Dave Serrano met with the media on Thursday after Dave Hart announced that Serrano would be retained for the 2017 season. A transcript of Serrano’s comments follows.
SERRANO: It goes without saying, today is a great day. I’m very grateful. There’s times in your life that you feel good when people trust in you, they believe in you, they listen to you, they understand what you’re trying to do. Dave and I have had two very lengthy and very informative, with much dialogue, meetings in the past week. I was able to admit some mistakes that I think I’ve made over the five years and how I can resolve them. Him putting his faith into me and how he feels as a baseball coach that I am. More importantly what made me feel good is his comments about me as a person and how I’ve led this program. No, we haven’t won enough that satisfies me for sure, but the direction that I’m trying to take this program and how I’m trying to lead these young men, the winning is going to happen and I’m very confident about that. I’m happy for obviously my self and my family. I’m happy for my coaches and my staff and their families, and our players. Our players, they were on pins and needles after the last out as much all of us. Not sure exactly what direction everything was going to go. Since Dave went on, my phone has blown up with numerous texts from players that I’m very grateful for. Because the one thing I’ll say, for anyone that watched the Georgia games or watched the LSU game, those guys never quit. They never quit. They played their tails off and I’m very proud of them for that. If that’s a small part of me being retained with the confidence from Dave Hart, then I’m very appreciative of our players on how they handled that situation.
But I’m just very grateful. I’m very grateful to be here. This is the only place I want to be. Grateful for the support that I’ve had out there. The fans, friends, I’ve gotten many, many positive text messages, phone calls from people who are supporters of this program who have a lot of faith in me to continue to lead this program. Nobody out there wants this program to be successful — for all the right reasons, not for me, all the right reasons — than I do. And I’m very happy and grateful to continue to lead this great program.
QUESTION: What has to happen to take that step you want this program to take?
SERRANO: We need to continue to recruit better. I’ve done this a long time and when I look across the field, we’re a little undermanned still. I can make a lot of excuses for that. I’m not going to. We need to have more depth as a team, as a program. We’ve gotta account for the fact that we may have one or two or three injuries during a season. We’ve gotta have next man up, the next man available who may not be a shade below that first guy. We realize that. I think that’s the next step.
When I took over this program five years ago. got it on June 15 of 2011, probably as special of a day as today is, recruiting is two or three years out, we were able to secure some good players, some position players. A.J. Simcox, Christin Stewart, Vincent Jackson, but the pitching was all gone for the most part. This is the first class, this class coming in this year is the first class (that is pitching heavy) it took three years to put it together. There’s reason for that. A lot of money went out Year 1 to position players. There wasn’t a whole lot of money left when you’re dealing with 11.7 to put into pitching. So we’ve kind of piecemealed here and there with the pitching. The pitching class we have coming in this year is a lot of big, powerful arms. It will be the first real, true pitching class we have coming in with a lot of good athletes on the field. We know we lose a lot this year. A lot of seniors. We lose the likes of a Nick Senzel, but I like the nucleus of the middle of the diamond we have coming back. I continue to see a trend in our team, and this has taken longer than I thought, of the expectation of where we’re supposed to go. Tuesday night was as devastating of a loss that I’d seen with a team since back in 2010 when I was at Cal State Fullerton and we lost a game to go to the College World Series to the UCLA Bruins. So I could tell it’s meaning more to our guys. I’m expecting the next step just like I want everyone sitting out there to expect the next step to happen next year. That’s what my expectations are. That’s what I hope Dave Hart brought me back for.
QUESTION: You mentioned being able to admit some mistakes. Were those mistakes in recruiting or something else?
SERRANO: I think there’s a lot of factors involved in that. You have to re-evaluate and I try to re-evaluate every single day, every single week, every single year what things we could do differently. I don’t know if I could pinpoint one area that I’d say. I think every one sitting out here today and everyone that may be watching could admit to a mistake. You learn from your mistakes. That’s how you gain experience. We talk to our players about that all the time. I don’t think it’s one area, but if I could do it all over again and I would go back to Day 1 and probably wouldn’t have invested as much money as we did into position players. I know how teams are built. That’s my background is pitching. We didn’t have enough money saved to invest in pitching in the years to come. It’s hurt us on the depth and hurt us on the total quality that we’re able to run out there each and every day. When you have a couple of injuries to a couple of good arms, that will be back in the fold next year, that decimates a pitching staff.
QUESTION: What was the timeline of your day? Also, how much was the hiring of Larry Simcox used as a selling point because it was evidence you were willing to admit mistakes and change direction?
SERRANO: This morning was a different day for me to be honest with you. Took my normal drive that I do every morning really not knowing. Having confidence in what I’ve established as a man, as a leader of this program, but also knowing that we hadn’t won at the level that anyone’s expectations should be. Walked into Dave’s office, said hello to Rita and sat down with Dave. The first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re my baseball coach.’ I’m not too proud to say I got pretty emotional that moment. Probably got more emotional to hear that than i would if I heard I wasn’t retained. This is a special place for me. I can admit that to this point I haven’t succeeded. But I just asked for patience from people that I think it’s very close.
I’ll sum it up this way. I have three boys that I’ve raised under the same roof. They’re all different. I’ve noticed that they’ve all matured at different stages of their lives. They’re still trying to mature. I deal with 35 young men every day in the locker room and on our team. Everyone of those guys matures at different stages of their careers. I think that’s the thing that continues to motivate me and drive me is that this program is just taken a little bit longer to mature. It’s getting closer to maturing. As Dave probably stated, the SEC tournament is an expectation. That shouldn’t be something that we brag about. Postseason is where we should be and where we want to be.
As far as Larry Simcox, I’ll speak on Aric Thomas. I think I have a great coaching staff and a great support staff. I think a philosophy change has helped us. I think it’s put more in the style of SEC baseball. But there’s things that all of us as coaches have to continue to improve on so we can continue to improve as a baseball team. We gotta continue to hit the road recruiting. As soon as I’m done here, I’m gonna meet with my staff. We’re all three gonna hit the road. We had to hold off until we knew exactly what was happening, but we’ll be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks. As my coaching staff are here, we are not going to look into ’18 and ’19 or beyond. We’re going to assemble next year’s team and have guys in place, deal with our recruits. We’re really excited about this year’s recruiting class. We have to retain them. We have to get them on campus, we have to do home visits with them. We have to continue to educate them on why we think coming to school is a good thing and the right thing in the most situations, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. But I’m happy with my whole coaching staff. I think I have the right men around me.
QUESTION: What is the next step that needs to be taken?
SERRANO: For me the next step is we need to get to postseason. I don’t consider the SEC tournament — and no disrespect to that because I think it’s one of the most well-run most respected tournaments in the country — postseason is getting to a regional. This program needs to get there. It’s been a long time since this program has been there. Not only for our fans, but for our players, the alumni we need to do that. We need to get this program back there, getting in postseason and being talked about throughout the nation.
QUESTION: Do you think it will be a hard sell because you don’t have a multiyear contract? Also, do you think winning mattered more to the team this year because of the situation you were in?
SERRANO: I have no problem with it. I’m grateful for the one-year deal. I’m going to do everything I can to take advantage of it. It’s funny you ask. Just last night, I don’t know my situation, my staff doesn’t know our situation, and we get informed that a top-flight 2018 recruit just committed to us. We have all of this out there and we just got a commitment from a big-time player. I think players, they’ll trust us. We’re up front. I don’t ever remember talking to a family and not telling them I was in the last year of my contract. People know that. People knew that. But I think they trust what we’re about, and I think that’s what’s happened here. I have no problem being extended only for one year. Recruits will know that. I don’t think they just come to schools just for Dave Serrano and his coaching staff. They come to schools for the great things that the University of Tennessee has to offer too.
I talked to my team a lot about sense of urgency. We talked a lot about that. Leaving it all out on the field. Before Saturday’s game against Georgia, it was win and get help and you’re done, all I asked them do was to play their hearts out and have fun and enjoy one another and live every pitch together because that’s all we knew we had. That’s all we knew we had. We didn’t know what the results of the game were going to be. We didn’t know what was going to happen in Nashville in the Vanderbilt-Auburn game. I told them, if this is the last time I look out on the field with you guys, i want to walk off this field with pride and dignity that you played the game right. And they did. As heartbreaking as Tuesday was, I don’t think there was a fan or anyone out there who didn’t realize they played their hearts out Tuesday nights. That’s why it hurt them so much to walk off that field. It wasn’t just for the seniors whose careers were over for the most part. It was for every single member, freshman or not, that they laid their hearts on the field. I reminded them of that yesterday when we got back on the bus that all year we’ve been trying to get them to invest in every pitch every play, every inning. I think that Friday in Georgia they started to realize. They invested everything because they knew their backs were against the wall. Friday and Saturday, losing never felt so good, and Tuesday, losing never felt so bad. It proved to me that this team was invested and finishing the job the right way.
QUESTION: Does what’s happened here have a lot to do with how hard it is to win in this league?
SERRANO: It does. I have dialogue with every coach in this conference when we play them, and when I hear the teams that are having a lot of success, the Floridas and the South Carolinas, coaches talk about how much of a mental grind it is week in and week out — and these are teams that are losing a minimal amount of games and are ranked high — , to hear that, it confirms that this is a very tough league. At one time I was on the outside looking in when I was across the country. Nobody realizes how tough this conference is until you’re in it every single day. The margin of error is so minimal. So minimal. Someone asked about the gap we needed to close. We need to close that margin of error. It could be miniscule, but we need to close that margin of error, which will turn around those one run losses and some of that heartbreak, because that’s what this league’s about. Everything counts every single day.
QUESTION: Have you talked to any of the signees already?
SERRANO: No, we didn’t want this to get out until Dave addressed the media, but the 10 minutes I was standing there waiting to come on, texts and Twitter have been blowing up from my players, my current players and all the recruits. As the head coach of this program, that makes me feel very proud that they have my back and I am the right leader for this program.
QUESTION: You talked about having players that, winning matters to them. Is that hard to identify?
SERRANO: It is very hard but it’s something I’m going to insist on from here on out. Whether it’s how we ask the questions, the feel we get when we go evaluate them on the field, that’s important. It’s very important. Talent wins. Talent wins, but heart also has a big part to do with it. that’s one thing we will continue to evaluate as a coaching staff. I want someone when they put on this uniform they’re able to be held accountable and they don’t take anything for granted. Not saying that’s happened in the past, but in today’s society, it’s very easy for kids, because they’re told they’re great at everything they do, to feel like they’re entitled to things. I want players that are going to play the game hard, play the game right, and play the game with some attitude.
QUESTION: When you took this job, where did you expect to be at this point, and what are you most surprised hasn’t happened?
SERRANO: To not get this program higher up in the standings of the SEC, to be quite honest with you. I was never used to not going to a regional where I came from. My boys grew up believing that was a vacation place every year. Going to a regional, going to a different city to a regional, hosting a regional or going to Omaha. I would have thought by now that we would have been in a couple of regionals, but reality has set in that there’s still a whole lot more work to do. But I’m pretty confident that we are close. We have a lot of things going right I feel like we’re doing a lot of things right. I’m very appreciative of Dave Hart recognizing that. We are doing a lot of things right. We’re not winning at the level that I want to, that he wants to, that a lot of people want us to. But our players are doing a lot of things right in a lot of other areas. That makes me very proud. When you have 35 kids every year and you’re dealing with them nine months out of the year, they have choices. Our guys are making good choices off the field, and not only in the classroom.
QUESTION: How tough is it to get over the hump that you’re winning 1-2 run ball games?
SERRANO: It really stunned me when I saw a comment, going to the SEC tournament has never been a goal of mine, that should be an expectation, but when I heard that this was the first time since 1997 that this program has gone three times in a row, it showed me something about the consistency this program has lacked. We need to take the next step and that’s getting this program to a regional> That wasn’t the expectations that Dave Hart put on me. That’s what he wants, but that’s not what he said. That’s my expectations, that and beyond. This coaching staff and our players are going to do everything we can within reason to make that happen. It starts with us as coaches, it starts with our players going out and getting better in summer ball, coming back healthy and stronger. We need to become stronger as a team on a daily basis. I feel as the season went on, we didn’t have as much energy as we did in the beginning of the year. That’s a commitment on the players’ parts to work hard every single day of the year. I think that’s why Dave Hart retained me is he believes we’re close to making that move. I hope that I can look back years from now and remember this day, a day I didn’t know which way it was going to go, and remember this day and realize where the program is then.
QUESTION: How do you expect the identity to change for the 2017 season?
SERRANO: The identity change is going to be we’re going to be pitching heavy now. It starts with what we have returning. You saw the progress of Will Neely. I’d say Zach Warren had an average year, but at the start of the year he was having a great year. We have to get him back on track. We need to get him to being physically stronger. I think he started to wear down towards the end of the year. You saw the development of Aaron Soto. You saw the development of Alex Harper-Cook. Then you have the return of Kyle Serrano. He’ll be back next year healthy. You’ll have the return of Jacob Westphal. I didn’t talk about that much about Jake, but at the end of last year, when he got hurt at Arkansas, he was one of our top three or four pitchers. Then it’s what we bring in. You’re going to see more 90 plus guys in this program. That’s been the Achilles heel is that we’ve had to win with guys that are below that number. That’s what I’ve recognized in the SEC is that that’s what’s winning teams do. And I know that. I know that from building other programs. It starts with pitching. As I go back to my earlier comments, we never had the money in our piece of pie to invest as much as we wanted to in pitching. Now our numbers are more how they’re supposed to be with our 11.7 with how much we have invested in the pitching part of it. We’re going to be pitching heavy. I like what we return in the middle of the diamond. I love the athletes that we’ve brought in that are pretty versatile athletes that are going to be a lot of speed. We have to allow their bodies to develop. I like that we’re going to be pitching heavy because that’s how you win in the SEC. You win with good pitching, and you win with timely hitting.