When COVID-19 halted the 2020 season, Scott Stricklin’s Georgia Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 2 nationally. Georgia is one of two programs to have earned a national seed in 2018 and 2019. Stricklin – who led his alma mater Kent State to five NCAA Regionals and the 2012 College World Series – is now in his seventh season as the Bulldogs’ skipper, and has seen his ‘Five-Year Plan’ come to life.
Stricklin had 30 players drafted and won 350 games in nine years at Kent State, securing five Mid-American Conference regular season titles and five MAC Tournament titles. Before Kent State, Stricklin spent three seasons as an assistant and recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech. He began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Tech in 1998 before moving on to Vanderbilt from 2000-01. In 2011, he served as an assistant coach for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
As a player, Stricklin was a two-time All-Mid-American Conference catcher and a 1993 draft pick of the Minnesota Twins. He reached the Triple-A level in five seasons of professional baseball. He graduated from Kent State in 1995, and he and his wife Cheri have three children: daughters Sydney and Keaton, and a son, Cale.
Stricklin was one of the featured speakers for the 2021 Virtual ABCA Convention. His presentation is entitled Catching Skills & Drills.
Inside Pitch: Has there been any silver lining to the cloud that COVID-19 has created in terms of you and your team?
One of the big things are all the Zoom meetings and individual conversations that you have with players, as opposed to just doing things as a team. And that can be a good thing when you're developing one-on-one relationships, but it's tough, it's a challenge. But it's an opportunity spend more time just talking, checking in on our guys and their families to see how they're doing.
IP: You've got a presence on Twitter, as most college coaches do. Is that a conscious effort you have to make to keep putting content out there to maintain your program’s brand?
I think so, now more than ever. That's how recruiting has been done this summer, through social media and your influence on different avenues to communicate with players. I'm pretty active with that and want to stay engaged with these young players because that's what they spend time on – that’s what they do. I've got teenagers myself and they're on their phones an awful lot.
IP: What was the adjustment like for you when you first went from assistant to head coach?
The biggest lesson I learned is to surround yourself with good people that you trust and let them do their job. I think most head coaches will admit that when they get their first head job, they try to do everything. Scott Daeley’s been with me now for 17 years, and he was our hitting coach at Kent State. But that first year I didn’t let him do his job because I tried to do everything – and he’s as good as they come. I was guilty of stepping on toes, so I had to learn to trust the people around me.
IP: Your first few years at Georgia gave you some opportunities to evaluate your system. How have you gone about that?
There have certainly been many sleepless nights where I’m thinking, “I've got to change what I'm doing,” but ultimately, I’ve stayed pretty stubborn. Our former basketball coach Mark Fox told me when things were tough, “Stick with what got you here. If you believe in what you're doing, then stick with it. Because if you try to change everything, then you're going to get outside of your comfort zone. If you believe in what you're doing, then stick with it.” We stuck with it and stayed consistent. That's what we did at Kent State, and that's what we've done here. Our practices, for example, really haven't changed much. They are really challenging. They're up-tempo with lots of energy and movement.
IP: How exactly do you make practice up-tempo and competitive?
It’s constant movement, no one's ever standing for very long. So if we're practicing for two-and-a-half hours, it's going to fly by because you're not just standing there. In our batting practices, guys are in different positions and stations, moving around, and we are trying to do as many live things as possible. We’ll have all the infielders take ground balls live off the bat, so we are throwing BP and we’re playing every ball live, just like in a game, which you don’t always do during batting practice. You’re not always throwing out live runners going 100% down the baseline. So we try to do as many game-like drills like that as we possibly can. When we go from drill to drill, we get there in a hurry and once we get set, we're starting. I want our players to be a little bit out of breath; I want our freshmen's heads to be spinning in that near-panic mode when we start off, because you learn to adapt and adjust more quickly when you're pushed to do it. When you get in this league and you play on the road in front often thousand people, it's going to be challenging, it's going to be uncomfortable. So that's what we try to do in practice, make them uncomfortable. And the more you get uncomfortable, the more you learn to get used to playing with that feeling.
IP: Can you go into some detail on how you laid out your plan to get Georgia baseball back amongst college baseball’s blue bloods?
When I was hired, Greg McGarity, the athletic director, asked me how I wanted to build the program. I told him I wanted to do it with high school players, primarily from Georgia. The issue, of course, is that kids are committing so early, so when we got the job, a lot of those kids were committed. So I just let [Greg] know it was going to take some time. I told him, “We're going to be pretty talented in year four, and we're going to be really good in year five.” And he took that to heart, and he understood it was going to take some time, and he gave us that time to do it. It was year four when our first recruiting class that we started from scratch showed up at campus, and that was a great class. That was Cam Shepherd, Aaron Schunk, Tony Locey, Zach Kristofak, Tucker Bradley, just a really good class…but it took time. And in year five, that's when we kind of turned the corner.
IP: What is your recruiting philosophy?
We've always gone after the high school kids. I love watching freshmen turn into sophomores, juniors, and seniors. I love watching them grow up. That doesn’t mean we're opposed to having junior college players, but when you go that route, you have to get it right every year and if you do, you have to replace it every year. Plus if a player is good enough as a junior college player to come in and play right away at an SEC school then he's going to get drafted, and he's most likely going to move on. Our 2012 World Series team at Kent State had one junior college player on our team, the rest were high school players from mostly Ohio or Western Pennsylvania.
IP: So you have always recruited local high school players?
It comes down to economics, really. We've got 11.7 scholarships, and an in-state scholarship goes along a lot further than an out-of state. So we mainly stay in Georgia, because our 11.7 goes further when we’re spending it on in-state tuition. So that's number one. And number two, there are a lot of good players in Georgia and a lot of them want to play here and stay close to home. We're very lucky to have a great talent base, but the in-state tuition, the Hope Scholarship and the Zell Miller scholarships within the state of Georgia are really helpful, and we just don't have that kind of help with out-of-state players.
IP: Do you budget your 11.7 based on position need or class size?
You start on the mound. I think you win championships on the mound and up the middle: shortstop, your center fielder, catcher. You’ve got to be very strong up the middle. But I have never budgeted a set number to a certain position. I will say that I'll take as many shortstops as I can take because those kids can play a lot of different positions. I think a lot of teams are built that way – most right-handed throwers who are good players have played shortstop at some point, because that’s usually where the best player goes. If your best athlete/right-handed arm is not on the mound, he’s at shortstop.
IP: How do you develop freshmen in the Southeastern Conference?
Well first off, it's nice to play freshmen, but it's nice to not have to play freshmen. We'll play freshmen every year because we're going to have talented kids that come in here, but it's nice to have enough experience and depth to where you don't have to really rely on them. After that 2016 recruiting class, there were times in the spring of 2017 that we had seven freshmen on the field at one time. It was very unforgiving and it was a challenge, but when you look at that year, we really caught fire at the end, and that was because those kids got to play, which allowed them to develop. The only way you develop is by playing. You have to get on the field, make mistakes and learn from them. And those guys did that. It's tough in this league, it’s tough in any league as a freshman.
IP: How are you able to discern what is most important to you and your program as you move through all of the technology that’s available out there?
What we look at first is how we can develop our players in the best way possible. Players are smarter now and they're tech-savvy, and they are coming in with an understanding. If you watch MLB Network, they're talking about spin rate, exit velocities, all this technology. So I think number one, it's being able to use the technology to help develop your players. And kids want to know. When we talk to kids and parents on the phone, it’s...“Hey, what are you going to do to help me get better?” And when you have great coaches like Sean Kenny and Scott Daeley, you know they can use these tools to help our players when they're in the cages or the bullpen – not just when they're on the game mound or at bat during a game. If you can get them better in their practice sessions, that's a big deal.
IP: Is there anything that has stood out to you regarding those metrics or the new tech?
Coach Daeley uses Blast Motion technology with our hitters and he can figure out how balls jump off bats a little bit better, so exit velocity yes, but swing efficiency to the ball as well. [Scott] can show that path, how to shorten up the swing and maximize exit velocity. On the pitching side, vertical break and horizontal break is something that blows me away. As a player, you always talked about how a ball had a lot of ‘life’ on it and how “It’s only 90 and I don’t know why I can’t catch up to it.” Now you can fill in that blank, you can attach numbers to that. We used to always tell pitchers, “Hey, keep the ball down.” Well, now we know there are some pitchers that aren't going to be as effective if they keep it down, they need to pitch to the top of the zone, because that’s what the numbers say to do, and it works. That’s pretty amazing to me.
IP: Talk a little more about your assistant coaches.
Well like I said, Scott Daeley and Sean Kenny are as good as they come. They're really smart, hard working, loyal and good people. And you put that on top of the fact that they communicate really well with our players and our recruits, and they represent themselves the right way. They're family guys. That's what you're looking for as a head coach; you want to find guys with those qualities – guys you just want to be around. They want to get better, they want to develop, and they don't think they're the smartest guys in the room, even though most of the time they are. That's fun, being around guys that are never satisfied – that want to get better.
IP: So what’s your advice to young coaches looking to advance their careers?
You have to be willing to outwork people. That was always my goal, outwork everybody. And that's hard because there are a lot of guys that work really hard, but I think that’s the mindset you want to have as a young coach. What are you willing to do when there's no guarantee that you're ever going to get another promotion, or a head coaching job? There are never any guarantees, but the only way it happens is if you’re putting in the work regardless.
IP: That applies to players, too.
Absolutely. You can hit, you can throw, you can run, you can lift all day long, and there's really no guarantee that it's going to pay off. You hope it does, and the only way you're going to get to the next level is if you do all those things. But you may already be putting in that work and, when you don’t get immediate results, it's really easy to move on to the next thing. The highly successful people understand that, and just keep working every single day, doing things the right way.
IP: What’s something you’ve learned along the way about raising a family while living a ‘coach’s life’?
I’ve learned to say, “Yes, ma'am” a lot! You've got to have an understanding spouse, someone who is on that path with you, that understands what you want and what your goals are. My wife's been with me every step of the way, and there's no way that I'm here without her support. We’re also very proud parents because of how our kids have turned out. I know I'm biased, but man – I'm proud of my kids, and my wife has been very instrumental in that. As a dad who’s gone a lot, you try as best you can to separate your life from your job, and that's a challenge for all coaches. It’s hard not to bring a loss home with you, it’s nearly impossible. When you lose one in the bottom of the ninth and it's heartbreaking, and it was on TV and everybody saw it. But we just have to realize that when we walk through the door, our wife, our kids, our dogs, they don't care if we won or lost, they're just glad we're home. Do the best you can to understand that the people around you are there because they love you, not your job.