Coaching Management, 13.2, February 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1302/qakinnison.htm
When the Delta State University Statesmen won the schoolís first ever NCAA Division II baseball championship in 2004, victory had been a long time coming for the program and Head Coach Mike Kinnison. He had been to the College World Series twice as a player for DSU in the 1970s, twice more as an assistant coach for the team during the 1994 and 1996 seasons, and several times as a head coach. But he had never finished on top.
This yearís championship capped a 54-11 season in which the Statesmen collected their third South Central regional crown in four years, their second consecutive Gulf South Conference championship, and their eleventh consecutive GSC West Division title. Kinnison was honored as the 2004 ABCA/Rawlings NCAA Division II Coach of the Year and the South Central Region Coach of the Yearóan award heís won in three of the past four seasons. Since taking over as Delta Stateís head coach in 1997, his overall record of 370-96 (.791 winning pct.) is the best in the GSC. When heís not coaching, he is also a math instructor at the university.
In this interview, Kinnison talks about maintaining and improving a successful program, what he looks for in players, and the state of D-II baseball.
CM: In your third game at the 2004 College World Series, your team blew a five-run lead in the seventh inning and dropped into the losersí bracket. That could have been devastating, but you came back to win it all. How did you talk to your team after the loss?
Kinnison: I harbor no illusion that Iíve got magic words that can instantly motivate and restore a team. My approach all year long was just very realistic. I told them, ĎThe team that just took that game from us is the same team weíve got to go out and play tomorrow. If weíre going to get to the finals, weíve got to beat them, and every person on this club is individually responsible for getting ready to do that.í
Youíd been to the College World Series twice as a player, twice as an assistant, and several times as a head coach. How sweet was it to finally overcome that last hurdle?
For all coaches who win a national championship, itís an accomplishment that, after everything is over and you have some time to reflect, you feel great aboutóthat sense of having gotten the job done. But much more important for me was what we had accomplished for the program. I thought about the guys I played with as a student here, and how those teams fell short, and I thought about all the good ballclubs we had taken to the World Series in the last few years, and how committed those players were. So the greatest sense of satisfaction for me was knowing that we had done it and now all those people could share in the success. I called it a program win. That meant so much more to me than what I had done as a head coach.
What did you learn from your experiences playing for Delta State in the CWS?
All eight teams in the World Series are going to be very good, and itís the team that plays the best during that short period that wins. Iíve also learned, as Iíve looked at our team and the teams that have beaten us, how a mental edge and the ability to focus are so important when youíre at such a high level of competition. The confidence factor is tremendous.
How do you communicate those lessons to your teams today?
Itís an every day process. Of course, World Series competition is different from a non-conference mid-week game, but I tell them it shouldnít be that much different. Itís about learning to deal with pressure, performing under pressure, and getting in a comfort zone where youíre in control of what youíre doing. I look at our 2004 championship club, and the trait that stands out the most is a tremendous amount of poise. That came from the players having confidence in their abilities and knowing what they could do.
When you received the 2004 championship trophy, you went into the stands and handed it to David ďBooĒ Ferriss, who coached at DSU for 26 years. What do the players get out of having someone like that still involved with the program?
He played in the 1940s, with players like Williams and DiMaggio. Itís priceless to be able to connect with someone who can share the history of the game and help you appreciate it. When he played, when he pitched in the World Series, it wasnít all about the walk-off home run or grabbing individual headlines. It was a team game, and the spirit and the values of the game were great, and they played just because they loved baseball. Our players love hearing about that.
How do you approach recruiting, knowing that most top high school prospects overlook D-II programs?
I understand that as a D-II coach, Iím going to be told Ďnoí a lot more than Ďyes,í and Iíve learned not to let that dull my enthusiasm for recruiting. With so many pro baseball teams now doing extensive scouting, and D-I programs with the facilities and revenue that they have, itís very hard to get cream-of-the-crop freshmen, regardless of your teamís tradition and how much you win. So I look at ours as more of a developmental program. Some of our high school players do play early on, but most often itís a maturing process, a weaving into the mix, that pays dividends down the road. We need the right blendófilling immediate holes with talented junior college players, and balancing that with high school players who are with us for the long haul. I always want my senior class to have some guys who have been with the program for four or five years. Theyíre the ones who get to know me the best, know the values of the program the best, and emerge as the best leaders.
But I feel like NCAA competition and our college athletics atmosphere are real selling points for us over junior colleges. And if a young man turns us down to go to a junior college program, we respect that decision and keep the door open to re-recruit him two years later.
What is the most important attribute that you look for in recruits?
Weíre kidding ourselves as coaches if we donít say that talent is the most important thing. Weíre always after that guy who can do the things you canít teach. But I look deeper for that guy we call ďthe ballplayer.Ē Heís got a certain degree of athleticism, talent, and skills, but he also has that competitiveness, a passion for the game, and the ability to be coached. Iím not going to take a player on talent aloneóI want the complete makeup that will allow him to maximize that talent.
Sometimes I think the players we see today put limitations on themselves, or see themselves as having a ceiling. There are things they do well, but they donít have that burning desire to be the best. Thatís a real separation point for me in recruiting. If they donít have that, Iím not sure I can instill it while theyíre in my program.
Does being a math instructor ever influence your coaching?
Working in the classroom definitely helps me coach. To be a math teacher, you have to be very organized and have a plan every day. Youíve got a certain amount of time to teach and you donít want to waste any of it, and itís the same thing at practice. Before I go on the field, I know exactly what I want to do and how I want to get it done. Just like the practice field, the classroom will expose you very quickly if you arenít prepared.
What do you see as the biggest problems in D-II baseball right now?
We have only 32 teams in eight four-team regionals, and no teams are allowed to compete out-of-region. Division I has 64 teams, with some being sent to out-of-region in super regionals. In D-11, many players go unrewarded for quality seasons.
Another issue is scholarship limitations. Itís very hard to build a program with depth when you only have nine scholarships. Even with the maximum allotment, weíre recruiting every year with something like three scholarships and thatís very hard to do. I think we need to continue to open more doors to student-athletes that allow them to get non-athletic aid.
Iím also concerned about the restrictions on the time we can be with our athletes. We all feel, every year, like we start the season without being fully prepared, because we havenít had enough time to work. We have 24 practice days in the fall in D-II, along with some skill workouts, group workouts, and 4-on-1 workouts, but there isnít enough time to work with our whole team before the season starts.
And we would love to see the start date pushed back, but I feel like thereís very little chance of that in D-II. We donít have the revenue and the funding to keep our teams on campus beyond the school session, so weíre forced to keep an early February start date. Last year, some D-II programs even played their first game at the end of January. To me, thatís too early.
After winning a national championship, how do you prepare for next season?
Weíre not resting on any laurels. As soon as you win one, you immediately begin to hear about winning another. I donít want to get into a rut of saying we can do everything we did last year, because we donít have the same players. Itís a different ballclub, with different personalities and different talent, so Iím trying to take a fresh approach. But there are some things I do want to stay the same. The work ethic, the discipline, the other values of the program, those are things we never want to change.