National Coach of the Year: John Savage, UCLA
UCLA head coach John Savage is part of an elite fraternity of college baseball head coaches.
Savage learned the tricks of the trade as an assistant coach for former USC head coach and now UC Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie. He has spent much of his coaching career admiring Gillespie, even drawing some tears in Omaha when someone asked about Gillespie’s impact on him, this after Savage had just completed the most exciting time of his life -- guiding the Bruins to the national title.
Gillespie guided the Trojans to the national title, with Savage aboard, in 1998 with a 49-17 overall record. The Bruins after beating Mississippi State in the College World Series to win the program’s first national title? An identical 49-17 overall record.
Savage wouldn’t have had it any other way. Just like his mentor.
Though the Bruins winning the national title came as a surprise to some with stalwarts such as LSU and North Carolina, among others, in the CWS field, this Bruins club really began to show signs of something special when the postseason began.
UCLA put together an impressive regular season campaign, going 21-9 in the Pac-12 Conference, but also finishing third in the league and three games back of league champion Oregon State, which also reached the College World Series.
Some believed in the Bruins, others felt like their offensive woes throughout the spring would finally come back to get them.
The Bruins couldn’t have been more dominant in the NCAA postseason, going 3-0 in the Los Angeles Regional, 2-0 in the Fullerton Super Regional against Cal State Fullerton. Most importantly, UCLA went 5-0 in Omaha to win the national title, using outstanding pitching and timely hitting to get the job done against Mississippi State and others.
Savage’s Bruins weren’t the flashiest group to win college baseball’s national title, but in every aspect, they showed the sure signs of being a greatly coached team. The Bruins were excellent defensively, strong mentally, and of course, the pitching staff, Savage’s forte, couldn’t have been better in Omaha.
The good news for the Bruins moving forward is that Savage appears to be there to stay. Following UCLA’s national title win over Mississippi State, Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero was quick to act and avoid any potential Savage overtures with USC, signing the elite coach to a lengthy contract extension, taking his tenure at UCLA through the 2025 season.
UCLA essentially gave Savage a lifetime contract to lead the program.
It was well deserved, too. He’s in elite company now.
Best of the rest coaching jobs ...
Tracy Smith, Indiana -- Smith was the runner-up for our National Coach of the Year award after doing a terrific job with the Hoosiers this past season. Smith, who just completed his eighth season at IU, guided the program to the NCAA postseason in 2009. And after reaching the Big Ten tournament title game in 2012, the Hoosiers entered the ’13 campaign with high hopes as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten title. Not only did IU win the regular season conference title, it also won the conference tournament to capture the automatic bid, while most importantly, reaching the College World Series for the first time in program history, becoming the first Big Ten team to accomplish the feat since Michigan in 1984. Indiana had a great campaign that ended with a 49-16 overall record. The crazy thing? IU could be even better in 2014.
Brian O’Connor, Virginia -- Speaking of impressive coaching jobs, how about O’Connor? The Cavaliers entered the season with plenty of important holes to fill around the diamond. But despite the uncertainty, the Cavaliers were still one of our ten teams to watch outside of the Perfect Game Preseason College Top 25. Well, it’s safe to say the Cavaliers far exceeded expectations. Virginia had one of the nation’s elite offensive lineups with a .312 batting average, while the pitching was solid with reliever Kyle Crockett, freshman lefty Brandon Waddell and others leading the charge. Virginia fell just short of reaching the College World Series, but still ended a campaign that began with uncertainty with a 50-12 overall record.
Brad Hill, Kansas State -- It was incredibly tough not to go with Hill with this award after what the Wildcats accomplished despite being picked to finish the season so low in the Big 12. The Wildcats entered the year with seemingly a lot of holes to fill, especially on the mound. KSU entered the campaign picked seventh in the Big 12, but actually ended the spring with a 45-19 overall record, Big 12 regular season title, and of course an NCAA Regional host. KSU fell just short of the program’s first CWS appearance in a tough series loss to Oregon State, but what a season it was for Hill’s club.
Mike Martin, Florida State -- The Seminoles are accustomed to being ranked inside the top 10 entering most campaigns. However, this season was supposed to be the exception to FSU’s dominance. In addition to some tough personnel losses, the ‘Noles also entered the year without right-handed pitcher Mike Compton (injury) and infielder Justin Gonzalez (hip). Without those two, it didn’t seem like FSU would be able to meet its goals. Instead, Mike Martin and his coaching staff did one of their most impressive jobs this past season, guiding FSU to an NCAA Super Regional appearance and an impressive 47-17 overall record.
Pete Hughes, Virginia Tech -- Though Pete Hughes is no longer in Blacksburg, Va. (Pat Mason is the new head coach), his legacy there ended in impressive fashion. The Hokies entered the season with high hopes. And though they were a little inconsistent at times until the midway point in the season, they finished the regular season strong, played well in the ACC tournament, and earned a very surprising, last-second NCAA Regional host site. It was a season to remember for Hughes and the Hokies, who went 40-22 overall.
Rick Vanderhook, Cal State Fullerton -- The Vanderhook effect is very noticeable at Cal State Fullerton right now. The Titans reached the NCAA Regional round in Vanderhook’s first campaign in Orange County. However, the program took a step forward last season with an impressive showing throughout the year, being the model of consistency for many in Southern California. The Titans didn’t lose a Big West series, were a national seed, and reached the NCAA Super Regional round before having their season ended by eventual national champion UCLA. The Titans finished the season with a 51-10 overall record, 23-4 mark in the Big West. Fullerton will enter the 2014 campaign with the two-headed monster of pitchers Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman leading the charge yet again. The program’s future is very bright under Vanderhook.
John Cohen, Mississippi State -- Cohen and the Bulldogs made plenty of history this past season. The Bulldogs entered the season with high expectations, ranked very high entering the year, and expected to reach the College World Series. However, after heralded right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff went down with an injury, and left-handed pitcher Jacob Lindgren struggled at times after being hit in the knee by a line-drive early in the year, that expectation seemed in doubt. Well, State proved any potential doubters wrong, finishing the regular season on a very high note, winning the Charlottesville Super Regional over Virginia, and finishing a trip to the College World Series as national runner-up after a tough CWS Championship Series loss to UCLA. MSU ended the year with a 51-20 overall record, and the future remains bright.
Dan McDonnell, Louisville -- McDonnell just continues to prove year in and year out that he’s one of the nation’s elite coaches. The Cardinals admittedly entered the 2013 campaign with high hopes thanks to the return of several key cogs. But expecting to be great and actually going out and doing the job are two different things. Well, the Cardinals lived up to their end of the bargain, dominating the Big East Conference on the way to a 20-4 league record, while also notching yet another CWS appearance and ending the year with a 51-14 overall record. UL has some serious holes to fill going into the ’14 campaign, but again, never underestimate McDonnell. He’s one of the best.
Paul Mainieri, LSU -- Sure, some will point to the Tigers not being overly impressive in Omaha as a reason not to list Mainieri, but sometimes overall consistency outweighs other factors. That’s precisely the case with Mainieri. The Tigers entered the ’13 campaign with high hopes, and lived up to those expectations. LSU stormed through Southeastern Conference play with an impressive 23-7 record before winning the Baton Rouge Regional and Super Regional to capture yet another CWS appearance. LSU went 0-2 in Omaha with setbacks to UCLA and North Carolina, but still ended the campaign with a 57-11 overall record. LSU was that good for much of the year.
Josh Holliday, Oklahoma State -- After making assistant coach stops at Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt, the Cowboys felt Holliday was ready to take over the program, thus they called a native son back home. Holliday didn’t disappoint in his first campaign. The Cowboys had the tough chore of replacing elite left-handed pitcher Andrew Heaney, but Jason Hursh and some others rose to the occasion. The Pokes could’ve finished a bit higher in the Big 12, but their accomplishments down the stretch were impressive. OSU reached the NCAA postseason, where it faced Louisville in the Louisville Regional title game. The Pokes fell short against the Cardinals, but they ended the year with a 41-19 overall record, and obvious step forward. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities in Stillwater, Okla., with Holliday at the helm.
Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt -- Though the Commodores failed to reach the College World Series, they had a season to remember. The ‘Dores finished the regular season with an amazing 26-3 Southeastern Conference record before winning the Nashville Regional and falling just short against Louisville in the Nashville Super Regional. Omaha trip or not, this was a special season for the Commodores.
Pat Casey, Oregon State -- It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that Casey’s Beavers put together an impressive campaign. With the return of left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd and others, the Beavers were expected to be solid in ’13. Casey’s crew won the Pac-12 title before winning the Corvallis Regional and Super Regional on the way to yet another CWS appearance.
Mike Fox, North Carolina -- Though the Tar Heels fell short of their ultimate goal, which was to capture the program's first national title, it's impossible to say they didn't have a successful campaign. UNC entered the season as the nation's No. 1 team in the PG College Top 25, and spent much of the regular season in the same spot atop the rankings. Despite some setbacks in Omaha, it was a year to remember for Fox and Inc.