Going nine innings with new Tech baseball coach John Szefc

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – On Thursday afternoon, Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock introduced John Szefc to Hokie Nation at a news conference held on the fourth floor at Lane Stadium.

A room filled with departmental staff members, donors and those from various media outlets got to meet the man tasked with rebuilding the Hokies’ baseball program. He inherits a rebuilding situation, as the Hokies struggled the past four seasons, making the ACC tournament just once in that span and never recording a winning season. This past spring, Tech went 23-32, with a 9-21 mark in ACC play.

Yet Szefc specializes in rebuilding situations. He took Marist College, a small school in New York, to four NCAA regionals, and as the head coach at Maryland for the past five seasons, he guided the Terrapins to a 180-122 record and three NCAA appearances.

Szefc received an array of questions at Thursday’s news conference, including his reasons for taking the Tech job, his coaching philosophy, the importance of a renovated English Field at Union Park, and recruiting in the state of Virginia. He took some time beforehand, though, to answer about his unique career path, which included working as an assistant after seven seasons as a head coach and his brief 10-month stint in the private sector.

So here it is – nine innings with new Virginia Tech baseball coach John Szefc:

Question No. 1 (first inning) – Why did you decide to get into coaching after your playing days at Drexel ended?

JS: “I finished up playing in the spring of 1989, and I had to finish up one semester of school to graduate. I was at Drexel at the time, and they’ve since dropped baseball. They don’t have it any more. They hired a new coach, and he didn’t have any assistant coaches. He called me and asked me if I was interested in helping because he knew I had to come back to school anyway and graduate. I said, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t have any other plans, so I did it.”

Question No. 2 (second inning) – Yet after four years as an assistant at Drexel, you decided to pursue a career in the private sector. What happened?

JS: “Yeah, four years later, I actually got out of coaching. I went to work in New York City because I thought I wanted to make some money, and I’m from New York – and that was absolutely miserable. It was actually valuable because it showed me what I didn’t want to do.

“I spent the first two years of my college career playing for Andy Baylock at UConn. When I realized I didn’t want to work in corporate America any more, he actually helped me get me get a grad assistant position at Sacred Heart, which was a Division II school at the time. I went back there and got another degree – I already had two degrees. I figured if I had to go back and be a high school teacher/coach, I’d do it. I was at Sacred Heart for one year, and during that year, the head job at Marist opened up.

“I wasn’t very qualified at the time. It was a part-time job, and a friend of mine who is a scout with the Pirates knew the AD there and set me up. I got the job, and I was there for seven years and went to four NCAA tournaments. That kick started the whole thing. The experience I had at Drexel helped, but the Marist years were really valuable. Just the fact that Tim Murray, who is still the AD there, gave me an opportunity really got my whole professional life going.”

Question No. 3 (third inning) – What did you do in New York City?

JS: “I worked for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation in their sports fundraising area. I had to write stories for their magazine, but it was all sports stuff. There were a lot of fundraisers in different parts of the country, so I had to be their contact person with the pro athlete in that town to set up an event. It sounded pretty cool at the onset, but it wasn’t for me. It was 10 valuable months because it showed me what it was like living in New York City, and it showed me what a lot of people do that I didn’t want to do.”

Question No. 4 (fourth inning) – You left Marist after seven years and moved to Louisiana (formerly Louisiana-Lafayette) as an assistant. That was a rather odd move. Why?

JS: “In 2000, we were in Louisiana-Lafayette’s regional. That was my second regional at Marist (of four). I got to know those guys pretty well, particularly Wade Simoneaux, who was the first assistant at the time. I stayed in touch with him, and two years later, Wade left Lafayette to be the head coach at Louisiana Tech. He called and asked me if I was interested in his job, which was the first assistant there.

“My wife and I didn’t have any kids at the time, and I felt like we had gotten Marist to be as successful as we probably could at the time. So we hopped in the car and went to Louisiana. It was six good years there. We had two children there, and I really learned a lot about a lot of things. It helped me get going on a national scale. I was able to recruit nationally and met a lot of people, more than I would have met had I stayed in Poughkeepsie, New York.”

Question No. 5 (fifth inning) – Then there were the Kansas years, as you spent two years at Kansas and two years at Kansas State. But a portion of that time was difficult, wasn’t it?

JS: “Ritch Price, the head coach at Kansas, is one of my good friends, and he’s helped me with coaching as much as anyone I’ve worked with or for. I attribute a lot of the success I’ve had to him. At Kansas, I coached third, and he ran the offensive part of the game – and he’s the head coach, so he can do what he wants. But Brad Hill, the coach at Kansas State, gave me the opportunity to not just coach third, but to run my own offense. If you get a chance to run your own offense in a conference like the Big 12, there is something to say for that. I looked at that to be very valuable.

“That was the toughest move I’ve ever made. The hardest part was leaving Ritch because he was so, so good to me. It bothered him, and being the professional that he is and after the dust settled in a few months … we’ve gotten back to being very good friends. He’s like a mentor to me. That was so hard. I’ve made moves that weren’t hard to make. That one was really hard.”

Question No. 6 (sixth inning) – Then you moved on and got the Maryland job. What did those 10 years as an assistant do for your career?

JS: “It gave me a lot of experience. It helped me to work for three different programs in baseball places. When I came to an ACC program at the time that ultimately became a Big Ten program … the experiences in recruiting and the relationships that I had built with coaches and other people along the way helped me as I went back to being a head coach.

“I went a little different route than what some other people go. As I look back at it, the 10 years really helped prepare me and Maryland really helped me, I think, for building this. I think it’s been a gradual, one-step-at-a-time thing, where one thing led to another.”

Question No. 7 (seventh inning) – What has the Maryland job taught you that will help you as you set about to rebuilding the Tech program?

JS: “When I came back to being a head coach, the one thing that the Maryland experience taught me was patience. Right about the time I went to Maryland was when you went from recruiting one class at a time to recruiting three. Everything sped up dramatically – social media, the whole perfect game process of having tournaments for freshmen in high school, all that. The high school/college baseball culture sped up for me around 2011-12. Everyone is making decision quickly. It’s a complete sprint, and you have to join in, but you can join in with two feet or one. You can’t get swept way, though.

“At Maryland, it taught me to participate in the sprint, but know when to pull back. For me, the most success college baseball players and college baseball families are the ones that have patience. They understand it’s a process. I got a lot of that from working there.”

Question No. 8 (eighth inning) – Who has been your mentor?

JS: “My father. I’ve bounced so many things off of him over the years – some baseball, some not. He’s been a real big part of helping me gradually move through the profession. Regardless of what sport you work in, it’s all about making good decisions, whether it’s player personnel, whether they’re financial, whether they’re personal – and along the way, you need someone to talk to that can kind of help you figure out what’s right. In a lot of cases, it wasn’t hit or run, or bunt. It was about setting up a staff, or how to handle a tough situation with a family or with a boss. He’s been a rock for me over the years.”

Question No. 9 (ninth inning) – Who was, or is, your favorite baseball player, and why?

JS: “When I was growing up and still playing, I loved watching Rickey Henderson [Major League Baseball all-time steals leader] and Lenny Dykstra [former Philadelphia Phillies great] play because that’s the kind of guy I wanted to be as a player. That’s the type of player I was.

“As a coach years later, I grew up a Yankees fan, but the guy I’d want to watch play more than anyone right now is Dustin Pedroia [Boston Red Sox All-Star] because not only is he very good, but he also plays the game very hard. He doesn’t care what he looks like. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s just an absolute day-to-day grinder. He’s not a 6-foot-4, 200-pound underwear model. He’s a short, stocky guy. He’s the quintessential baseball player. Any young baseball player, if you watch him day to day, that’s the guy who should breed success. Now, he’s incredibly talented, but that has nothing to do with why I like him.

“I just love those kinds of players, and I think those players have success. Just trying to instill that into those players at the college level … there are no frills in Dustin Pedroia’s life or game. I don’t even know him. I haven’t spoken to him. Just the way he is on the field, that’s the kind of guy that college coaches are trying to develop in their baseball programs.

“I also coached and recruited Jonathan Lucroy [catcher for the Texas Rangers], and he’s the same way. He’s a guy that went from being an undrafted high school player out of Florida to being a third-rounder three years later to being a Major League All-Star to being a guy that was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for all of the public service that he does. He’s a big supporter of the military. He’s incredibly talented, but he’s just as good of a person as he is a player. If I didn’t throw that in there, he’d be aggravated [laughing].”

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