David Pierce’s teams have averaged better than 38 wins a season since he became a head coach eight years ago. A Texas native who has spent the majority of his 30-year coaching career in the Lone Star State, Pierce was named head coach at Texas in 2016.
Inside Pitch: In 2018, you were named Baseball America’s National Coach of the Year after taking Texas back to the College World Series in your second year in Austin. In 2019 Texas finished last in the Big 12. What has that experience been like?
You’re looking at two really different perspectives from one year to the next. It’s allowed me to look back and really reflect. You’ve been at the top and then you struggle in a season that somehow, some way got away from you. So how do you prevent that from happening again?
Inside Pitch: Your first season coaching collegiate baseball was at Rice, and your team’s record was 16-34. Now you were obviously 27-27 last year, so not even below .500, but did you learn anything from that first year that might have resurfaced last year in terms of dealing with adversity?
That’s interesting, because my first year coaching was at St. Pius High School, my alma mater, in 1989. My first two years we won two state championships. And then I go to college as the number two assistant, the restricted earnings guy, making up to $6,000. It was great experience and a learning period for me, but that was a miserable year. I didn’t think at the time that the team really knew how to win, they weren’t really equipped to win. It started early on, the attitude of very low expectations just carried on throughout the entire season.
So I think what you do is when you have a down year or a great year, you learn from both of them. What I’ve learned is that positive energy is critical in your program. I learned that in my first season as a college assistant. It was a miserable year that you take the experience from, learn from it and move on to the next year.
Inside Pitch: Talk a little bit about the financial struggles as a young coach…
I have a different perspective from most college coaches: I finished playing in the first week of June in 1985. I was at the University of Houston and we lost to Texas. Then on June 22 of that year, I got married. Three or so weeks after I’m done playing, I’m married and into the ‘real’ world. But after three years in the business world, I knew it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I was going to do.
That still validates my calling as a coach – doing something that I realized that I didn’t want to do. I’m not saying that I couldn’t have been successful in business, but I was always a sports junkie. I love competition. I love every sport, so when I was able to coach football and basketball and be the head baseball coach, I just grew on the job. Now, I wasn’t making any money, but it wasn’t a factor because that was going to be our lifestyle. Even as the restricted earnings coach at Rice, I could only make up to $6,000; that was before any type of real camps and clinics got started, before you could do a lot of lessons.
You have to have a very understanding wife, a wife that realizes that together we can make it. It definitely helps if she has a good job that allows you to coach – which she did – but I have always had great support from her.
Inside Pitch: What are some other challenges of raising a young family as a coach?
There were many days that I would come home from work late and she would be in the living room with two kids sitting on her lap, all three of them crying because I wasn’t there to help. You have to have a firm foundation from your family to have success in coaching, in my opinion. You can maybe mask it for a year or two, five years. But in the big picture, you have to have that great support. And I’ve always had that.
Inside Pitch: The past two seasons, you have prepared a team that made it all the way to Omaha, and a team that did not meet your program’s expectations. How did you go about motivating each of those clubs?
At the end of every season, we start with an evaluation assessment of the program. And it starts at the top with the support from the athletic department, and then it carries and filters to me. You have to have a very open mind and you have to truly look at yourself in the mirror and ask, ‘Did I maximize the growth of our team?’ To me, we are in this business because of human growth and development. ‘Did guys get better, did guys have great experiences?’ If I can say that at the end of the year that I have no regrets, no matter where we finished in the season, most of the time your team finished pretty close to where you wanted to be.
So you break it down from start to finish. In 2018 I felt like we were an overachieving team. We had players that were very good in their roles, and we had a couple of stars that we played around in David Hamilton and Kody Clemens. But we had guys that had a desire to be great for each other, for the University of Texas. They had very little distractions.
That is one of the key things is when you talk about what is available to kids these days. We’re not the informant anymore. Players can get information in any angle, any direction, at the touch of a phone. We have to understand that that’s a difficult environment at times. So we have to be available, we have to be a sounding board, we have to be a support system for them more so than feeding them information.
When I looked back at 2019, we had two key components injured in our catcher and our shortstop. But we were still able to overcome that because our attitude was still right. We were still working without distractions. As soon as we got exposed, however, we struggled getting past it. From my perspective, I felt like I put too much pressure on the team. It was really difficult to back off of our expectations, to really clear our minds and compete.
Inside Pitch: What’s it like having Huston Street and Troy Tulowitzki on staff?
Huston’s role is just being one of those guys that’s always around, having a great story that relates to a guy, helping with breathing techniques to get the last three outs- he’s very beneficial on the mental side as well. And having Tulo is the result of a very interesting, really neat story. Huston called me last June and said, “Coach, know Troy Tulowitzki is on the DL with the New York Yankees and he’s going to retire. He wants to coach at the collegiate level and he’s interested in talking to you about coming to the University of Texas.” My first thoughts are ‘he’s just now retiring, he has enough money that he doesn’t need a job, he’s going to spend time with his family, he’s going to travel, he’s probably going to go get on the golf course.’ And Huston said, “Coach, Tulo is a guy that just is a field rat and really wants to stay in it. He’s had opportunities in professional baseball, but he wants to deal with college players.”
After I talked to Tulo, I was excited, his interests were really sincere, and I said, “Well, I’m not going to hire anyone over the phone, can you come to Austin?” He said, “When would you want me?” And I said, “The sooner, the better.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll see ya Monday.”
And Sunday night he, his wife and his son were in Austin. Monday we spent all day together, we went to dinner, and I think we had a mutual agreement that we wanted to get it done- by the end of the week he confirmed it. Then we had to deal with the timing because he was still under contract with the Yankees, I wanted to give him as much time as he needed. The goal was for him to retire, give him some time and then announce him. We had already created a story, but it started leaking, so he announced his retirement and three hours later we announced his hiring. And it was kind of a whirlwind for him that day, but we are really reaping benefits because of Troy Tulowitzki being on our staff.
Inside Pitch: You’ve always recruited at a high level and this past year is no different, with Texas being ranked as high as number one in some rankings. What’s your philosophy?
If you don’t have a network, you’re going to really struggle with this. You have to have your contacts that you truly trust throughout the country. We can’t physically get on a plane and go see every guy that we get information on, so we do our reference checks and it may be through scouts and other guys we trust- summer league guys, high school coaches. I spent 11 years in high school baseball, so I still put a lot of merit into what they have to say.
If I call a high school coach, I can usually find out whether or not he’s good in the classroom, how he relates to his teammates, how he deals with the balance of academics and sports. Sometimes you have to make quick decisions based on the timing of if you don’t commit that kid, then he’s going to commit with someone else.
Another big factor is trusting your eyes. Back in the early days when I was a recruiting coordinator, you had time to look at the player, determine the need of the team, and decide on the availability of scholarship. That’s a little bit tougher today because we’re recruiting three classes out, which I’m truly not a fan of, but I understand it. But it still comes down to putting your team together as opposed to just recruiting and committing the best players. We have the opportunity to commit the best players, but it’s such a fine line because you want them to come to campus, and there are definitely no guarantees. You can take a chance on a couple of guys in your class that may become first, second rounders, but you can’t have a class of first or second rounders because then you end up with third-tier players.
Inside Pitch: What are some of the main ways you develop players who come to Texas?
We have some neat things we are doing technologically, But for me, it’s about developing the mentality of a player. How do we get that toughness, the grit, how do you find that? How do they handle the mental game? What do they do when they fail? Do they have focal points?
I was thinking about this the other day. How many hitting coaches have our players had before they get to us? Who do they believe, who do they trust, who did they understand? If you start in structured youth baseball, somebody is teaching you how to hit and then that moves on to a lesson and that moves on to high school and showcase baseball. And that moves on to all these different entities that are trying to help, but they are all probably feeding you different information that can get you away from your natural movement.
We’ve got to be cautious of putting the cart before the horse. Do we teach analytics and mechanics before we have a mentality? Or do we allow players to play, create a mentality and then enhance it with analytics and mechanics?
Inside Pitch: On mentality, what are you spending time on? Is it with the team and talking mental game?
I grew up in an environment where the head coach was the performance coach, the mental coach. Wayne Graham was the best at it that I’ve ever been around. I think one thing we have really done a much better job of – and I would credit Tulo and his perspective on this – is trying to understand our players’ anxieties, which may be created a lot of the times from known support systems and the expectations that come from that.
Every guy on our team has at least the top three players on his team, top three player in a region, one of the better players in the state and even the country. So there’s a lot of expectations that other people put on them. We really try to get them to understand that it’s a day to day approach with the mental game, versus having a mental coach come in once a week, once a month, and give you this team spiel and then now we’ll try to perform that.
So on a day-to-day basis, we want to ask the player, "Do you have a focal point when the game speeds up on you? What is your focal point?" They might say, “Well, when I feel like the game’s speeding up and I’m getting jumpy in the box, I back off. I take two breaths. I look at the right field foul pole, and I re-center.”
That’s what we’re trying to get them to do. We’re teaching that much more than we ever have before, just because there’s so much information out there. We’re trying to get that balance of making it much more about your techniques and trusting what you do versus how you do it.