Andrew Checketts led UC Santa Barbara to its first ever College World Series in 2016 and was named a finalist for the Skip Bertman National Coach of the Year award. He spent time with IP recently to talk about the path to his success...
I had a pretty special high school coach in Pat Bailey, who is now the associate head coach at Oregon State. I played for him at West Linn High School for three years. He’s a real coach: detailed, meticulous, motivational, and a good leader. So it started with that, I had a pretty high standard for coaches once I left high school.
I played for Andy Lopez for a year, Pat Casey for three years, and I coached with Jack Smitheran and Doug Smith at UC Riverside, Dennis Rogers at Riverside Community College, and most recently with George Horton at the University of Oregon. All of them were really good and I’ve taken a lot of those things from all of them. Coach Casey is ultra-competitive, and I enjoyed that from a player’s perspective. George [Horton] is super detailed, meticulous and organized, Doug Smith was special at creating relationships and coaching hitters. All had their own styles and different personalities. I’ve been really fortunate to be around some special coaches.
Getting into coaching
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to coach and had some other interests I wanted to pursue initially. I think that can happen with a lot of guys once they get done with the grind of college and/or pro ball. I see that with a lot of our players; they’re tired at the end of it and ready to try something else, then they miss it once they are out. I thought I wanted to go into business. I had a Finance degree and I interned at Nike right out of college. I was interviewing with some financial services places and it’s actually ironic; after going through those interviews I just thought ‘man, I really don’t want to be involved in sales that much, cold calling people, on the phone all the time,’ and then got into coaching and it’s ‘wait a minute – that’s exactly what I’m doing!’ It’s a little easier to do those things when you’re excited and passionate about it what you are selling.
From a player’s perspective, you never really know what coaching entails until you jump into it. You think you do, but you’re just seeing the baseball piece of it, you don’t see the office, the recruiting, the lifestyle.
We want to create as competitive an environment as possible. We spend a lot of time on the leadership piece of it, trying to coach that up, as opposed to waiting and hoping for it. Whether it’s in practice, the bullpen, conditioning or weightlifting, there are very few times when there’s not some sort of competition involved.
We don’t want to make it easy for them, we ask them to do hard things, to be uncomfortable. This isn’t a game where you get to be comfortable for nine innings, so you want to develop players that can handle that pressure and be comfortable being uncomfortable. Some of the things we do are trial and error and sometimes our guys need a breather and we have to back off a bit.
What does it mean to be competitive?
Sometimes trying hard can be confused for competing. I always tell them that I can pull anyone out of the stands and give them a bat, ball or glove and ask them to try hard. It’s about more than just trying hard. I like to define competing for our guys. Effort, Concentration and Adjusting are our three components of competing.
Competing starts with effort. If you’re not playing hard, if you’re not running to be safe it’s hard to call yourself a competitor.
Concentrating for us is thinking about the right things at the right times. People call it ‘focus’ or ‘concentration.’ You’re always thinking about something, so are you thinking about the right thing at the right time? Do you have the ability to respond and reset? Can you move on quickly? In practice I want our guys to do things over and over until they can’t get it wrong. In games we want our guys to move on quickly from failure and have the ability to reset. Both require focus and refocusing techniques to do.
The last part is the ability to adjust. If you’re playing ping pong and your opponent has a nasty forehand and a weak backhand, why would you keep hitting it to his forehand? As a competitor, you’ve got to be able to adjust. Competitors are constantly adjusting based on the feedback they are getting in a game or practice situation. That doesn’t mean that they are trying to adjust their swing or delivery in a competitive environment, it means they may adjust their target on the mound, their plan at the plate, their pitch sequencing, defensive positioning or short game options for examples. Doing the same thing over and over again while not getting the result you want and not adjusting isn’t competing.
Within that framework, we get an opportunity to coach the mental game, talk about preparation and work the details of the game.
Recruiting is a lifeline for good programs. We’re looking for guys that have a baseline of talent and intangibles like work ethic and a competitive nature. The intangibles seen to be the separator for the great players but also are the most difficult to evaluate. There’s no radar gun or stop watch that can give us that information currently.
We talk a lot about makeup when we’re recruiting, but it’s also important to define what that really means. You’re doing your homework and you have people you trust, but you also end up talking to a lot of people you don’t know very well, people who don’t know you or your program very well so sometimes it’s hard to decipher what their definition of good makeup and ours is.
I’ve had a couple players that I’ve been told ‘don’t have good makeup’ and ended up being great teammates and players. Their confidence and competitiveness was misinterpreted. Being a little stubborn or overly competitive at times doesn’t necessarily mean you have bad makeup. Some of those guys end up being your warriors and changing the culture of your program. We want them to be good human beings, to care about their team and teammates and also be driven internally to be great.
Of course, there has to be a baseline of talent. You have to pitch enough; you have to have enough foot speed or bat speed, glove skills, bat control and stuff on the mound. Not many guys are going to fit into a perfect package of all that talent; most guys have something they fall short on. If they are workers they will make efforts to overcome what they are short on.
West coast baseball
A lot of the style was born out of necessity – if you’re playing at Blair Field, Irvine, Fullerton, or UCLA at night the marine layer hits and the ball gets knocked down, so it’s hard to score. You have to find a way to create some offense because it’s really difficult to hit homers in those ballparks late at night.
Our ballpark is a little more offensive because we play during the day, but it can be a trap as well. Our guys can hit balls in the air at home that go out of the ballpark and then end up hitting a lot of F-9’s when we go on the road. It means you have to find a way to manufacture some runs based on who we are facing and where we are playing.
When you’re coaching against that style, you better be able to be good at defending the bunt and controlling the running game.
What’s it like around the office?
I’m a bit more of an introvert and work better with fewer distractions so if I’m working on a project or doing practice planning I tend to try to find somewhere quiet with few interruptions. We make efforts to run everything like a business and are working our systems to try to be efficient and organized. We try to be organized, prepared and detailed.
Transition to being a head coach
As a pitching coach you pay attention to your hitters but I think if you’re really dialed in to the pitchers, then you miss a lot on the offensive side. So when I got the job as a head coach, I knew I needed a field general, somebody who was going to be able to run the offense. I was much more involved with the pitching the first few years, and our volunteer as has been ready to take over the pitching and has taken the lead with that, calling all the games.
I try to hire the right guys and give them the autonomy they need. I like to be involved in communicating what we’re doing and helping during the game, but the day to day piece I try to let them do their thing. We’ve been fortunate to have great assistant coaches over the years that have taken ownership of their areas.
It’s always challenging to be focused on the right things. Everyday we come to the office and have to divide our time between coaching, recruiting and fundraising. Allocating the right amount of takes to each task takes some work and constant adjusting.
What are the keys to success with your program?
Being able to develop our players’ individual skills and make them better is something that we have all the tools and resources we need to be able to do. Creating and nurturing an environment/culture that values commitment and competition is the foundation for our team culture. We are fortunate to have a lot of great natural resources to offer our student-athletes and which gives us a baseline of talent to work with.