Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2020

Coaches' Corner: Starting From Scratch 

By Adam Revelette

Frank Leoni Frank Leoni completed his seventh year as the Head Coach at Marymount University in 2020, where he has led the Saints to the postseason three times since building the program from scratch in 2012. Prior to Marymount, Leoni was a NCAA Div. I head coach for 20 seasons, and won more than 460 games at the College of William & Mary and the University of Rhode Island, where he led the Rams from nearly having their program cut altogether to multiple Atlantic 10 titles and the first NCAA Regional in school history.

Inside Pitch: What are the foundational/cultural priorities you’ve implemented at each of your coaching stops?

Frank Leoni: From the early years at URI to today, we’ve asked our teams to uphold four main priorities in order: Family, Academics, Baseball, and Social Life. We are determined to be the model for consistent high performance in the classroom and in the community by providing outstanding service to others. We’re also dedicated to building a developmental mindset on the field where we can establish a fundamental yet aggressive style of play. And yes, we can have it all!

We value accountability, commitment, courage, grit, and loyalty. Our team principles are Process before Results; Quality over Quantity, Everything with Intent, Be able and willing to Teach what you Learn; and Always Compete. These values and principles drive the bus, and they teach/guide us to put the welfare of the program before ourselves.

We revisit our values and principles every week, using our own examples of what we do well and where we can make improvements. In addition, we reinforce positive contributions to our team culture primarily through our Merit System, and the use of rewards based on Process Statistics tied directly to our cultural aspirations.

We pay close attention to building relationships, in any way we can. We can get creative. What I think I learned more than anything over 28 years of coaching, and it has really set in at Marymount, is that nurturing a positive team culture outweighs X’s and O’s by a landslide!

IP: How did the Marymount opportunity come about?

FL: When I left William & Mary, I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach again, so I had time to reflect, which is rare in this profession. I reviewed my career, good and bad, and I vowed that if I ever got another opportunity, I’d be a better mentor and leader. When the Marymount opportunity was brought to my attention, I was apprehensive – I had no Division III experience and didn’t know much about the school. But as time went on, I got excited about it, especially after hearing the vision of the former President and Athletic Director, and the chance to build a program from scratch at this wonderful University was something I couldn’t pass up. I can’t thank Dr. Matthew Shank, Debbie Warren and the search committee (including current AD, Jamie Reynolds) enough for giving me this opportunity.

IP: What’s it like building a program from scratch?

FL: When I arrived on campus in October 2012, there were no balls, no bats, no nets, no players, no field, nothing. So I got to buy a bunch of equipment and recruit players to build a program – I was like a kid in a candy store! I asked to erect indoor batting cages to create a visual and for a part-time assistant coach. George Fisher (now at Christopher Newport University) joined me, and off we went. I’ll forever be indebted to Coach Fisher and the kids that took a chance and believed in our vision to join a first-year program!

IP: How about the road to actually competing for championships?

FL: Building a sustainable culture was priority number one. We wanted to be competitive and improve throughout the first year. We could’ve played club level in year one, but we needed to play a full varsity schedule to prepare our players for the future. We embarked on our first season with 24 freshmen and six transfers, and our overall record was 8-26, but we did see improvement, and by season’s end, you could tell our team felt it could compete with anyone. By our third year we were at the top of the Capital Athletic Conference , and tied for second place in the regular season. We knew our program had ‘arrived’ when Salisbury – a perennial power – celebrated ecstatically after knocking us out of the conference tournament.

IP: The “7 Days of Service program” has received a good bit of attention, and rightfully so. How did you come up with that?

We were looking for ways to create a more structured approach to our service efforts, and to create enhanced leadership opportunities for our players, so we established that program in the Fall of 2019. We chose seven community service opportunities for our team, divided our roster into seven groups, and each group was responsible for organizing and conducting one service event. We let the players take over and learn how to lead themselves. They experience pressure, anxiety, adversity, and failure – all the things we want them to overcome on the field. I feel like our 7 Days of Service builds their capacity to lead, gives them confidence to overcome challenges, and provides experience with teamwork and team building. What we have found is that service to others has a direct correlation not only to leadership building, but to becoming a better teammate.

After each event is completed, we give each player the chance to answer questions in a survey that helps them reflect on their participation and leadership.

Although we call it the “7 Days of Service”, we often engage in more than seven projects. Our signature events have been with the American Heart Association and the Vs. Cancer Foundation. Each year, on the first Saturday in November, we assist the American Heart Association with their annual walk on the National Mall. Our guys truly look forward to that day spent from sunrise to mid-day between the Washington monument and the Capitol Building. We annually raise money to combat pediatric brain cancer, and to help fund programs at Children’s National  Hospital in D.C. It all culminates with a team head-shaving event just prior to Thanksgiving. We’ve raised over $60,000 in the past six years!

IP: What’s your recruiting pitch like?

FL: Our recruiting pitch focuses on three main areas:
1. How our baseball program will support each young man’s development
2. Academics and required internship programs
3. Our location and connection to the Washington, D.C. area and the benefits it provides
Besides what every collegiate program wants (athletes, solid pitching prospects, skilled baseball players), we want young men who are committed to academics, have outstanding character, are great teammates and are hungry for a challenge. We watch body language and other related actions closely to determine a player’s ability to handle adversity and whether they appear to be a good teammate. We try to do our homework by not only evaluating baseball ability, but getting a reliable character assessment.

IP: What’s the comparison from DI to DIII in terms of time/recruiting demands, expectations, level of play, etc.?

FL: I’ve learned an awful lot in my time at Marymount. First of all, the coaches at the DIII level can really coach. They work their tails off to do more with less! Coaching at Marymount has gotten me back to my roots at URI when we had to work harder and longer to compete. For example, the recruiting net that you cast at the DIII level can be much broader since we don’t have athletic scholarships or the NLI to secure prospects. Also, many DIII schools (especially private institutions) utilize athletic recruitment as a means to drive revenue. That translates into larger roster sizes and more recruiting.

IP: You have a pretty unique story when it comes to how you got into your coaching career…

FL: I was 23 and working at Ernst & Young when my former coach resigned after the 1992 season and told me I should put my name in for the head coaching job. I had zero coaching experience, but I was sure I could learn on the fly, and after I found out that URI baseball was potentially on the chopping block, I wanted to help. Due to the fact that no one else really wanted the job, I got it. They gave me $5,000 with no benefits, no money for assistant coaches and no scholarships. The day I signed my first contract, my supervisor asked me if I was really sure I wanted to leave a position in one of the most prestigious public accounting firms in the world to coach a collegiate program with little or no tradition and bleak prospects for survival (I was sure). My dad wasn’t thrilled when I told my parents I was moving back in!

IP: What was year one there like?

FL: We inherited a team that went 8-25-1 the year before. My only goal was to save the program from extinction. I wrote letters to politicians and university administration. I appeared on radio programs and did interviews with newspapers. We didn’t find out that the URI program would be retained until May of 1993. However, we would be moving forward with zero scholarships and minimal money for an assistant coach. We hadn’t recruited anyone for the 1994 season and lost three of our top returning players due to the uncertainty, so it was no surprise we only won 2 games that year. We would have struggled to beat many high school programs in 1994.

IP: And you’re in a NCAA Regional 11 years later? How?

We slowly built the foundation. I became full-time in 2001, never had a full time assistant, and scholarships maxed out at 2.1 in my final year, 2005. With the fewest number of scholarships in the Atlantic 10, we went 54-18 in conference play from 2003-05, winning two regular season championships, won our first-ever A10 championship and made a Regional appearance for the first time ever in 2005.

IP: Would you have changed anything if you could?

FL: I do wish I could go back and tell that naïve, young coach to slow down and take the time to nourish relationships. I was so busy, and had such a chip on my shoulder. In my opinion, URI baseball was disrespected by just about everyone, including some alumni, so I was determined to show our worth. I’ll always be grateful to Andy Baylock (legendary UConn head coach) and Bob Wells (legendary Frostburg State head coach and URI alumnus) for mentoring me the best they could. Also, thank you to every person that ever wore the URI uniform or supported us in any way while we rebuilt that program. I’m so proud of everyone for standing tall and helping to shape that program we all built together.

IP: So it’s freezing in Rhode Island in February and March…

FL: It does amaze me that we continue to practice and play college baseball in the winter. With an emphasis placed on the student-athlete experience, I think we’re doing a disservice to our players by playing in February and early March. Hopefully, we can find a way to start our season in the middle of March, and end the regular season at the end of May (Division III) or mid to late June (Division I). But until then, coaches faced with weather issues have to be creative with practices. I’d suggest keeping those practices shorter and as action packed as possible; quality over quantity should rule the day. We’ve used base running stations on the sides of the batting cages, long tossed off the gym walls, and practiced in a snow-plowed parking lot. There is no substitute for being outside, so whenever you can, try to find a way to get out for an hour or so, even on the coldest days. On those days, it’s critical to have a solid plan to get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.

IP: How did you manage to raise four children and handle the demands of being a college baseball coach?

FL: I think it would be best to defer to my beautiful wife, Michelle, for this one. She deserves all the credit. It’s so important to have the love and support of your spouse in this profession. Coaches spend countless hours away from our families. Although I still make myself available to baseball needs, I think I do a much better job giving my attention to my family when we’re together or when they need me. It’s “being where your feet are” at its finest!

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