Inside Pitch Magazine, September/October 2019

Inside Interview: Donegal Fergus, UC Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara's free-spirited Associate Head Coach

By Robert Spoelker
Donegal FergusDonegal Fergus made an immediate impact at UC Santa Barbara after being named associate head coach in June of 2018. Last Spring, the Gauchos set school records with 45 wins against Division I opponents, 13 All-Big West performers and five selections in the first eight rounds of the 2019 MLB draft.

Fergus spent the previous five seasons at Washington, helping the Huskies to an historic stretch that culminated in a trip to the College World Series after its first-ever Super Regional victory in 2018. Before Washington, Fergus served at Lower Columbia College, Seattle University and Tacoma CC.

IP: So you were a political science major at Linfield and you earned a Master’s in Homeland Security at American Military University. And now you coach baseball?

Donegal Fergus: Yeah, I wasn’t going to coach, I was going to go to the FBI or CIA and go to grad school and do international affairs. I’d done an internship with the Oregon State Police and I was in that mode of thinking. My parents came to my graduation at Linfield and my dad started talking to me about, “If you really want to do this FBI thing, they’re probably going to have a problem with my background.” You see, he was a Vietnam War protester, he’s an old hippie and he was like, “My FBI file’s pretty thick and I don’t want to bind you up on that, I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

I ended up having more conversations with my folks about what I really wanted to do and what motivates me. My uncle was the head coach at Lower Columbia College, Hall of Famer, incredible coach. He gave me an opportunity to get into coaching. At the same time, my grandmother was going through cancer, living in the same town.

All of these factors seemed like they were piling up, so I decided to try it for a year to see how I’d like it, and that was it, I was done. It was all-in and it was immediate, this is what I wanted to do.

I got my master’s degree because everybody told me I needed to have an advanced degree to be a head coach. I like school and I like learning stuff, so it was in my mind, “If this doesn’t work out, at least I have a backup plan.” I did this online program for international homeland security terrorism studies because it was fun and interesting. So, here I am with those degrees that don’t apply necessarily, but they were fun to get.

IP: As a young coach, you can go to the ABCA Convention or look up videos and articles and feel like you can improve with knowledge and teaching, but until you actually get a chance to recruit, nobody knows what they’re doing, right?

DF: You have no idea what you’re doing when you first start recruiting, and you can’t. You have to learn the hard way in a lot of areas. This is a bit off topic, but the third assistant thing getting passed is really important. I remember beginning coaching and going, “I need to get out there and screw it up for a little bit and get my feet wet so I can learn how to do this.” There’s no substitute than just going and trying it, so we need to give young coaches that opportunity because there is no substitute for just jumping into the deep end of the pool.

IP: What are the types of things that you see “recruitable” players do that move themselves up the list?

DF: We all have our things that we like to see, skill sets or movements that fit our eye and that we like. The ‘follow’ guys have something visually that you like, an athleticism or some tool and you just want to see them produce and actually put something together. As a player, you have to produce. If I like the movement, the swing, the skill set profile and I haven’t seen you be good in a game, that’s tough. Now someone’s asking me “Do you like him?” ‘Yeah, I like him.’ “Well, what holds you back?” ‘I don’t know, I’ve never seen him get a hit.’ At some point, you have to break the seal and start producing.

IP: What's the process then once you decide you want to make contact with one of these kids?

DF: I’m really lucky to work alongside two incredible recruiters — our recruiting coordinator Matt Fonteno, and our head coach Andrew Checketts. Matt is so good at attacking the recruiting process and steering our ship, it really makes me better. I’m just trying to keep up with him.

We’re trying to get kids to know who we are as a program and what we’re all about. Most kids aren’t following the way we are, they aren’t scrolling through Kendall Rogers’ and Aaron Fitt’s tweets and checking scores. Kids have so many other things that distract them. So when you think everyone knows what you did this past Spring, a lot of kids don’t.

IP: What are some other strategies you implement in your player identification process?

DF: We rely so much on the high school, travel ball, instructors, all those coaches that are in contact with these kids. We need to have that relationship really strong so that we get in contact with the kids, but most importantly get a real gauge on them. Are they a good kid? Are they a worker? Are they smart? What are mom and dad like? You want to do that background research, and you need those people that know the kid better than you do.

IP: What would you say is the most important thing for high school and travel ball coaches to do to get their players recruited?

DF: Just be straight with me. There’s nothing more valuable than honesty about a kid, or a situation, or our chances. Some coaches get caught up in selling their kids, and that’s a good thing, but you’ve got to be honest with me. If you burn me and you tell me, “He’s really interested,” and he’s not or, “He can afford this,” but he can’t or, “He’s good enough,” but he’s not, it’s tough to go back to that well.

The best relationships are the ones where you can have a genuine back-and-forth. As college coaches, we can fall into the pattern of the only time you talk to high school or travel coaches is when we need something. It’s hard to ask a guy, “Why didn’t you call and tell me about that guy?” when I know in the back of his head he’s thinking, “Well, I haven’t heard from you in six months you jerk?”

IP: What are initial conversations with potential recruits like?

DF: An honest conversation right away with a kid on what he’s about is the most important thing. After that you can determine if you need to attack it and put on your sales pitch and marketing hats, or if the kid is dialed in, checking in, and knows what’s going on with what you’re doing. Now we can have a personal conversation. If a kid can’t bring his own thoughts and instincts to the table, then I don’t know that I work as well for you.

The thing that always stays the same for me is the kind of kid I want to work with. It’s the curiosity, the natural interest in learning things or getting better, the questions they have. If they don’t have any questions about hitting, our style or philosophy, or what kind of people we’re like, it’s a red flag. Those are the kids that are asking about who our apparel contract is with and asking to see the stadium and the locker room.

IP: How can parents positively or negatively affect their kid’s standing?

DF: There are plenty of red flags, and they are easy to find. If you come on a visit and all you get from dad is the stat line and, “Johnny’s this and Johnny’s that and Johnny’s high school coach didn’t know what he was doing, so we’re just excited about getting away and getting real coaching.” Or when mom talks, the kid looks like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but right there.  

We are looking for parents who are genuine and curious, who want to know about us and are open to sharing themselves. Those are the parents that you know are going to be good at the end. We talk a lot about the idea of this is a collaboration- we are all in this together. It’s not always going to be smooth and there’s going to be ups and downs, but we’ll figure it out. It comes down to trust, ultimately, that everyone involved is in it for the right reasons.

IP: When you start to go through telling people who you are and what you stand for…has that changed over time or is it more an attitude of “I am who I am”?

DF: When I first started out, I had the same thought as everybody has about the template to be a college baseball coach- put on your golf shorts, your polo and your team shoes, fill up a backpack and go to the yard with your stopwatch and radar gun. And I sort of fell into that, trying to fit in, and I chased that for some time. It’s hard, it’s like first day of high school, right? You’re trying to fit in. You want to walk into the cafeteria and be able to sit at the table with the cool kids. I think we all fight that and it’s a hard thing to overcome but it made me better once I just dropped the shtick.

I know I’m different. Some people may think I’m a weirdo because of the beard, or the tattoos, or the flip flops, but I think the people that know me get it. I just care about being the best baseball coach, recruiter, person I can be. You want to go prove to people that you’re good and that you’re one of the guys and you belong and all of that garbage…it’s the external forces and the external happenings, adoration, and approval that you’re looking for, but it doesn’t make you better. Just be you.

IP: Was there a moment where the light bulb switched on for you?

DF: I don’t know when it switched. I think probably somewhere during my first head coaching opportunity at Tacoma Community College where I realized my players just responded to me better when I was real and I was my real self, which is a bit of trash talker, a little weird, certainly different. I just dropped my guard. There wasn’t a crystallizing moment or a concerted decision, it just sort of grew that way. I realized that if I was good and I did right by my players and I got them better, that the product would be the affirmation that I needed.

IP: You have received some well-deserved recognition for your recruiting accolades with your ability to recruit. Do you find yourself having to remind people that, “Hey, I actually coach the game, too, I know what I’m talking about”?

DF: Yeah, I really do. I think we all get caught up in that, but ultimately, if you don’t have good players, you’re not a very good coach. I’m really lucky to work alongside two incredible recruiters in Matt Fonteno and our head coach Andrew Checketts. Matt is so good at attacking the process and steering our ship, it really make me be better. I’m just trying to keep up with him! I really do like recruiting because it’s relationship building and meeting people, putting that puzzle together is really fun and cool, but the day to day of coaching drives me more than anything. Wherever I am, I want my current players to know that my first priority is coaching them on a daily basis. And that’s what’s fun, I get to go to the ballpark. Why this job is so cool is we get to go to the ballpark every day and help guys get better and see them grow.

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