It was late on a Saturday night. I had just returned to the state of Indiana after a three year hiatus in
hell South Florida and had a very Hoosier-esque night on the town. I had a breaded tenderloin around six o'clock and stayed up late playing euchre with friends. That afternoon, the Hardball Hoosiers waxed the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the final game their regular season, a season where they won every single conference series and swept all but three opponents.
As I sat down to do a game wrap, I was feeling pretty uninspired to hammer out another article that said "Hoosiers are great, the postseason is soon, hopefully we are great in the postseason too." We've known the objective of this season for a long time, and it wasn't anything that could be achieved during any single game played over the past few months. While it's important for the players to stay focused on each individual game, us fans spent most of the year eying an eventual return to Omaha.
That's where there is business left unfinished.
So instead of writing that game wrap, I fired out an email to the Skipper himself, asking if he'd talk to me for a little bit about himself and his really good baseball team. I explained who I was, who I wrote for, and I did it with as little expectation as possible. After all, he's probably incredibly busy with two postseason tournaments to guide through and I'm, well, I'm not really anybody. He replied that same night, despite how late it was, and that he was, in fact, very busy, but with a caveat:
"I'm never too busy for anyone showing loyalty to IU Baseball."
He had taken the time to read over what we've posted at TCQ and liked what he saw and was happy to help out. After a few more emails back and forth, we agreed to speak over the phone and so here it is: a vignette on Tracy Smith, the 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Tracy Smith was born and raised in Kentland, Indiana, a town of 1800 people in northern Indiana, an area that Smith affectionately refers to as "God's Country." His father, a barber, lowered ears in a shop about a half block from his home, and Smith's mother worked for the telephone company right across the street. It was a town where "everybody literally knew everybody." Smith considered it a great place to grow up, a place that laid the foundation for the coach he would later become. He credits his small-town upbringing for one of the mantras he's built the Indiana program around: "Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."
As a kid, the interest in baseball was almost automatic, thanks, in part, to a man named Donald Blankenship, known as "Tater" to those who around Kentland. Tater was Smith's coach in a youth baseball program in Kentland that was, despite the relatively small size of the town, was "really, really good." So good, in fact, that three of the guys on Smith's team that ended up playing professionally, a positively astounding figure, when you consider how little of the general population ever gets a shot at professional sports, and how little, still, of that same general population was located in Kentland, Indiana.
So in spite of a seemingly unofficial mandate that towns in this state embrace and support basketball above all else, Kentland was a baseball town. Smith confirms that they still played basketball, but the youth program that generated the most attention was baseball, with the program emphasizing the little leagues all the way through to high school. And if you're talented enough, and Smith was, you'd have options after high school and outside of Kentland.
"That Idiotic Eighteen-Year-Old"
Smith didn't sign with Miami of Ohio, his collegiate baseball destination, until July after his senior year of high school; an incredible contrast to the recruiting landscape as we know it now. These days, the majority of athletes are signing well before their graduation and when Smith was handed his high school diploma, he was still mulling over his options outside of Kentland, and one of them happened to be Indiana University.
"I had taken an unofficial visit to Indiana, actually, some time in July when Coach Morgan was here and was kind of thinking I wanted to go to Indiana. Then I took a visit shortly after, an official visit, to Miami and was offered a real small scholarship. And, in short terms, I took the opportunity at Miami and never really got back with Indiana."
It wasn't the most mature way to handle it, Smith admits. Years later, when he would be applying for assistant coach jobs with collegiate programs (including Indiana), Smith recalls praying that Morgan would not remember "that idiotic eighteen-year-old, who never got back with him to tell him he wasn't coming."
Smith arrived at Miami as an infielder, but after one year of playing he was bumped to the bench by Tim Naehring, who would eventually leave Miami to man the hot corner for the majority of the 1990s with the Boston Red Sox. Smith didn't sit quietly on the bench for long, soon pleading with his coach to let him pitch, something he had done in high school and thought he would be to do.
"I wanted to contribute."
The coach granted the request and Smith pitched for his two remaining years in Miami. In fact, following his junior season, he would be drafted by the Chicago Cubs, the team he grew up rooting for, in the later rounds of the MLB Draft. Smith wasn't interested in signing at the number they were offering, and when he countered, the Cubs told him they would send someone to see him at practice. The day before that was to happen, Tracy Smith was in a car accident that nearly killed him. He would end up not signing with Chicago, returning to Miami for his senior season to get healthy and, fortunately, get drafted by the Cubs yet again.
This time, he was going.
"Has Anyone Played Infield Before?"
In what could possibly be the most quintessential minor league baseball story of all time: Tracy Smith, who was drafted by the Cubs as a pitcher and had pitched in their system for a season, had his team, the Geneva Cubs (the former short-season, Single A affiliate for the Chicago Cubs), suffer a rash of injuries to their shortstops and the manager simply asked the entire assembled roster if anyone had played infield before.
Smith rose his hand.
And just like that, after losing his infield position to a future professional in college, Smith was back in the infield, but this time, he was a professional too. He wouldn't ever pitch again, finishing his final two years as a player in the infield.
Smith took a pragmatic approach to his professional baseball career. He refers to a pact he made with himself after he graduated from Miami: that if he wasn't moving up or staying the same (in regards to the levels of minor league baseball), he'd hang it up. At the beginning of his fourth year of minor league baseball, after finding out he'd be back with the single A team, as opposed to moving up to Double-A, Smith decided to do just that.
"It's a beautiful day to hang it up," Smith would say to his friend while they stretched on the field with the majority of the Cubs' minor league system once camp had broke. His friend didn't think he was serious, but Smith got up and walked off the field, told his manager of his decision, and left.
Smith has no regrets for his decision to leave. In his words, he had "better things to do with his time" than bounce around the minor leagues without moving up. Baseball had caused him to miss the birth of his first son, Casey, who now plays for him at Indiana. The first time he laid eyes on his son was a picture that was faxed to him. He points out that, had he kept on playing, he probably wouldn't have been a head coach before the age of 30 like he ultimately was, so it would be difficult to hold too much regret over hanging it up when he did.
"Getting Lucky in the Profession"
Smith started his coaching career by starting a baseball program at Miami of Ohio - Middletown before going back to Miami of Ohio as an assistant, and after a couple years of that, his eyes turned back to Bloomington during a call with a recruit.
The recruit was wavering between Indiana and Miami, but was leaning towards signing with Miami because an assistant coach that he had a relationship with at Indiana was going to be leaving soon. Smith, bent on seizing the opportunity, called up Indiana's Coach Morgan to immediately offer his candidacy for the vacancy. There was, however, just one small issue:
The assistant had not yet informed Coach Morgan that he was leaving.
Ultimately, Smith did get the gig at Indiana and was their pitching coach for two years before Miami came calling again, and he returned to the RedHawks as their head coach. He would spend eight years at the helm, compiling a 317-220-1 record, with two NCAA Regional appearances. In 2006, as most of us know, he would bounce back to Bloomington, Indiana to become the Hoosiers head coach.
"Playing the Percentages"
Head baseball coaches are probably the most scrutinized in baseball, a fact not lost on Tracy Smith. It might have something to do with the pace of baseball, usually when a manager makes a decision, it causes the game to come to a halt as a new player comes in and another leaves. A failed hit-and-run call can be thoroughly ripped to shreds in the time it takes for the inning to be turned over. Most of Smith's Indiana counterparts, like Tom Crean and Kevin Wilson, have the luxury of making decisions that don't have a few minutes built-in for scrutiny. Time is of the essence in basketball and football, but there is no clock in baseball. You can take all the time that you need, and while that turns many off to the sport, it creates an interesting dynamic you don't see in other sports: because in baseball, the clock won't save you. Both basketball and football have strategies that involve burning clock to reduce the amount of time left for the opponent to play with, baseball offers nothing of the sort.
Smith describes himself as a "feel manager" that will also try to play the percentages when applicable. He's open to suggestions on strategy, but refuses to take advice from those who don't know his personnel by seeing them in practice. There are trusted sources that he'll seek for feedback, but he doesn't lend any ear to those who, for example, ripped him online for his decisions in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota in the opening game of their final regular season series. It would be the Hoosiers' 3rd conference loss of the year.
He's aware of the advanced stats, the sabermetrics, and he tries to implement them where he thinks they fit. But he makes sure to point out how different the collegiate and pro games are. The hitters at this level just aren't as accomplished as their major league counterparts, so "maybe you do bunt a little more." There's a whole lot of baseball you can quantify, and there's a whole lot you can't. Smith's success as a head coach is due, in part, to being able to effectively use both when he's making his decisions.
"I'm a Tools Guy"
When it comes to recruiting, Smith calls himself a "tools guy." What tools do you have? Can you hit? For power? Can you throw? Can you run? Smith wants upstanding, high-character guys on his team, but he needs these upstanding, high-character guys to have major-league level tools that can be developed.
"I get hundreds of letters all the time: 'Johnny is a great kid, does community service, has a high grade point average,' and that's all great. But I want to know if he can play."
And furthermore, Tracy Smith, an Indiana native who is coaching Indiana's university, doesn't really care whether or not a player is from Indiana. He, like every single athletics coach in the history of Indiana University, is knocked for not recruiting the state of Indiana enough and while that's, first of all, patently false; it's simply not on the checklist of things that Smith is looking for in a baseball player. He can't understand why an elite Indiana talent wouldn't want to play for Indiana, but he's not going to lose any sleep over it. To him, the "Indiana kids" are the kids wearing a uniform that says 'INDIANA' across the chest. Joey DeNato is from California, but he's an Indiana kid to Tracy Smith. Kyle Schwarber is an Ohio native, but he's an Indiana kid.
Smith isn't going to take second and third tier level talents simply because they're from the state. "It's a big country," he says, and he has a program that a kid can come to and achieve everything that player wants to achieve, because they've done it in the past and they're doing it right now. Logistically, he admits, it's easier to recruit an Indiana kid but if the elite want to take off for the SEC, Smith is confident he'll find someone as good or better to replace him.
The North Rises
Tracy Smith knows where baseball ranks at Indiana University, and he's fine with it: "It's a basketball school, and it should be a basketball school." In fact, I recall friends of mine attending a baseball game for the sole reason that a high-level recruit was on his official visit and would be in attendance with Tom Crean. So even when students were attending baseball games, it was with basketball intentions.
"Winning goes a long way," Smith confirms, when discussing how he has increased the popularity of baseball at Indiana. He credits the ability to host a regional in last years tournament as a reason the postseason run to Omaha happened. Had they not been able to construct the brand new, state-of-the-art stadium, maybe Indiana doesn't get to host that regional. Stadiums don't win games and Smith is very resolute on that point, it just doesn't happen. Great players and coaching is what will win baseball games, but that, in conjunction, with their new stadium got them a regional, and the postseason run got them the momentum the program needed.
Every week more people check out the baseball program and they've told Smith to his face that they're hooked. The fanbase is growing and Smith credits establishing this subculture to another Indiana University icon who didn't coach basketball or football.
"I want to take the blueprint of what Jerry Yeagley did for the soccer program."
An excellent choice for a blueprint, if I do say so myself. Smith laments that the best part of the baseball season, the postseason, starts after the majority of students leave Bloomington, a built in disadvantage. But the popularity is growing and it's obvious to anyone willing to take a glance. I told him how I went down to Bloomington after getting off a plane from South Florida, for a midweek game against Kentucky that started in the afternoon. It was a rare early Spring day that Indiana often teases us with, shooting up into the upper sixties with abundant sunshine, in other words: a perfect day for baseball. I pulled up to the Bart with about fifteen minutes until first pitch and had to stand in a line for nearly 20 minutes to buy a ticket.
The stadium was filled to the point of standing-room only. It was a Wednesday at 4 PM. When I told him of my experience, his response was succinct: "That was the vision."
They've recently added 1600 bleacher seats in anticipation of demand for regional hosting in the NCAA Tournament. The program has been built to a level never thought possible for a team as far north as they are, and they've done it their way. They make funny YouTube videos, they do crazy promotions in the stadium, and they do it because of that small-town mentality Smith has carried with him from his days in Kentland:
"Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."
When he's not guiding the Hoosiers back towards Omaha, Smith is playing Call of Duty or watching Netflix, which means he has a ton in common with me and most other guys my age. His son, Casey, is getting ready to graduate and continue his own journey after playing for his dad in college. Another son is a freshman on Indiana's football team and his youngest is anticipated to be a high-level football recruit in his own right. When I made him pick his single favorite restaurant in Bloomington, he staked his claim to Malibu Grill. Which I can confirm has some ridiculous pork chops.
His Hoosiers make their first push towards the postseason with the B1G Tournament, hosted in the same ballpark as the College World Series, an experience that Smith doesn't think will give them a lot of advantage. Should they return to Omaha for the CWS this year, Smith says they'll draw on last June's experience as opposed to this week's B1G Tournament.
I can't thank Tracy Smith and Indiana's Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Jeff Keag for giving me the opportunity to do the interview. Go Pingbats.