Q&A with Indiana’s Tracy Smith

By Eric Sorenson. Posted on February 23rd, 2010 in Uncategorized
 

Just to let you guys know, I actually had this conversation with Indiana head coach Tracy Smith an hour before their season-opening game at San Diego on Friday. But with all that was going on with opening weekend and some traveling I was doing, I decided to wait and post this after the weekend was done.

Coach Smith knew starting off at San Diego would be tough.

Coach Smith knew starting off at San Diego would be tough.

And I got the feeling after catching up with Coach Smith that he knows this will be a year of growth for his program. And that growth has to start small. But just like Bill Murray says in the movie Stripes, it is the little acorn that grows into the mighty oak.

(Right before he slumps to the floor and says, “… and then, depression set in.”)

So there is a ray of light squeaking its way through to the optimistic Smith. The hope is that last year’s successful ending will make the yearlings on this year’s team even more motivated and speed-up that process. Anything beats last year’s odd season where they slogged their way from pillar to post, playing near-.500 ball most of the regular season, only to see them get hot at the right time.

And like the mighty oak, it’s a process of program-building that will reap its benefits far down the line. Just know that it’s still on its way. Just wait.

So here’s our back-and-forth from Friday.

Blake Monar will be the staff ace and is a high-round draftee-to-be.

Blake Monar will be the staff ace and is a high-round draftee-to-be.

Me:
You guys are obviously missing some big name pitchers from last year in Eric Arnett and Matt Bashore. What do you think is gonna happen to your staff for this year?

Coach Smith:
Well, we know it’s gonna be tough because, I don’t know if we’ve talked about it before, but in the Big 10 we’re not allowed to over-sign the number of players. So when you’re looking at losing that caliber of a player, in addition to the other guys we lost. It’s hard to replace that for us. So, you know, I’d be lying to you if I said I feel real confident about our staff at this point. It’s going to be a real concern going into the season and how we replace those guys.

We’re gonna patch it up this year, and we also went out and signed a good group of players for 2010. For us, that’s just playing within the rules and not being allowed to over-sign.

Me:
I think I talked with (Michigan head coach) Rich Maloney about that last year.

Josh Lyon is a menacing presence at catcher.

Josh Lyon is a menacing presence at catcher.

Coach Smith:
Yes, I remember Rich DID talk about that.

Me:
Yeah, I thought that did ring a bell. Talk also about the loss of your stud catcher Josh Phegley and what he meant to the team. Who is going to replace his leadership?

Coach Smith:
Well you’re talking about a guy that is still hanging around Bloomington and working out and is going to go to a big league spring training camp a year out of college. To replace that is nearly impossible. But you know, Josh Lyon (the new catcher) is a very capable guy. We feel he’s gonna be a great prospect-caliber type of player too, he just needs a lot of reps. He’s a big left-handed hitter and his deal for us is ‘How is he going to handle our staff?’ because Phegley did that so well. He was a coach, a leader and a baseball guy on the field. Ability-wise, he’s great. We’ve just gotta see if he comes together on the other stuff.

Me:
Going into last year, you guys had high expectations, picked by Baseball America to win the Big 10 and everything. Did you have a feeling of frustration as the season went along and you guys weren’t playing up to that expectation until the end of the year?

Coach Smith:
(Laughs) Frustration?… That’s putting it mildly. We were 10-to-12 games in and I’m scratching my head, wondering “What in the world is going on? I KNOW we’re better than this.” You know, I think once the guys just settled in and stopped playing for the papers and the rankings and all that stuff, it took care of itself. I mean, we were 1-and-7 in Matt Bashore’s first eight starts. And if you would’ve said that to me before the season, I would’ve said, “Impossible.”

Me:
Wow, that’s awful.

Coach Smith:
But it’s a totally different feel this year, we saw some rankings had us listed 8th in the Big 10 and the highest I’ve seen is at 5th or 6th. But I don’t really have a gauge on this team because we have so many new guys and we haven’t been able to get on the diamond yet.

Me:
So no outdoor practices this pre-season?

Coach Smith getting doused after winning the Big 10 title last May.

Coach Smith getting doused after winning the Big 10 title last May.

Coach Smith:
No, in fact, we were fortunate enough to get here an hour early today so that we could take our first ground balls since October. And that’s just the reality we deal with in the north. And we’re not gonna use that as an excuse either. I mean, sure, we’re down here to win, but we’re also trying to figure out what we have.

Me:
After I saw you guys in the Big 10 tournament, I came out and said you guys “could be another Fresno State.”

Coach Smith:
Yeah-heh… I remember that.

Me:
Lemme guess, you wanna kick my ass now, right?

Coach Smith:
(Laughing) No. No.

Me:
Well then you guys went on to Louisville for the Regionals and didn’t play very well. How disappointing was that?

Coach Smith:
It was very disappointing. In all honesty, I think you look at this program… there has NOT been a lot of winning at Indiana. It’s been like “Hey, let’s get to the Big 10 tournament.” Okay, we did that. Then it’s “Let’s get to the NCAA Tournament.” Okay, we did that. So when we got there, I think it was like we all said, “Okay… we made it.” (gives indication of total body relaxation pose).

I was really disappointed in how we played and how we competed, because we’ve gotta continue to make those steps. Still, I think it’s just the growth of a program, ya’ know? The maturation process.

Me:
Well that leads me to the next question… I had seen you guys play when you were in the Regionals in Austin while you were the head coach at Miami of Ohio. And then wasn’t it the next season you took over at Indiana?

Coach Smith:
Yeah, just after the NCAA tournament I took the job here.

Me:
I had been to a game at Miami and saw that fairly new stadium and the nice facilities you’ve got there. So I kept thinking to myself, “Why would coach Smith want to go from Miami to Indiana?” It almost seemed like a lateral move. But now, I think I’m finally starting to come around to what you were thinking with that move.

Coach Smith:
Yeah. Yeah. I went to school at Miami, so this is obviously no slight against my school. I just said to myself, “You know what, this is the Big 10 conference – and I was at Indiana in 1996 when they won the Big 10 championship – I know we can win here. It’s been done before.” So I wanted to go to a place where I knew we could get bigger and better than what we were doing at Miami of Ohio. Again, it’s no slight against Miami – and I don’t want to make this a negative in any way whatsoever. I just felt in some ways we had done all we can at Miami. And it had more to do with the fact of where we were conference-wise, we (at the Mid-American Conference) were a single-bid league every year, regardless. One year, Ball State had Bullington as a first-rounder and was in the Top 20, but didn’t win the MAC tournament so they didn’t get an NCAA bid. And I always kept that in the back of my mind. So I wanted to go to a place where, if you did well in the regular season, you were still going to have a chance at an at-large bid.

Me:
Talk a little bit about the growth of the Big 10. Because one of the reasons I went to the Big 10 tournament last year was because I thought the teams at the top of the standings were really good. Talk about that and all the new facilities being built almost conference-wide.

Coach Smith:
Well that’s what Coach Hill and I just talked about, it’s become such an arms race now. You’ve gotta keep up everybody else. And I think it elevates the caliber of baseball that’s being played there. So we had to do something. Everybody in our league was doing that and in our case we had to improve our facilities so that we wouldn’t get left behind. So it certainly helps.

Me:
Let’s finally get to this year’s team, what is going to be your strengths and your weaknesses?

Coach Smith:
Well, keep in mind it may not play out today since we haven’t been outside yet, but I think eventually we’re going to be pretty good defensively. We’ve got a chance to be, that is. Offensively, we’ve got some capable guys, but they just need to get more at-bats because they’ve sat behind a pretty talented group the last couple years. We’re going to have some guys that will make people say, “Hey, where’s this guy been?” Obviously, we’re going to build around Jerrud Sabourin and Alex Dickerson. Both of those guys have been to the wars. And I believe Dickerson is one of the better hitters in the country, really. So I don’t think we’ll be a slouch on offense.

Our biggest concern is going to be in the mound. We’ve got Blake Monar back (a weekend starter), and he’s a sophomore-eligible guy, so we’re likely only going to have him one more year. But beyond him, that’s a big concern – and you’ll probably see it out there today. So to answer your question finally, yes, it’s the pitching. (Laughs)

Me:
Bullpan-wise, how deep do you think you guys are? Is this going to be a work in progress?

Coach Smith:
Probably so, yes. I mean, we’ve got some capable guys out there, but we just don’t have the depth. You’ll see Matt Ernest, who we got off the football team. You know, he hasn’t picked up a baseball in two and a half years, and he’s probably going to be one of the better guys we’ll have coming out of the bullpen out there. Chris Squires is back and he’s a guy that will have a chance to be an All-Big 10 type of player.

Me:
Yeah, I remember him pitching the last few innings of the championship game there at the Big 10 tournament.

Coach Smith:
Yeah, yeah. We like that he’s back there to close because it gives us a legitimate chance to shut people down. But again, beyond that we just don’t have the depth, because of the draft.

Me:
Well coach, good luck with everything. I don’t quite know how to put this, but I hope you don’t get killed out there this weekend.

Coach Smith:
We’ll be okay, it’s no problem. And don’t worry, you’re not a jinx or anything.

Sure enough, Sunday rolled around and wouldn’t you know it, Indiana beat the No. 23-ranked Toreros 7-5. Maybe things are turning around for IU already.

 

COMMENTS:

February 24, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Good read. I actually was in touch with Matt last week in speaking to Coach. Looks like you beat me to the punch.

Surprised, not sure how much time you had, that you or he didn’t touch on the atmosphere regarding his program, outside of what he and staff are doing. I think where Indiana is a step behind Ohio State or Michigan is the alumni support and local support. Obviously Bloomington is a basketball college town, but I wonder if Tracy has ran into any problems where it’s “just Indiana baseball” for backing and support that can really spring the program.. kinda how you and I were the only ones in the post-game championship presser, no Bloomington or central Indiana press was unfortunate.

He’s a heck of a recruiter though regardless of obstacles. He plucked Arnett and Evan Crawford from Columbus suburbs and both wer 2009 draft picks as juniors.