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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Rising assistants make their mark

Kendall Rogers        

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Florida State needed to make a bold statement last year.

When the Seminoles parted ways with long-time pitching coach Jamey Shouppe, it was obvious that two things were needed: Someone with a good track record with pitchers, and, that would fit well in the FSU culture.

Mike Bell was the guy. Bell spent four seasons at Oklahoma, establishing himself as one of the nation's elite pitching coaches by consistently building good pitching staffs. It also helped that he had plenty of ties to the Seminoles.

Bell worked his magic in just his first season with the Seminoles. The 'Noles finished 2012 with a good earned-run average, and had two of the nation's elite freshman pitchers in Mike Compton and Brandon Leibrandt, among others. He also built a pitching staff that helped lead the 'Noles back to Omaha with an NCAA Super Regional win over Stanford.

Bell's stock as an assistant coach in college baseball continues to rise, but he's certainly not alone as we take an inside look at some of the nation's sizzling assistants.

Mike Bell, Florida State (Perfect Game's top assistant for 2012)

The Seminoles knew they needed an excellent coach when they parted ways with long-time pitching coach and recruiter Jamey Shouppe last summer. They certainly accomplished that goal with the addition of Bell. Bell spent the previous four seasons before joining FSU at Oklahoma, where he consistently assembled solid pitching staffs. Well, Bell continued that trend last season. Two seasons ago, the Seminoles tallied a 3.81 team earned-run average. Last season, the 'Noles tallied a 3.47 ERA. Though not drastically different on the surface, the Seminoles absolutely improved as the season progressed with big-time freshman arms such as Mike Compton and Brandon Leibrandt rising to the occasion. Bell is moving up the charts when it comes to college baseball's elite assistants.

Mike Birkbeck, Kent State

Birkbeck's baseball world almost change in a big way this offseason when there was talk that Flashes head coach Scott Stricklin might take the head coaching position at Michigan. However, Stricklin stayed put at Kent after signing a new deal worth $300,000 annually. As a result, Birkbeck, who most Kent insiders believed would take over for Stricklin, didn't find his position with the Flashes change. He's of course fine with that for good reason. Birkbeck has spent the last 17 seasons with the Flashes, consistently tutoring productive pitching staffs. He again shined last season as the Flashes reached the College World Series with a talented crop of arms. Birkbeck's staff tallied a 3.59 ERA and was led by a trio of excellent starting pitchers in David Starn, Ryan Bores and Tyler Skulina. Skulina is expected to be one of the nation's premier arms in 2013.

T.J. Bruce, UCLA

Talk to most coaches on the West Coast and they'll gush about Bruce. Bruce, who only a few years ago was a standout at Long Beach State, has been a great addition for the Bruins. The Bruins were left in a tough spot a couple of seasons ago when Steve Pearse took the head coaching job at Reedley College and top-notch assistant Rick Vanderhook took over the Cal State Fullerton program. Bruce, though, has been a godsend for Savage's coaching staff. In addition to coaching infielders and some offense, Bruce, Pac-12 and Big West coaches say, "is an animal" on the recruiting trail, scurrying California for some of the nation's elite talent, as well as some of the Golden State's hidden gems. Bruce continues to develop as an assistant, but certainly is on the fast track.

Butch Thompson, Mississippi State

Few assistants in college baseball have proven as much as Thompson over the past few seasons. Not only has Thompson been consistent, it's also obvious that he's head coach-material after he left Auburn a few seasons ago to take the head coaching job at High Point. Thompson quickly resigned to join head coach John Cohen at Mississippi State. The point is crystal clear, though, and it's that he's ready to lead a program again. Thompson recruits at an extremely high level, but he's even more known as an excellent pitching staff. For instance, in 2012, the Bulldogs had one of the nation's elite pitching staffs with first-round pick and righthanded pitcher Chris Stratton leading the way. As a whole, the staff finished the year with a 2.58 ERA. Guess what? The Bulldogs once again expect to have an excellent staff in 2013.

Scott Forbes, North Carolina

With former North Carolina assistant and South Carolina assistant Chad Holbrook getting promoted to head coach of the Gamecocks, there's probably not a more heralded assistant coach in college baseball right now than Forbes. Forbes had done a terrific job in head coach Mike Fox's program over the past seven seasons. He has helped build (along with Scott Jackson) elite recruiting classes year after year, while also consistently assembling some of the nation's best pitching staffs. Just last season, Forbes once again put together an excellent staff, which finished the season with an outstanding 2.66 ERA. Winthrop and others have looked at Forbes for head coaching opportunities in the past, but he has so far stayed put and committed to the Tar Heels. It won't be much longer before a major program takes a chance on Forbes.

Cliff Godwin, Ole Miss

Speaking of fast-rising young assistant coaches, it doesn't get much better than Godwin. Godwin has learned under some outstanding coaches throughout his career, spending time as an assistant at Vanderbilt and LSU before spending three seasons as the associate head coach for Terry Rooney at UCF. Every step of the way, Godwin has left his imprint on each program through his outstanding recruiting ability. Known as a grinder on the recruiting trail, Godwin certainly is one of the best in the business, along with fellow Rebels assistant Carl Lafferty. In addition to recruiting, Godwin also handles hitting for the Rebels. Godwin is yet another talented young assistant who soon will be a head coach.

Chris Lemonis, Louisville

Louisville has ascended to new heights as a program since head coach Dan McDonnell and his coaching staff arrived. There are several reasons for that. McDonnell is an excellent coach, Roger Williams is a great pitching coach, and there are few recruiting coordinators/hitting coaches better than Lemonis. Lemonis has some strong coaching roots and has etched himself as one of college baseball's elite recruiters/evaluators over the past six seasons. Several programs, including Ohio State, have considered him for their head coaching vacancies. Lemonis, much like Forbes and Godwin, likely will be a head coach sooner rather than later. Besides his abilities on the field, Lemonis' charisma makes him an attractive candidate.

Scott Brown, Vanderbilt

As if anyone needed further validation on Brown's coaching abilities, the long-time St. John's assistant coach was tabbed as Tim Corbin's newest pitching coach at Vanderbilt -- replacing Derek Johnson -- a couple of months ago. Though Brown hasn't had the luxury of recruiting in a talent-rich area, he's considered a good recruiter and an even better pitching coach. Brown spent the past nine seasons with the Red Storm, where he consistently built outstanding pitching staffs. For instance, the Red Storm finished last season with a 3.89 ERA and had a pair of premier prospects in Kyle Hansen and Matt Carasiti, among other talented arms. Brown's increased visibility at Vandy should help him soon garner head coach consideration.

Matt Siegel, Arizona

It sure has been a magical past year for Siegel and the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona had the tough chore of replacing former assistant Mark Wasikowski, who took a position on George Horton's staff at Oregon. In response, they couldn't have made a better hire than Siegel. Prior to his stint with the Wildcats, Siegel spent three seasons at TCU, where he helped spark the Frogs' offense and was instrumental on the recruiting trail. His success continued with the Wildcats last season, putting together a lineup that finished the 2012 campaign with a .329 batting average. Additionally, he continues to be a mainstay on the recruiting trail. Siegel is a talented young coach to watch the next few seasons.

Mark Wasikowski, Oregon

Given the number of former George Horton assistants who have ended up head coaches, it's obvious that Wasikowski saw a golden opportunity when Andrew Checketts left UO to take the UC Santa Barbara head coaching gig. Wasikowski has coached under some fantastic coaches in his tenure, making stops at Pepperdine and Florida before spending 10 seasons under coach Andy Lopez at Arizona. Wasikowski is considered a solid recruiter and good hitting coach. Considering his reputation and resume, it wouldn't be surprising to see Wasikowski get a head coaching job in the next couple of years.

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