Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano met with the media (which in this case meant myself, Steve Megargee of the Associated Press and play-by-play man John WIlkerson of WNML) for an end-of-year discussion on what was a disappointing season. Serrano had a number of interesting things to say that didn’t fit in my story, so I’ve written up a transcript, which follows. The questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What did you say when you met with the team Wednesday night?
It was more organizational stuff. Starting Monday, I’ll start talking with each and every player in this program. It was more how we handle things from here, how we close the book by turning in gear, the responsibilities of summer baseball and how we represent this university, housing situations and how we close the doors on how we represent this university. Housing situations and how we close the doors on places that we lived all year. Just doing things right in a first-class manner. I thanked each and every player. I thanked the seniors. I think they all brought a different aspect to our program whether it’s been over the last four years like the Eric Martin’s and the Parker Wormsley’s or it’s been the two years like the Johnathan Youngbloods, Bret Marks and Peter Lenstrohm’s. Told the team that this is a life lesson. We can learn from our shortcomings, and hopefully for the guys that will no longer wear this uniform anymore because of draft or playing eligibility that they learn in life that you can’t take anything for granted and you’ve gotta continue to work and grind every day to capture what you want out of what your goals are.
Is there any way you might change to your approach in the offseason?
I don’t have complete, concrete exactly what changes are going to be made. Obviously, change needs to be made in some areas. Change is difficult, but sometimes change is good. Obviously, looking back for four years, we had some high points last year. I’m talking last year when we went to the SEC tournament for the first time. I thought there were very minimal high points this year. I think the last weekend was a high point. There are high points individually, but I’m talking collectively in regards to the whole program. There needs to be more high points, more consistency, more sustainability. That was one thing this team for whatever reason didn’t do. I haven’t shied away from it at all. I’m a straight-up person. I have to look at myself in the mirror myself. That’s where it starts, with myself at the top and then it will trickle down to where changes need to be made and philosophies of everything, of recruiting, of offensive philosophies, pitching philosophy, defensive philosophies. Everything will be looked at by me and has been looked at by me over the last month in a half.
What have you learned from that so far?
For me, nobody will ever change my thought processes about pitching and defense. We’ve gotten better each year on the mound. The defense, I felt, let us down early, and I’ve said this. I think there’s reasons for that. Part of it was the way the season started. I heard an interesting comment the other day. Kentucky started their season very bad defensively. Well, Kentucky and us are in the same area when it comes to weather and not getting on the field. But when I look at this lead and the teams with the consistency, the LSU’s of the world, the Vanderbilts of the world, the past when South Carolina was having a lot of success, those teams are doing it first and foremost with pitching, and they’re playing good defense too. I think we need to be able to drive more balls out of the ballpark. We had a couple of guys who did that pretty consistently. We have to be more offensive, be more offensive in some areas. It wasn’t just about that. When I look back at this season at the 50 games we played, I think there were a lot of times that we had opportunities to score runs that we didn’t. Is it the mentality of the hitter hitting or is it the approach of the hitter hitting. When opponents have runners in scoring position or things start to crumble a little bit like, ‘What’s gonna happen in this game?’ Is it the players on the field or is it the mentality that we’re not instilling in them or the details we’re not instilling in them. All of those things are going to be looked at through a microscope with me. Obviously, I have a few months before we re-convene as a team in August with a new team, and I will have those answers by then. I’m not too stubborn. My pride is not in the way. I’ve been slapped down, to be honest with you. I stand by my success in the past. It was pretty consistent. It was regionals, World Series, all that stuff, whether I was an assistant or a head coach. I’ve been humbled these last four years. It’s made me realize that there needs some be changes to be philosophies.
Do you have to recruit different? Do you need to recruit more power?
If you look at our lineup, Christin Stewart hit 15 home runs. Andrew Lee hit nine home runs. Vincent Jackson didn’t have run production when he was playing, and then he gets hurt. That’s a guy when he was recruited into this program, we thought would be a 10-15 home run hitter with his size and everything. Nick Senzel, he started to show it late in the year. Nick Senzel is a guy that should be putting up 8-10 home runs every year. I think the personnel is in tact. It’s about getting the most out of them. It’s just like the pitchers. Getting the most out of the most out of the pitchers. I can sit here and say it’s the players not doing it, it’s all of us not doing it, not being able to reach our potential.
What impact are you expecting from the draft for the current roster and the incoming freshman class?
I don’t think I sit in any different spot than any other college coach in America. You don’t know what to anticipate out of the draft. You try to educate your players. That was one of the things going back to John’s question that I talked to with this team is that no matter how tough this year was and the fact that I look out to that sign in left field and this team hasn’t been to a regional since 2005, which hurts me to say, this is a great place. They have a great place to come back to if it doesn’t work out for them in the draft. We will do our due diligence with our recruits that we have committed of educating them and alerting them to the opportunities that they have here and if they have confidence in their ability that things will be OK in three years with more maturity. We’ll educate our players, but just like in anything in recruiting, I’m not going to strong-arm anybody, I’m not going to twist anyone’s arm to want to stay here. They’re going to have to want to be here or want to stay here. I know without ever playing professional baseball the difference between the two lives. The life they have right now or the life that our recruits could have here is light-years better than the life that they could have in minor league baseball unless they’re playing in the big leagues. I know that from past experience with players. It’s everybody’s dream to play professional baseball and I get that and I want their dream to come true. It’s just when it’s the right day for it to come true.
You haven’t backed down from the lofty expectations you had at the beginning of the season. Do you in anyway regret the way you conveyed those expectations to the players?
I stand behind my words. I didn’t come here to Tennessee for just the job and to put my family in a beautiful community to live in. I came here to get this place back to Omaha. I have no problem standing behind my words. Did it maybe put too much pressure on a group of young men that have never done something like that? Probably so. But from Day One, when I took this job. That’s my goal. That’s every coach’s goal or they shouldn’t be in this industry. i don’t think there’s a coach or a team in America that doesn’t talk about Omaha from Day 1. That’s the saying people have in their locker rooms. That’s the saying they do after they get together as a team. I don’t think I was off base by doing that. I saw pieces in place that I trusted that if we maximized our ability and we developed as a team that we would have the capability of doing that. That didn’t happen. My only regret is it didn’t happen. I don’t regret the fact that I made that comment about this team.
Is there anything you would’ve done to build less pressure on the team early?
I didn’t walk in Day One and say ‘We’re going to Omaha.’ I walked in and talked about the step process, that it’s a step process to get there. You have to get to the SEC tournament first. You have to be successful in that and have a good enough record. You have to win a regional, you gotta win a super regional and get to Omaha. From Day 1, I wasn’t saying ‘We’re going to Omaha, guys.’ I said,’ this team has the capabilities of going to Omaha.’So again, I don’t go back on my wording on that.
How are the challenges of winning at Tennessee different than you expected?
I think just the lack of winning tradition. Building the culture of winning tradition. I come from nothing but that. I’ve been very lucky in my career whether as a player or a coach, an assistant or a head coach. I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of winning programs and I know how winning programs put their uniform on every day. They put their uniform on with expectations that they’re going to win. I compare it to Cal State Fullerton. Irvine was a little different because it was a little bit like this when I took it over. At Cal State Fullerton, there’s not a player that comes in who doesn’t believe he’s going to Omaha at least one time in his career whether it’s a three or four year career. They had a streak going for many years where that was happening. That’s hard to say here right now. We’ve gotta get it to that point. If you look around every program in this league, they’ve all had a different way of getting there. You look at Ole Miss. They took years to get back to the World Series and they finally got there. You look at how humbling this league is, one of the teams that we swept on the last weekend, Mississippi State, with the tradition that they have, they were the College World Series runner-up just two years ago. This season, they don’t even make it to our conference tournament. That will tell you a little bit about how you can flip and turn upside down in this league in a real early.
You’re going into the final year of your contract. Does that change things for you, especially in terms of recruiting?
I can answer that very easily because it’s the same thing I’ve shared with my family. I not for one every worry about my contract. I’ve had full support from this administration led by Dave Hart. He’s supported me from Day One when he’s been on this job. My concerns are more about this program. I think they kind of go hand in hand. I’m not working for Dave Serrano — and sorry for talking in the third person — or my contract. I’m working every day to get the Tennessee baseball program back on the map, and whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen. That’s the way I look at things. My commitment is to our players, my commitment is to our coaches, and more importantly, my commitment is to the alumni and the administration, the fans of this baseball program. This is not about me, this is about this baseball program and leading it to where I want it to go and a lot of people want it to go.
But is that any harder, especially in recruiting, when you only have one year left on your contract?
I guess the only way I could answer that is for many years, I was a very successful assistant coach, and I worked on a one-year contract every single year. To me, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about productivity. I get that. I understand that. I knew that when I took this job. I’m not backing down from the challenge. If that’s what I’m going into next year, I’m not going to treat the players any differently. I’m not going to put any different expectations, no extra pressure, because this is not about me, it’s about the people that are in this program.