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Building the Dam

Under the direction of Pat Casey, Oregon State became only the fifth school and the first in 10 years to repeat as national champions in 2006 and 2007. Furthermore, the Beavers became the northernmost school to win a title in the previous 44 years. Scholastic Coach & Athletic Director had a chance to chat with the eager Beaver following the 2008 season, one that saw the program not reach postseason play.

By Kevin Newell | null , null

COACH: You were born in McMinnville, OR in 1959 and were later a three-sport star at Newberg (OR) High School: Football, basketball, and baseball. What was is it like growing up in a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest? Talk about your athletic achievements as a youth?

CASEY: It was great growing up in a small town. You got to walk around town, go to the parks, and play baseball. We had none of the issues there are today. Our parents didn’t care if we were at the local college or the park all day, just as long as you got home for dinner. So that part of it was wonderful. And of course, I think that the friendships and relationships that you make are lifetime relationships. I was fortunate. Like I said, everyday we woke up it seemed like we were headed down to play ball at the college; either baseball, if the weather was good, or basketball, if it was raining, and football in the fall.

I lived a block and a half away from George Fox University, so if we were playing basketball we’d dribble our ball down the block. The nice thing about those little old colleges is that there is always a way to get in the gym even if it’s locked.

I played halfback and linebacker in football. In baseball I was a center fielder/pitcher. And in basketball I was kind of a swing forward. I was a pretty good athlete. I loved playing. I was fortunate to be in a position where I could play three sports back then. Our high school was in the largest classification for the state of Oregon at the time. We loved to compete and boy, we had some good clubs and good athletes. Almost everything I did growing up revolved around athletics.

COACH: Collegiately you played at Portland State, competing in both baseball and basketball. On the diamond you were named All-Conference first-team outfielder in 1979 and 1980, which eventually led to you being selected in the 10th round by the San Diego Padres in the 1980 Major League Baseball Draft. You later spent seven seasons in the minors, reaching as high as Class AAA. How did your college and professional playing experiences help prepare you for a life as a coach?

CASEY: I think you get a good understanding at that point in time of the ups and downs of athletics. I think your priorities get rearranged for you when you’re playing professional baseball because you know you see it from so many different angles. I certainly was able to experience a lot of highs and lows. I think you have to deal with a lot of adversity. I played for six or seven different managers. I played with lots and lots of other players. So I think there are a lot of things that you can benefit from. I think you learn the game; I think you learn how you want to play the game. That’s a tough gig, boy, when you’re playing in the Texas League and you play about 144 games in about 150 days.

One year I played with Kevin Powers, who’s the general manager for the Padres, Ozzie Guillen, the manager for the White Sox, and John Kruk. We were all in Belmont, TX together in AA ball. There were other people on that club, too: Bob Patterson, who pitched for a lot of years, and Mark Parent who caught for a lot of years. We had some talent on those clubs. I played for Bill Plummer who ended up being a big, big manager. I played for Bobby Valentine in an instructional league back when I first started and from whom I ended up learning a lot from. Doug Rader was also involved in that instructional league. I played for Charlie Manuel in Portland. You meet such a wide variety of people you get to play for and play with. I think those experiences are valuable.

You learn a lot of things: Either the way you want to do things or the way you shouldn’t do things. Certainly, you mature in a hurry or you don’t advance. Professional baseball and college baseball are in some ways completely on the opposite sides of the spectrum and, in other ways, the core of it is very similar: How do you get them to first and then to second and then how do you get them out on the other side of the white line? I think it was a very, very good experience for me to have the opportunity to spend that much time in professional baseball around that many people, both managers and players.

COACH: Prior to becoming Oregon State’s head coach in 1995 you spent seven seasons at George Fox University, a Division III NAIA school in nearby Newberg, where you compiled a 171-113-1 record, five Metro Valley Conference titles, and two Cascade Conference titles. How did those early years at a low-level program shape and prepare you?

CASEY: The one thing about that is when I first started coaching, I did everything. I was the grounds keeper and the equipment guy. I did the budgets. I handled my own recruiting. I was my own strength and conditioning coach. I created my own system through trial and era because I had never coached before. I left professional baseball and stepped right into being a head coach. I certainly learned from some of the things that I wanted to do differently. I learned things that created success. I learned from other people I had the opportunity to coach against.

The biggest teachers of all are your players. You come to the field everyday trying to learn something from them and their response to you or how they react to it. If you’re not winning you better start looking at what you’re doing. And there are times when the personnel isn’t quite where you want it to be, but a lot of the time it comes down to what you’re doing. It was a great experience. When I got there the baseball program was of very little significance to the university. I think we really did a lot more than just win on the baseball field; I think we helped create an identity there. It was a very nice spring board to get to the Division I level.

Pat Casey

 

COACH: One of the most amazing aspects of Oregon State’s ascension as a baseball power is that you have not done this in an average conference. Six Pac-10 members have combined for 26 national titles. Yet many of them have the warmer climes of California and Arizona as trump cards. How have you essentially turned the negatives of a rainy and damp climate, in a city, Corvallis, which is not easy to reach, into a positive?

CASEY: I think we just try and do the things we think we do well. We are not worried about what the other people have but what we need; what makes us strong. We took the things we think are advantages and made those things positive and not worry about what someone else has but what we can be.

COACH: What were the selling points as far as what you were trying to accomplish? Obviously, now, the winning speaks for itself.

CASEY: It was basically, “Hey, we are going to be successful. Come here and we are going to be successful here through dedication and hard work and by what we do. We are never going to back away from anything or anybody. We are playing in the best conference in America. And if you want to become a better player, a better student-athlete both on and off the field, then this is the place to be.” That was a tough sell for a while because people were playing in better climates. So it was a tough situation at first but we certainly feel we made the jump.

COACH: One of the main reasons for your program’s rise has much to do with your emphasis on player development. During your tenure, 21 players have been drafted by the major leagues, including Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox and Eddie Kunz of the New York Mets. What you do specifically to make each player reach their maximum potential?

CASEY: I think the one thing about development here is having a background in professional baseball. That really helps me to give them a good understanding of what they need to do to be successful at that level, both physically and mentally. I think the one thing that is overlooked a whole bunch is the mental part of development, the mental part of professional baseball. Whereas physically, I think we all know you have to get bigger, strong, and faster. I think when you do all those things and develop mentally then you have got a shot. I think the preparation of how we go about the mechanics of the game whether it be hitting, pitching, or fielding; we have a real professional ethic of how we go about it—teaching. What we teach is something that’s going to help them to use their athletic ability at the next level. I think a program has to be sound from the ground up in all aspects. I think the head coach has to be involved in what you’re strength guy is doing to get these guys stronger, what your speed guy is doing to get these guys faster, and what your nutritionist is doing to make sure they have a diet that allows them to be as strong and physically fit as they can be. This way they will provide a peak performance when its time for them to play.

COACH: Your recipe for success has a definitive and proven blueprint: Stressing leadership, team chemistry, a desire to succeed, and a loyalty to playing baseball. What is the foundation of that methodology? How have you and your staff been able to instill these traits in your players?

CASEY: Well I think first of all, it starts with your staff. I mean your work ethic is going to rub off on them: your loyalty, your dedication to what you’re doing. I think it’s hard to get a kid to perform for you if he doesn’t feel like you have the same work ethic as you are demanding of him or you’re making the same sacrifices. I think just us putting the emphasis on the athlete himself and making sure he knows the program is about him and not us. Together we can certainly succeed but without you giving us the dedication or us giving you the dedication, that’s difficult to accomplish. So I think it a staff that’s willing to work and put everything on the line for the player. I think it’s a staff that’s willing to make sacrifices above and beyond the call at all times. I just think it’s a combination of them having a huge trust in their coaching staff and also be willing to make the sacrifices and pay the price to be good.

COACH: You are also a stickler for accountability, having suspended two of your players this past season after some stray bullets from a rifle they fired at targets in their backyard struck a neighbor’s house and car. Some coaches are wary of disciplinary action fearing it may have an adverse effect. What is your approach? How can a coach use discipline to his or her advantage?

CASEY: Well, I just think there has to be, first of all, an understanding of the individual. I think you have one kid coming from one background and another kid coming from a completely different background. So I think you really, really have to understand it and know the kid first of all. Discipline has to be based around really knowing the circumstances. I always tell our guys that discipline can mean being patient at an airport, opening a door for a lady, or helping someone get across the street. There are a lot of forms of discipline: What are you doing when the coach isn’t around? What are you doing when times are tough?

Discipline has lots of aspects to it. One thing you have to do is try and be consistent with how you handle the disciplinary action. You also have to know and understand not only the circumstances but the player, as well. Like the situation this year with our kids shooting at a pop can in the back yard. There was no malicious intent whatsoever. But it was still foolish and still shouldn’t have happened. So you have to weigh the options. Some people want to treat them as hardened criminals and others view it as just a bunch of kids fooling around. Somewhere in between lies reality. You have to have a good relationship with your players so that they know and understand that there will be consequences if things take place that you don’t condone.

They have to have the freedom to grow up and make decisions on their own. You can’t follow them around at this level and I don’t think they expect you to. I think the more accountability they show you that they are responsible for, then the more freedom you give them.

COACH: What is the one fundamental or skill that today’s young players lack when they reach college baseball?

CASEY: Offensively, I would say bunting and sacrifice plays. Defensively, it’s relays and cutoffs – glove recognition.

COACH: Not only have you had a major influence on what has taken place on the field, you have been a driving force off it as well. You were instrumental in the renovations to Goss Field, the Beavers home stadium, helping spearhead a fund-raising campaign to pay for the $2.3 million project. You also had a hand in the ballpark’s design which, in 2002, received its first set of lights for night play. In 2007, a state-of-the-art scoreboard and a new FieldTurf surface were also installed. How important is it for a coach to be actively involved in all aspects of his program?

CASEY: For me, I think that’s the way I cut my teeth on the thing when I was at George Fox. We had to get dugouts torn down and new ones put up, we had to put up fences, we had to get grass in and water it ourselves. I was always part of that. Of course, like I said, it’s hard to sit around and complain about not having something if you are not willing to do something about it.  I always felt that here, if I wanted a new facility or a facility to be renovated, then I had to be a part of that. And it just so happened that back in 1997 or 1998, when we started the first project, we didn’t really have a lot of help from the university so we went out and did it on our own. We started meeting people and talking to people about how important it is to have a facility where someone comes here and says that’s somewhere they want to play. Now, we have almost a 1,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets. We have had to increase that stadium in size twice now. We are finishing a $7 million addition to the stadium.

I know there are some places fortunate enough where they are able to have those facilities built for them or they have a merger with another club or a pro-club or something like that. We don’t have that sort of flexibility. At the end of the day, when you’re all done, you feel pretty good about the work you put in. You feel a lot more ownership than if you didn’t have to go out and work for the dollar. So there is some rewarding part to that, too.

COACH: The coaching carousel is very common in college sports, with many high-profile coaches going from one opportunity to the next, be it better resources, a bigger paycheck, or both. However, to date you have resisted that temptation.  Over the years you have been rumored to have been lured by Auburn and South Carolina, which you have steadfastly denied. You have gone on the record to say that the only job you ever looked into was Notre Dame, when the Fighting Irish were pining for you in 2006. In fact, you were quoted in a story written by Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune as saying, “I’m not trying to gain leverage for my job here. I am well-paid and I love coaching at Oregon State. We’ve got a good thing going here.” Now, there are rumblings that the U. of Oregon, the only member of the PAC-10 without baseball program, is going to begin one, financed by all of that Phil Knight-backed Nike money. What has kept you in Corvallis?

CASEY: Well, it’s my family. Family here is something that—it’s just an unbelievable place to raise a family. It’s a college town. It’s close to where the rest of my family lives, other than my children and my wife; my brothers and sisters. I built a nice relationship with a lot of people here. I have built a nice relationship with people who are Oregon boosters. It’s the whole quality of life thing. I am fortunate and blessed to have the job that I have. It doesn’t mean you would never take another job, but it certainly means that your decision process would not be based upon anything other than it’s the right thing for you. So far that right situation hasn’t there been for me.

Usually, when I sit down and look at situations and look at things, the first thing I think about is how it is going to have an impact on my family. They are a priority to me; obviously much more important than my job or coaching. The other thing I feel comfortable with, too, is that coaching is a passion for me; it’s not a job. Therefore you put your heart and soul into it all the time and you don’t feel like you have to coach until you can’t walk anymore to say that you had success or to enjoy the things you had.

There are lots of things in life that I am looking forward to and I certainly enjoy living where I’m living. It’s certainly a pleasure to be part of our Beaver Nation, as we call it. I think there are a lot of great jobs out there. But like I said, right now the most important thing is where my family comes into play and how it affects them.

COACH: What is your take on the state of college baseball? Obviously the College World Series has become a special event and there are several rising programs, i.e., Louisville, Cal-Irvine, Coastal Carolina, and Missouri, in addition to the traditional powerhouses.

CASEY: I think it just continues to get better and better. I think the players continue to get better; the programs continue to get better. Then there’s the College World Series television coverage we have had and the work that is done to make it such a special event. When you flip that on and sit there and watch, it’s amazing. When you go back there and stand there and see it, you are blown away.

I had a booster who had never seen a college baseball game before tell me that if we got to the championship game he would fly his own jet there to see it. And, of course, he did. After the game, he saw us play the second game against North Carolina, when we were down 5-0 and won. He said, “I have been to the Kentucky Derby, I have been to the Super Bowl, I have been to the Indianapolis 500, and I’ve been to almost every major sporting event. But this is the greatest sporting event I have ever seen.”

That was only one baseball game. It is a fabulous atmosphere. Coaches are getting paid a lot more money to do this right now. There are a lot more equipment contracts, a lot more things going on to help accommodate the player. I think college baseball just continues to move forward at a speed that not many other sports are.

COACH: What is your take on this whole uprising about aluminum bats? Do you ever foresee college baseball going wooden?

CASEY: I don’t know the answer to that. I do know the bat companies, it seems to me, have worked hard to meet some specs that the NCAA wants as far as exit velocity so they downgraded the bat, tried to get it to react as close as they can to the wood. There is obviously some advantage to having bats that don’t break or crack or that you don’t have to replace on a regular basis. I think everyone involved is trying to do what’s best for college baseball, including the bat companies. I think it’s a tough situation trying to figure out what’s exactly right for the game.

COACH: What advice or tips can you provide coaches who are building programs from scratch or who are bent on turning around a moribund, perhaps hopeless, situation?

CASEY: We have all been there and done that. We have all paid our dues. Almost every head coach that’s had success, unless he has just been very, very fortunate, they all could tell you a story about making $500 and doing laundry and driving vans and getting their butt beat. I always tell coaches, if you haven’t had your butt beat in this game, then you’re not a good coach. Because if you are a good coach, you’re going get to keep coaching and if you get to keep coaching, then you are going to get beat. When I think back to myself coaching at George Fox and sitting there watching the College World Series, it was a dream to me to think about not only going back and watching the World Series but actually going there to coach and take a team there to win it.

All things are possible if you take vision and dreams and turn it into hard work. The core of everything we do to create success is hard work. I think there is a great lesson to be learned by some of the dues being paid by young baseball coaches because trust me, we all know what it’s like to be coaching someplace where you are not making any money and you’re traveling many, many miles and wearing many, many hats. As I said, we have all been there.

COACH: You were quoted as saying that to envision winning even one championship after 14 seasons was pretty difficult.  But from the outset your one prevailing thought was that Oregon State was going to be a lot better than people ever thought. What separates a pipe dream from reality?

CASEY: Hard work, hard work, and hard work. Getting the right players. Getting players that are willing to trust, believe, and make the sacrifices necessary. Getting some breaks, all those things combined. There are a lot of good recipes that have been created through just trial and error – throw in a little here, throw in a little there.

Then all of sudden something works and it’s spectacular. But the core, like I said, the core for me has been just absolute dedication to hard work from everybody on your club, everybody on your staff. A lot of times one person gets a lot of credit for an accumulation of what a lot of people do. That is certainly the case when it comes to team sports. You have to have the same effort from your nine-hole hitters that you get from your three- hole hitters and you got to have the same effort from your middle reliever as you do as your Friday starter. I think that hard work will always prevail in the end. It doesn’t always equate to national championships but it will gain you success.

 

About the Author

Kevin Newell is editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.

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