Holm says.
But then a funny thing happened. Purdue won, just as he told them they would.
They won 19 more games than they had the year before, finished over .500 overall at 29-27, went 12-12 in the Big Ten one year after having gone 2-22 in league play, and snuck into the Big Ten tournament at the end of the regular season, all things that suggested that Purdue was well ahead of schedule in their rebuild.
Suddenly, those same recruits were singing a very different tune.
“After that first year, we literally had people committed to other places, and they would send you a text (saying) ‘hey, I know I’m committed to this school, but I do remember you telling me that you were going to win. Congratulations, I didn’t think it was possible, but you did it,'” Holm says of the texts.
The Boilermakers took things to a whole different level in 2018, of course, going 38-21, finishing second in the Big Ten regular season standings, and getting to just the third regional in program history. Whether those recruits would admit it or not, in text messages or otherwise, there has to be a subset who wishes they had taken Holm and his staff more seriously and gotten on board when they had the chance.
Now, Holm takes over as the head coach at Illinois State, working to put together a similar turnaround.
Certainly, the two programs have pretty comparable starting points under new coaching staffs.
When head coach Mark Wasikowski arrived at Purdue after the 2016 season, bringing Holm over from Sacramento State to be his pitching coach, the program had bottomed out after enjoying some level of success in the recent past. The 2012 Boilermakers won the Big Ten and hosted a regional, but suffered a steady decline until reaching their clear nadir in 2016.
Illinois State is in a similar place today. The Redbirds got to a regional under Mark Kingston in 2010, won 32 or more games in Kingston’s last five years at the helm, and won 39 games and the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title in 2013. Kingston assistant Bo Durkac took over when Kingston left to be the head coach at South Florida for the 2015 season, and the program simply couldn’t keep the momentum going. ISU’s win totals have gone from 27 to 17 to 16 to 16 in the last four years, with MVC win totals of nine, seven, two, and nine.
The two programs share a steady decline in performance, each leading to coaching staff turnover, but for Holm, there are even more similarities that make these two jobs attractive destinations.
He’s quick to point out the importance of being in a multi-bid league. Take care of your business in these leagues, the thinking goes, and you’ll be in great shape to get into the postseason. With the Big Ten routinely putting in four or five teams now and the MVC always finding a way to get at least two in the field, that’s tough to argue.
A quality facility is also a commonality. Purdue opened Alexander Field for the 2013 season, giving them one of the better venues in a conference locked in a competitive facilities arms race. Illinois State, meanwhile, plays their games at Duffy Bass Field, one of the more underrated stadiums in the midwest.
But for Holm, there’s actually something far more fundamental that each program has going for it. Both are universities that high school students want to attend, irrespective of athletics, which makes life on the recruiting trail a little bit easier.
“Kids want to go to Purdue,” Holm says. “I thought I was an unbelievable recruiter when I got to Purdue because kids wanted to go there.”
ISU gives him the same vibe.
“As a coach, it’s extremely hard to recruit to a place that is not a sought-after school, throwing sports aside,” Holm says. “Is it a place where kids want to go to school? For me, that is when you can buy the hat in the mall or you see the license plate frame that says ‘Go Redbirds’ or ‘Illinois State Alumni,’ or whatever it is…Kids want to go to a place where they can put that hat on or they can post it on their Twitter, or whatever that may be, where they are super proud of going to this particular school. Illinois State definitely checked that box for me.”
Most importantly, though, there’s talent to work with on the ISU roster, just as is there was at Purdue.
With a turnaround like the one the Boilermakers enjoyed, you often see instant massive roster turnover as the new coaching staff comes in and looks to shape the team to fit their vision, but that wasn’t the case there.
Tenth-round draft picks Tanner Andrews and Nick Dalesandro, and 11th-round selection Jacson McGowan, were already there when Holm arrived as an assistant, as were offensive catalysts Harry Shipley and Evan Warden, and the team’s leading hitter in 2018, Alec Olund. Prior to the 2017 season, many of those players hadn’t fully emerged as building blocks for the team, but soon would under the tutelage of a new coaching staff.
At ISU, Holm will face a similar challenge with a roster that was fairly young a year ago. Leading home run hitter and 2018 breakout star John Rave will be back in 2019, as will all three members of the starting rotation in Brady Huffman, Matt Walker, and Brent Headrick, but make no mistake about it, Holm’s first team will be one looking for some new faces to step up into bigger roles.
The word the new head coach has gotten is that there’s more talent in place than you might assume for a program that hasn’t finished above .500 since 2014, and that bodes well for the possibility of new stars emerging.
“I think that the two schools are similar,” Holm says. “There are some players on both rosters. We had two top-ten rounders last year and an eleventh rounder (at Purdue). Those guys were already on the roster. It’s not like we snuck those guys in from somewhere. There’s already good players (at ISU). Scouts have come up to me multiple times wherever I’ve been recruiting and said ‘hey man, the cupboard is not bare. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised at how much talent is on your roster.'”
So some talent is there, but what will the Redbirds look like once they take the field? And more to the point, how much will they look like what we saw from Purdue in 2018? The Boilermakers got to a regional in large part thanks to an offense marked by brazen aggressiveness. They put a ton of runners in motion, they tried to take the extra base on every hit, they took huge secondary leads, they looked to advance on every dirt ball, and just generally always sought to put pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense.
As Purdue moved closer and closer to a regional berth with a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, it was a style with which college baseball observers collectively fell in love, and as the team prepared to head to the Chapel Hill Regional, it became the trait most associated with the current iteration of the program.
Holm won’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, though. He’ll work to develop a playing style based on what he sees when the team takes the field in the fall, even if it’s not exactly the playing style he envisions as the end result for his program.
“I certainly have a vision for how I want it to look,” Holm says. “I’m not just going to bring my vision and force-feed the personnel on the roster into that style of play. If that roster is built a certain way, we’re going to have to learn to win that way.”
For a comparison, Holm is quick with an anecdote from his time managing the pitching staff at Purdue.
“That’s kind of what we did the first year at Purdue, especially on the mound for me,” Holm says. “It wasn’t built the way I wanted it to be built, like Purdue’s bullpen this last year (2018). The way we pitched it was, let’s kind of bob and weave through the first four or five innings as a starter and then we’re going to go one, one, one, one, one in that bullpen, and next thing you look up and you’ve got Ross Learnard, your All-American closer, in throwing 81 MPH fastballs, and the game’s over. That was the vision, but the first year, we didn’t have those pieces and parts, so we kind of manipulated here and did this over there to try to get it that way. I’m going into it hoping that all those pieces and parts are there for us to play offensive and put a lot of pressure on the other team, but if not, we’re definitely going to adjust.”
Whether or not Illinois State ends up looking like Purdue when it’s all said and done, they’ll certainly be hoping for those same type of results in short order. And if they get it done, perhaps Holm can expect a fresh batch of conciliatory emails from those who believed it couldn’t be done.