Inside Pitch Magazine, May/June 2020

Cover Interview: Monte Lee, Clemson University

First Work Hard; Then Work Smart

By Adam Revelette
Inside Pitch Magazine CoverIn 12 seasons as a head coach, Monte Lee’s teams have averaged better than 38 wins per year, have not had a losing season, and made eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Lee has led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament each of his first four seasons (2016-19) at Clemson, and had the Tigers off to a 14-3 start in 2020 before the season was canceled.

Inside Pitch: First things first; how are you guys dealing with the COVID-19 situation?

Monte Lee: A lot of FaceTime, Zoom conferences, calls with administration and our coaching staff, just trying to stay in touch with everybody from home. They're all doing e-learning now, so we’re also having conversations with our academic advisors and making sure the guys are being accountable for going to class on time, even though it may be on their laptops in the kitchen. Their health and their academics are the priorities right now.

We sent our guys home with a body-weight oriented workout program and we told them, if you can hit, make sure you do it by yourself. And if you don't have a place to hit, that's okay. We'll cross that bridge when we get there as far as when baseball will start back.

IP: You have coached your entire career in the same state. Is that intentional, coincidence or luck?

ML: I was born in South Carolina, my mom and dad are from South Carolina, all my relatives are from South Carolina. The only time I've ever lived in another state was when I played in the minor leagues. That's it. To say that I have a tremendous amount of pride in being a South Carolinian and love this state is an understatement. I love it here and I've been blessed.

I've always put a huge emphasis on recruiting in-state kids. A big reason why the College of Charleston hired me was because we had recruited the in-state kids so hard at South Carolina. By the time we were done at C of C, 65% of our roster was from South Carolina.

IP: So what was it like coaching at your alma mater? What was it like leaving?

I don't know if I could really put into words the amount of gratitude that I have for the College of Charleston. I got to play there – they were the only school to offer me a scholarship. I was a starter for four years and then became the first position player to get drafted out of there. C of C did more for me as a student and as an athlete than I could've ever imagined.

It was hard to leave, I loved it so much there and we were at the height of the program, but you don't walk away from a program like Clemson. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and that's the way I look at the job that I have now.

IP: For sure. So the purple and orange with the white spikes, has that grown on you or are you still working on that?

No, I love it. I love it. Here's a cool story about that. The reason that we wore Clemson style pants and white spikes at C of C when I first got there was John Pawlowski. He was the head coach before me and he’d played at Clemson. So he brought that to College of Charleston, and I loved them. I just thought they looked good. They were clean, it was unique. Plus it made everybody look faster!

IP: What are the foundational pieces of Clemson baseball culture?

We have a couple things that we try to instill in our guys from our first team meeting. We give our guys a culture sheet, a list of what our expectations are academically, as an athlete, in the community, and in the weight room. Those expectations have nothing to do with winning baseball games. Nothing. It's all about doing things the right way in those four areas. And we spell them out, we educate them on it. We have a saying in our program: we want them to be T-I-G-E-R-S. And that's toughness, integrity, gratitude, excellence, relentless and selfless. And we define those for them.

IP: Is that something that you try to identify in the recruiting process or is that something that you feel like you can develop?

I think it's tough to change behavior with players, but if you put them in the right environment and you surround them with other good kids, I think that's a big factor. If you have several guys that don't fit your culture in the program at one time, that makes it very difficult because they tend to bring other guys down with them. Leadership is very important. You’d better bring in the right kind of kids with the right backgrounds and the right makeup.

You’ve got to do your homework, but we live in an era in recruiting that's not conducive to that, which is a big challenge. We try to do the best we can when it comes to talking to people in that player's inner circle to get as much information as we can about makeup and character, because that's a big, big deal.

IP: What are the physical tools that you are trying to identify on the recruiting trail?

ML: In a general sense, we look for skills over position, that's the starting point. We look for guys that can catch and throw, we look for functional speed on the field, bat speed, barrel accuracy. On the mound, we like athletic movers that can repeat their delivery and pound strikes. We like adaptability – any time we can recruit a player that can play multiple positions, that's a big bonus. So, if we can recruit a position player that has the skillset to play two to three different spots on the field, that has bat speed and barrel awareness and is athletic, we feel like we have a chance to develop that player.

IP: You've done a great job developing power hitters in your programs. How do you develop power offensively?

ML: We recruit it. When you bring players into the program that have those tools, that’s a liberating thing. There's a lot of freedom that a player feels in our program. And I'm a hitting guy, so purely on the hitting side, we embrace power, we always have. Sometimes coaches want to control a hitter that has power, “you need to tone it down and control the barrel, hit the ball the other way, bunt and move runners.” Our ego part of the coaching side can take over and we try to control a guy that has power and tame it. I don't. If he's got power, I want him to hit for power. If he doesn't, now let's hit line drives, steal bases, move runners.

I think we've had a lot of success with the power bats just because we let power hitters be power hitters. If they swing and miss, they swing and miss. So be it. Let's play to your strength. The only thing that I do is I try to maximize what a player does best.

IP: What was harder, the transition from volunteer to recruiting coordinator or the transition from recruiting coordinator to a 31-year old Division I head coach?

ML: The transition from recruiting coordinator to head coach was more of a challenging transition than going from volunteer to recruiting coordinator for me. I had five years as a volunteer at South Carolina where I was in the office with Jim Toman, who was our recruiting coordinator. Mark Calvi was the pitching coach. I got a chance to be in the office with those guys every day and learn from them about recruiting. I went on the campus visits, I got to hear Mark and Jim talk to players, what they would sell, what types of things they looked for. I felt like I had a pretty good base when it came to getting out on the road and recruiting.

I don't think anything can prepare you to be a head coach until you're a head coach. I don't think you really realize just how much you don't know until you get about five years in, and then ten years in. I think “work smarter not harder” is a misnomer, especially in the coaching profession. You learn how to work smart because you had to work hard first, you had to work really hard until you started to figure it out a little bit more. You have to make a ton of mistakes. And that’s what helped me so much. Any time somebody hires you, if they're a good manager or a good boss, they're going to tell you to make a lot of mistakes. Just work hard and make a lot of mistakes because that's how you learn and develop. If you're scared to make mistakes as a young professional in whatever field it is, you're probably not going to be very successful at it.

I was very, very aggressive as a head coach early on in terms of recruiting, in terms of coaching, in terms of how I taught my players, how I wanted my players to play. I wasn't conservative and I wasn't patient. You learn as you get older to become more conservative and more patient because of how aggressive you are early on. That at least was my experience.

Another thing I started to realize was just how good the people that I worked for were. Most young coaches, when they work under somebody, they’re thinking ‘when I'm a head coach, I'm going to do it this way,’ but when you become a head coach the first thing you’re doing is calling your old boss and asking, ‘how exactly did you handle this?’

It's a humbling experience, and that piece is really important too. As aggressive as I was and as passionate as I was, I got humbled by a lot of the mistakes that I made.

IP: What has the experience of raising a family with four kids been like?

ML: The coaching life has been a tough one when it comes to trying to manage a family. I’ve got four girls, and my oldest was born when I was in college. I was 19. Talk about one thing that grounded me and really made me realize the importance of a college degree!

For seven of my first eight years as an assistant, we barely made ends meet, living check-to-check and doing lessons to make extra money. I taught school for four years to get benefits so I could coach. It was a really tough road early on. It just makes you appreciate things a little bit more. But now, my oldest daughter is a manager of a restaurant here in Clemson, I have two daughters that are students at Clemson that'll be seniors next year, and my youngest daughter is a sophomore in high school. It's cool. They come to all the games. They love baseball, they love being a part of this. My wife actually coaches the Rally Cats dance team at Clemson too.

IP: What’s your advice to young coaches who read your resume and say to themselves, “I want that?”

ML: Lean on the people that you have learned from, played under, coached under. Reach out to coaches that have more experience. Listen more than you talk. Ask questions, use your resources, read as much as you can, listen to podcasts, just be engaged. Be willing to do a lot, anything you can to help a program early on, because it'll make you appreciate things a lot more down the road. When you get that next opportunity as a paid assistant or as a head coach, you'll appreciate things a lot more.

And as my friend Clint Hurdle told our team at our banquet this year, there's two types of people in baseball, those that are humble and those that are about to be. This game is going to humble you. You're going to make mistakes, so work hard until you learn how to work smart.

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