Inside Pitch Magazine, September/October 2022

Cover Interview: Scott Berry, University of Southern Mississippi

Sounding the Horn at Southern Miss

by Adam Revelette

Inside Pitch Magazine Cover with Scott BerryThe 2022 Southern Miss Golden Eagles earned a Conference USA regular season title, hosted a regional and a super regional and notched 47 victories, tied for second most in school history. USM was ranked as high as No. 3 (Perfect Game), saw home crowds of more than 6,000, tallied a school-record 746 strikeouts and pounded 82 home runs. Within a school-record 15-game win streak, head coach Scott Berry surpassed both Corky Palmer (458) and Hill Denson (468) to become the school’s all-time wins leader. Southern Miss is the only program in Division I baseball that has notched six straight 40-win seasons. 

Inside Pitch: Tell me a little bit about the baseball tradition in the state of Mississippi. 
Scott Berry: We’re in a tremendous area, the Pine Belt, South Mississippi, honestly the whole state of Mississippi. And we’re a state that’s right at 3 million people, so it’s not like we’re a heavily populated state. We’re a rural state; we don’t have Major League Baseball and outside of Jackson, we really don’t have any big cities. If you ask me, we’re the No. 1 baseball state in the country. Look at total attendance at the end of the year from each state's biggest three baseball programs. Nobody comes close to the state of Mississippi with ourselves, Ole Miss, and [Mississippi] State. 

Editor’s note: Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss’ combined attendance was more than 778,000 in 2022. No other state’s top three schools had more than 450,000 in combined attendance (NCAA). 

IP: How about the tradition at Southern Miss in particular?   
SB: You have to look at the consistency of leadership. There have been four head coaches in the last 63 years, so there’s not a constant learning curve from year to year. And we get good young men in here that aren't distractions to our program off the field. So what you have is you have a situation where the philosophy seems to be successful, it goes from one class to the next, and the older players teach the younger players.  

IP: Do you spend time educating your current players about the teams who came before them?  
SB: That's one of the first things I talk about on the recruiting visit or during the first team meeting. There are very few teams in the country that have the tradition we have. Most programs hit one year and then you don’t hear from them for three, four, five years and they might hit again. But there are very few that are (serious) players at the end on a year in, year out basis. We are proud of that, and we’re proud of the schedule we play. It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding if you can grind through and give that committee a good reason to include you at the end.

IP: What are the foundational pieces of the Southern Miss philosophy?  
SB: It’s going to start with communication. We all come from different programs, from different levels where the Xs and Os may be the same, but the terminology is probably different, whether it’s setting a defense or a live ball in play. We’re definitely a “KISS” program—we try to keep it simple so we don’t get in over our heads. That's how we did it at Meridian [Community College] and that’s how we’ve done it here. We don’t have a lot of picks, we don’t have a lot of bunt defenses, we don’t have a lot of trick plays. We try not to beat ourselves, play the game and not the opponent, and understand how to win.

IP: You coached Cliff Lee at Meridian. What was that like?  
SB: Cliff had signed with a four-year school back when the draft-and-follow was still around. Some people had gotten to him about entertaining junior college so he could get to pro ball sooner. That’s when we got involved and brought him to Meridian. Incredible stuff for sure, but I think when you look back at Cliff, the game never sped up on him. He was always under control. You could never tell if he was having a good game or a bad game. 

He sprayed it around some, but once he got to pro ball his accuracy really, really improved. Velo was never a problem—he always had a good breaking ball. He did develop that cutter in pro ball, and then the ability to really command that strike zone [Lee had nearly a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 13-year MLB career]. He was a tremendous athlete as well, very athletic on the mound, but the thing that really set him apart was his mound presence...his demeanor. 

IP: Do you seek out “stuff over command” guys now or have you changed how you recruit pitchers?  
SB: At one point in time, the game was all about trying to find velo and then teaching control and command. Nowadays with technology and other resources, velocity's not the most important thing—not for us anyway. We feel like we can teach velocity, but one thing that’s really hard to teach and improve is the ability to command the zone. 

Our pitching coach Christian Ostrander does a tremendous job with developing that relationship, that trust with our players, and their belief in themselves. I think we've done a really good job of being able to bring all that into harmony.

IP: I've noticed that when you guys are in the field, you will go to the far end of the dugout, even behind it when you’re at home. What are you doing back there?  
SB: It gives me more time to get away from a ball off the bat! In all seriousness, I’m not a micromanager. I learned the value of that working with Corky Palmer. He hired me to do a job and stayed out of the way. Because of that I learned really quickly, I developed more accountability and  responsibility and I try to do that now with my own assistants. Of course there are times where I might give an opinion or suggestion. But I try to stay out of the way. Sometimes there’s too much information being tossed around at one time between coaches during a game. We just trust our coaches and players and we let them work and do their jobs. 

I never make a mound visit; I never make a pitching change. Christian does that now because he’s the one that's going to be calling the pitches and setting the plan, not me.

IP: How did you transition from playing to coaching?  
SB: I attended Crowder College in my hometown of Neosho, Missouri and that first fall, Coach Gary Roark—who was a  legendary coach in his own right—asked me, “You want to play this game for a long time?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, you need to learn to catch. You’re not fast enough to play in the outfield.” From that moment on, I started absorbing baseball in a different way. And it wasn't only from the catching position, it was the ability to work with and understand pitchers, how mechanics work and what to look for. I was also exposed to hitters’ weaknesses in a different way. And the catcher is kind of the quarterback of the team. All eyes are on you, you’re calling bunt defenses, you’re setting relays. For me, transitioning to that position was Baseball 101 at its finest. 

I was like any other young person growing up—I wanted to play for a long time— but an injury forced my playing days to an early end. I was able to move into the coaching sector with Keith Guttin at Southwest Missouri State [now known as Missouri State]. Eventually I got an opportunity to come to Meridian in 1990, when Corky Palmer took a chance on a Midwest guy and brought me south. I was at Meridian for 10 years, six as an assistant and then four as head coach. And then obviously I rejoined Coach Palmer as an assistant here at Southern Miss in 2000. 

IP: Can you speak about the impact Coach Palmer (who passed away in August 2022) had on you and so many others?  
SB: Coach Palmer was like a brother to me. We had a special relationship both on and off the field. He gave me the opportunity to work with him for a total of 15 years both at the JUCO and DI levels and our friendship lasted more than three decades. He taught me so much about the coaching profession and how to do it the right way. Much of my own success is a direct result of what I learned from him. He was a winner at all levels, but taking young players and helping them grow into productive men was his ultimate goal. He will be missed by all that knew him.

IP: With a personal background at the position, what do you look for in a catcher?  
SB: You’ve got to see them in person. You want to see how they act when they leave that home plate area. Backing up plays, how they go to and from the dugout, how they handle pitchers coming off the mound and throughout the game. A lot of those things that tell you about that individual and their leadership you’ll never see on video. Obviously you’re evaluating the receiving, blocking and throwing, that’s the easy part. But those other intangibles really make a player who he is. 

IP: Everybody’s dealing with the changing landscape with NIL and Portal. What's your opinion on how we move forward as coaches within this new environment?  
SB: Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff that is going on today is really challenging people’s ethics. It’s one of those adjustments that’s going to be ongoing, and I think we're in the early stages of what’s to come, but I really hope the ethical standards that have been in place in our game can somehow remain. But either way, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. There are a lot of voices in kids’ heads today that never existed when all of us coaches were playing. You have to be really cautious about where this is all going, and like we teach all the time, try to “slow the game down.” But things have changed overnight in our sport and continue to move really, really quickly.

IP: Tell me about the train horn beyond the outfield wall at Pete Taylor Park.   
SB: Love that horn. It has a lot of meaning to us actually. We stand at attention and we have the utmost respect for the National Anthem in our program. We don’t move, we don’t spit, we don’t scratch, we don’t do anything. We are absolutely as still as can be. And we don’t move until that horn at the end of the National Anthem is through blowing. That basically tells us that we’re ready to play. Obviously we hear it after home runs and it brings some extra atmosphere and energy to Pete Taylor Park. I think it’s a big part of what makes it special here at Southern Miss.

IP: Has it always been around?  
SB: That was something that they started maybe five years ago. A friend of mine named John Adams has a red Toyota pickup that’s out there. He used to bring it in at the beginning of the season and come get it after the season was over, but now it just stays out there. He never asked me—not that he had to—but it has become a part of the tradition here. When that thing sounds off after the anthem, I kind of glance over there at the other team, and most of the time their heads turn real quick, like “what in the world?” It’s just our way of saying “play ball!” 

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