Dan McDonnell is currently in his fifth season as the head coach for the University of Louisville, where they have hosted NCAA post-season baseball in three of the last four years. In 2007, McDonnell became the first rookie coach in 27 years to lead his team to Omaha and was named National Coach of the Year by Rivals.com. 24 Louisville players have been selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft during his tenure. Inside Pitch talked with McDonnell during a SCORE mission trip in the Dominican Republic about his rapid journey to the top of college baseball.
Inside Pitch: What was so special about the 2007 team that you led to the College World Series in your first year as head coach? Were the current players concerned about your commitment to them versus the recruits you were bringing in?
Well, when you’re known for being a recruiter, I think the current players wonder, ‘is this guy going to be in it for me or is he going to be in it for his recruits?’ Knowing that, I made it clear to our team (that included nine seniors) that I was committed to them 100 percent. They believed in me and I obviously believed in them. It was so much fun to watch a group of guys play for a team, for a program, for a university. Because of that, great things happened. We went all the way to Omaha and it wasn’t about the individual players or the draft, it was ‘what can we do as a team to experience something we’ve never done before?’
Inside Pitch: How has recruiting changed from what you learned at the Citadel and Ole Miss?
It’s still all about relationships and evaluating good talent. I think one of the changes has been how many more people have their hands in the cookie jar now. Not only are we recruiting a young man and his family, we’re recruiting his AAU coach or his advisor, who are sometimes heavily involved in the process. It’s important to be conscious of that.
Inside Pitch: What are the biggest challenges you face as the head coach at a top-notch program like the University of Louisville?
We want to do what’s best for each of our players. We want to develop them as much as we can and for them to achieve ultimate success, but at the same time, it’s a college program and it’s also about what’s best for the team. It’s hard because at a young age, these players have advisors and agents or they play for a powerful AAU program and it’s all about the individual. Trying to get them to let their guard down and sacrifice for the team is one of the biggest challenges we face.
Inside Pitch: Last season was your first year at Louisville that didn’t end in a postseason appearance. What changes have you made to get your team back in 2012?
We had to evaluate what we were doing as a program, and a lot of it came down to the change in the bats. We were an American League-style team that played for the three-run homer and didn’t bunt a whole lot. With the change in the bats, we saw the game change right before our eyes and I’ll be the first to say we weren’t prepared for it. We weren’t prepared to defend the bunt, and on offense we didn’t incorporate it enough. So, it’s been exciting looking forward to a new season knowing what we know about the bats – and being a little bit older than we were last year. As a program, we’re chomping at the bit because we feel more prepared to succeed at what college baseball is asking us to do today.
Inside Pitch: Do you think the changes in the bats help college baseball or is it a detriment to the game and its fans?
Well right now, the fan base is strong, and I know for the benefit of television, the games are quicker. I spent 12 years at the Citadel and six at Ole Miss; so for 18 years I had a mindset and built our system according to that. For those previous four years at Louisville, that system was working. Personally, I don’t like the change to the bats because we have to go back to the drawing board, we have to change. But, once we get used to the new system and the new style of play, we feel like we’ll be able to get back to winning championships.
Inside Pitch: You hold chapel every Sunday during the season; have you noticed a positive impact?
I definitely see the impact of it. These are young men with a lot of temptation out there and they’re looking for guidance. I feel that it’s my responsibility as a head coach to offer them a safe, healthy environment that sets them up not only to succeed academically, athletically, and socially, but down the road as well. My goal is for them to have a great experience while they’re here, play at a high level and get a degree, but also to be great fathers, husbands and role models.
We offer a lot through our FCA program on campus. To me, it’s just as important as academic, athletics, and social life, but it’s up to our kids to take it. It’s tough to be on your own, away from home in a college atmosphere, so I think it’s definitely an avenue they need to experience.
Inside Pitch: Your head coach at the Citadel, Chal Port, is in the ABCA Hall of Fame and was one of the most respected coaches in the game. How did he influence you as a player and a coach?
I was blessed to play for such a legendary coach. He passed away this fall and it gave me a chance to reflect on who I am as a coach and a lot of that comes from Coach Port. First and foremost, he was a teacher – he loved to teach the game of baseball – so I realize that I have to teach these young men how to play the game the right way. Coach Port was also very disciplined and hard-working, he loved the game and he loved to practice. From the time we showed up on campus to when we went home for Thanksgiving, we were practicing playing, scrimmaging, developing as players and as a team. I doubt that he would have been a fan of the time restrictions mandated by the NCAA. At Louisville, we try to take Coach Port’s system to the max.
Inside Pitch: How did the Citadel’s unique environment prepare you for a career in coaching?
I did not realize it at the time, but looking back I think I’ve had coaching 101 at its finest. I played for a legendary coach at a military school where there was a lot of structure and discipline. I spent eight years at the Citadel as a player and a coach and then I coached for six years at Ole Miss. What an extreme on both ends – recruiting kids to a military school and recruiting kids to an SEC school. At the end of the day, it’s all about building relationships and when they get to you, they have to develop.
Inside Pitch: What is the most important thing about your practices?
It all starts with organization. From there, you have to prioritize what’s important to your program. I tell our kids that if the NCAA gives us one hour to practice, we’d spend 30 minutes on the field and 30 minutes in the weight room.
Teaching the game is also very important. We also want to maximize our time in the weight room to improve our strength, speed, and overall self-esteem. We also have to do well in the classroom, so we have mandatory class attendance and study and we implement a curfew during the week. I always say to our players, “good kids win – kids who go to class, kids who treat people with respect, kids who work hard.” Whatever time we have to improve on and off the field, we take it to the max and strive to be excellent. IP