It was just four years ago that the Virginia Tech baseball team was not only good enough to make the NCAA tournament but was deemed worthy enough to host an NCAA regional as well.
But the coach that steered the 2013 Hokies to those heights, Pete Hughes, left for Oklahoma after that season. Virginia Tech never had a winning season under his replacement, Patrick Mason, who was fired two weeks ago.
How can Virginia Tech, which is looking for Mason’s successor, regain the success it enjoyed in the Hughes era?
Hughes, who guided Tech to five winning seasons and two NCAA bids in his seven years at the school, said the expansion of English Field will help the next coach. The ballpark is undergoing an $18 million makeover that is expected to be completed in time for next season.
“[Improving] that stadium, you go from the bottom third in the ACC to right in the mix,” Hughes, who steered the Sooners to the Louisville Regional of this year’s NCAA tournament, said last weekend at a Louisville hotel. “Investment will bring recruits. With recruits will come wins, and then you have sustainability.”
It remains to be seen whether athletic director Whit Babcock will replace Mason with a proven head coach or hire an assistant from a successful program. By hiring an assistant, a school does not have to pay the buyout that is in an existing head coach’s contract.
“Some ADs are like, ‘Hey, let’s go get a high-end assistant. He knows the recruiting network. It’s going to be cheaper,’” Hughes said. “But … it’s a lot different being a head coach then an assistant, especially when you’re rebuilding a program. And I think you have to rebuild that place.
“You better know how to work with limited financial aid. You better know how to develop guys in cold weather. You better be able to project and develop.”
Hughes was the head coach at Boston College when the late Jim Weaver hired him to succeed the retiring Chuck Hartman at Virginia Tech after the 2006 season. The Hokies had won just four ACC games in Hartman’s final season.
Hughes was 222-174 in his seven years with the Hokies. But he said it was not easy to lure recruits.
“We never beat North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt or UVa on one guy in recruiting,” he said. “We usually identified [the recruit] first and offered more [scholarship money] and still got beat by those people. … The recruiting battles hurt me a lot worse than the ones that we lost on the field at Virginia Tech because you invest so much time with these kids and … they’re going to go to Carolina at a Christmas camp and take a quarter of the scholarship we’ve offered.
“Where we were in the landscape is what wore me out because you get … the feel of Virginia Tech for a weekend, these kids are [saying], ‘I love this place.’ And once they got out and saw some of the [rivals’] facilities and the resources, then we would end up losing them.”
Hughes had to adopt a different recruiting approach at Virginia Tech.
“We were on an airplane every weekend — New England, California,” Hughes said. “You’ve got to leave the region or you have to take the guys that are projectable guys that those [rivals] weren’t going on because they weren’t ready-made.”
Hughes pointed to current Oakland A’s infielder Chad Pinder as one of those “projectable” recruits he found in the commonwealth. Pinder committed to Tech after his sophomore year at Poqouson High School, accepting the first scholarship offer to come his way. As a junior in 2013, he helped the Hokies make the NCAAs.
“We were the ‘Project, develop, get really good in three years [program],’” Hughes said of Tech. “It was wired to be good every three years.”
Tech had losing records in Hughes’ first two seasons. Then-football coach Frank Beamer left Hughes encouraging voicemails in the 2008 season.
“He rattles off this … really bad, losing record and he said, ‘You know what those numbers are? That was my record my first four years here, and it was terrible. So stay with the process,’” Hughes said.
In the wake of the 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus, the New York Yankees played the Hokies in a 2008 exhibition game at English Field. In preparation for the Yankees’ visit, Virginia Tech spent about $420,000 to build permanent, amphitheater-style terrace seats into the hill on the left-field line.
“The terraces don’t get built if the Yankees don’t come to town,” Hughes said. “Those terraces were so unique in college baseball. They’re all over the place now.”
After steering Tech to a winning season in 2009, Hughes interviewed for the University of Washington job.
“Jim and Traci Weaver watched our kids a good portion of the time I was interviewing at Washington,” Hughes said. “That’s why I wasn’t in a rush to leave that guy. And I knew those [Tech] guys were going to be really good in 2010.”
In the fall of 2009, the Hokies began using a $1.4 million indoor hitting facility. In 2010, the Hokies made the NCAAs for the first time in 10 years.
Before the 2012 season, Tech spent $1 million to install artificial turf at English Field.
“That turf was huge because if [there] wasn’t snow on the ground, we’re [practicing] outside,” Hughes said. “And that [hitting] building was unbelievable. It gave us a place for 24 hours for our guys to get better.”
In 2013, the Hokies hosted an NCAA regional for the first time in their history.
Hughes then exited Tech for Oklahoma and “a lot more resources.”
“That’s why I left,” Hughes said. “I loved that guy that I worked for. I raised my family in that community. But I was so motivated professionally — and I still am — to win a national championship that it was worth the move.”
Weaver promoted Mason from assistant to head coach to replace Hughes.
Reason for optimism
The next coach must have certain qualities to be a good fit at Tech, said Hughes.
“You better care just as much about that lacrosse team winning or women’s soccer winning,” Hughes said. “That’s what Virginia Tech is all about — it’s across-the-board department guy, university guy, family guy, and then you worry about your program. … If you don’t have those values in line, you’ll stick out and … you won’t last long.”
Last year, Tech announced plans to renovate English Field. The project will add 1,200 permanent seats; premium seat; a picnic area; a team clubhouse; a new video board; a new press box; more bathrooms; and a new entrance.
The renovation — as well as the charm of Blacksburg — will help Tech land a good coach, said Hughes.
“That’s a Norman Rockwell place to raise a family,” Hughes said. “But the building is the key. … You’re getting a better candidate because of that — they see investment and they want to win at the highest level in one of the highest leagues.
“I always said when I would drive into Blacksburg, ‘This place could be Clemson in baseball.’ It’s set up the same way — rural, college town. Build a nice facility … and you’re off and running.”
The expansion will aid Tech in recruiting, said Hughes.
“No one wants to go to a school where they don’t care as much as you do about your sport, so when you see facilities getting built, that’s the message it sends in recruiting,” Hughes said.
Hughes said that in college baseball these days, coaches recruit two years ahead. So the new Tech coach will inherit two Mason recruiting classes.
“Will they be good? At Virginia Tech, with that staff that’s leaving there, yeah,” he said. “Are they the best guys around? No, because of who they are in the landscape.”
But the ballpark makeover will eventually change Tech in that landscape, said Hughes — and raise the stakes for the next coach.
“Once you invest where they’re investing facilities-wise, every year, man, you’ve got to go that [NCAA] tournament — only because it’s going to change them in the recruiting market,” Hughes said. “Guys you’re recruiting, they [can now] … leave Virginia Tech and go to UVa and say, ‘We can compare UVa and Virginia Tech in facilities’ — or South Carolina or Vanderbilt or North Carolina.
“Once it’s apples and apples in the recruiting market, then the expectation levels need to change.”