Jack Leggett is currently the head coach of the Team USA 18U National Team and consults with and mentors many of the top baseball players, coaches, and programs in the country. He compiled a record of 955-480 with the Clemson Tigers (1994-2015), where he made 21 NCAA appearances, 9 Super Regional appearances, and 6 trips to the College World Series. Leggett coached nine first round MLB adraft picks among the 140 professional baseball signees he mentored, and 25 of his former players have played in the Major Leagues. Leggett’s 1,332 wins ranks in the top ten all time in Division I baseball, with previous stops at Vermont and Western Carolina.
IP: What was the transition like from when your career ended at Clemson to what you are doing now?
The transition from Clemson was tough. I missed it, a lot. With my way of thinking, it was a difficult way of adjusting after 38 years of coaching. It was very disappointing, to be honest. I was so used to going 24/7, having people depend on me, having a routine, just doing what I loved to do – being around the kids and that vibe every day. But I do think a lot of good has come out of it.
I’ve always been anxious to get involved with other coaches, where I could put out some ideas on what they can do to improve. I’ve also put myself out there for speaking engagements and have really enjoyed that. Being able to help people, visit programs, watch other teams practice, mentor other coaches and teams, and help the game grow in that way has really been a great experience.
I’ve also met a lot of great people through USA Baseball that I normally would not have met. It’s been good for my baseball mind. I had a few opportunities to be with USA Baseball in the past, but I just couldn’t do it because of recruiting and our camps and that time commitment. So it’s worked out great; these kids are very talented, but they’re also looking for that teaching and coaching and preparation for the next level. Even though they’re the best players in the country, they’re still eager to learn and many of them have great attitudes.
IP: What’s the selection process like when it comes to choosing your roster for USA Baseball, knowing that you start with 84 at the first tryout and ultimately have to whittle things down to 20?
Going from 84 to 44 was tough because there were some kids that were really deserving of getting in there and getting another shot, they just didn’t perform well enough. And these kids are all highly motivated- they want to learn and get out there with their peers, challenge themselves, be a part of USA Baseball. Getting down to 26 is very difficult. Fortunately we are able to take our time with it over the course of a few months. Then we have to go from 26 to 20, so it’s tougher each time!
IP: With such a level playing field in terms of talent, what are the other criteria you use to select your roster?
You go off of the direct results that you see on the field, any past performances with USA Baseball, attitude, teachability/coachability traits. We don’t try to get the best 20 players on the country, we try to get the best 20 that fit into a team. There are first rounders, future big leaguers and future All-Americans that aren’t going to make this team. You have to have some versatility as well, so that comes into a decision sometimes.
IP: What have you been able to learn from other coaches since you left Clemson?
You learn something from everybody. I’ve been around some great coaches and some great former players. It’s always neat to see how they go about their business, how they treat each other. I was always excited going back to my room each night about who I got to spend time with that day.
I have a great deal of confidence in how we went about things at Clemson and how we treated our players. I always felt like we ran a model program that everyone respected. I didn’t walk away from there regretting anything in terms of doing the right things, but there’s always a transition when things end. I’ve had some other opportunities to be in other places, but it didn’t feel right at the time.
IP: You’ve developed ‘Qualities of a Winning Coach’ recently, which is currently available for free on your website (jackleggett.com). What are the qualities of a winning coach?
It’s something that had been on my mind for awhile. You have to have an extreme passion about what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’re going to fall by the wayside, because this is a passionate game. You’ve got to love to teach, love to compete, love relationships, developing players and teams. The game can be very frustrating and adverse at times. To be successful in any job- especially coaching- you can’t have a halfhearted effort.
Another quality is having great communication skills with your coaches and with your players. You may know the X’s and O’s, but unless you can communicate and demonstrate, you’re not going to be able to get through to your team. On the other hand, if you have an average knowledge base and great communication skills, that can help you along the way as you continue to learn. Have some inflection in your voice that shows that you know about what you’re saying and you’re confident in what you’re doing. Kids are smart nowadays, they’re exposed to a lot of baseball, so you have to be willing to learn all the time.
It's important to have organizational skills. You have to come up with drills, workouts, practices that are efficient. Throughout the course of a year, you have to know what you’re doing and put some time into organization. We’ve all had efficient practices and we’ve had some practice where we’ve walked off the field and felt we could’ve done better.
You need an ability and desire to lead and be in charge. Don’t be afraid of responsibility. Being a coach at any level is a powerful position, because your players are going to look to you for guidance and to set an example. Sometimes players may look for your faults and anything they might be able to prey upon. But there are things that you can emulate well that your players can pick up and use for the rest of their lives. Having the confidence to tell people what they need to do to be successful- set goals, establish a culture, set parameters for what you expect, what’s acceptable and what’s not. Discipline, hustle, enthusiasm, dress code and appearance all matters. A lot of people nowadays shy away from discipline and feelings, but I think that’s what’s needed more. Lack of discipline turns in to sloppiness, and sloppiness gets you beat. I will always have an interest in our team looking sharp, in establishing a high-level brand. There’s nothing wrong with asking your players for that.
Resilience is another big one. The game is up and down. Losing will take the snap right out of you, winning is a high like no other. Being able to handle the punches that come your way is a huge quality as well. There are a lot of things you can talk about when you are trying to develop a winning program, but those are some things that are really important to me.
IP: What are some of the most unique recruiting stories you can share from your time as a head coach?
When I was at Western Carolina, a booster was nice enough to give us a recruiting car, but it had no air conditioning, no cruise control, and I took it that first night to a Legion game couple hours away. So I’m going about 55mph and I hear this extreme whistling over the gutter guard, it’s in my ear for two and a half hours. The game is supposed to start at 7 and ends up starting closer to 8, it doesn’t end until around midnight, I talk to the kid after the game for a little bit and now it’s 12:30 and I’ve got camp the next morning at 9 a.m.
I start to drive back, extremely tired, not going to make it, so I pull in to a Waffle House, put my feet out the passenger window, lay down with the steering wheel to the left of my chest, and try to get some sleep. I figure I have to wake up around six to make it back home and catch a nap before camp later that morning. I wake up around that time and I’m surrounded by cop cars. Sure enough, the police had just shown up to eat at Waffle House and I had to laugh to myself when I imagined what they thought I’d been into the night before. I end up getting home around 7:30 in the morning, about to take a nap, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, a rooster that lived down in the valley close to our house let out his ‘cock-a-doodle-doo.’ It was at that point I realized that there would be no rest that day, so I headed off to camp.
Another good one was our recruitment of Kris Benson at Clemson. Kris ended up being the first player taken in the 1996 MLB Draft. I was an assistant and I had been all over the country, but he was the best I’d ever seen, and he was in the Atlanta area, just a couple hours away from Clemson. I ended up making a home visit and I’m sitting at the table with the family. I mean, I really wanted to get this kid, he would’ve been a great addition to any program, obviously. I’m going through my speech and I’m getting into it and about 15 minutes into it his father stops me and asks, ‘Coach, I gotta ask. Are you related to Les Leggett?’ I jumped up and said ‘Yeah, that’s my father!’ And I come to find out that Kris’ dad played football at Adrian College for my dad, and I’m pumping my fist.
After all this, Kris excuses himself and goes into the other room, I guess he’d already bought some Clemson gear, he comes back into the room with Clemson shirt, Clemson shorts, Clemson hat, and I was like ‘let’s go!’’
Last one: I had back surgery at Western Carolina on a Monday. The last words from my doctor were ‘don’t get in the car for two weeks.’ So I go home with stiches in my back and Friday comes around, and I just know I have to go see Phillip Grundy pitch. He’s up in Kentucky, he’s going to be a very good player for us (and eventually ended up being the Conference Player of the Year and a fourth rounder).
I needed a car that had automatic seats so I could rack it back and take some leverage off my back. I borrowed a car and drove four hours to Somerset, Kentucky. My back is on fire. My doctor was right! And then I get invited over to his high school coach’s house with the kid. This was back in the time when you could sign a player in person, so I had all of the scholarship papers with me. I go to his house, and I’m not going home without that signature. We talked for what felt like forever and he finally says ‘coach, anyone who drives four hours with stitches in his back, I gotta play for.’ I get a hotel for the night, fill a trash bag up with ice, and drove home the next morning. Those are all lessons in persistence, to get the guys you wanted.