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Breaking Traditions, Meet the Man Behind Ohio's Plan to Change a Losing Culture

After 89 seasons, which spanned four head coaches, Ohio baseball has a new head coach who isn't a former Bobcat player.

Rob Smith is undertaking the monumental task of transforming the culture at Ohio University.
Rob Smith is undertaking the monumental task of transforming the culture at Ohio University.
Ohio Athletics

On June 11, 2012 an 89-year-old Ohio University tradition was shattered. Since 1923 every head coach of the baseball program was an alumnus, including Joe Carbone who is being replaced after 24 years of managing the team. That was until Ohio announced the hiring of its new head coach, Rob Smith.

"I'm not certain that my background is typical of what you would find at this level," Smith said while checking his iPhone for messages one chilly March afternoon in his office at the Ohio Convocation Center.

The four previous coaches, dating back to B.T. Grover’s hiring in 1923, all played for Ohio prior to taking over the team as the head coach. Hiring Smith, 39, broke that tradition. He didn't play at Ohio and never played at the NCAA level. His playing career was brief, starting in the junior college ranks in 1991 at Vincennes University and finishing up at Indiana University Southeast, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, in 1994. He never played minor league baseball and his closest connection to the major leagues is having coached a few highly drafted players during his 11 seasons as an assistant college coach at Purdue and Creighton.

But that hasn't stopped the Indiana native who grew up as a Los Angeles Dodgers fan from climbing the college coaching ladder to the top spot, just 14 years after starting as a volunteer at Purdue.

He signed a four-year, $85,000 contract in June to take over the program. If he can lead the team to a Mid-American Conference tournament championship, he’ll be awarded a bonus of $2500. It’s been 15 seasons since Ohio accomplished that feat. In fact, since 2004 the Bobcats have managed to win just 46 percent of their games. The team lost a significant amount of production after last season due to graduation and the MLB draft. Nearly 60 percent of this year’s roster are underclassman.

Sitting in his office nine-months into the job, Smith has no problem opening up about his plans for this team. He knows this team isn’t going to win overnight, and they haven’t. Halfway through his first season they have managed just a 5-21 record. He’s not discouraged though.

Smith was vague about his expectations for his first season back in early February, "what we're talking about is practicing hard, playing hard and going about things a certain way. If that means we end up in an NCAA regional, great. If that means we're just competitive in our conference, we can live with that."

He’s not shy about wanting to change the program from its losing ways, starting with establishing his own culture at Ohio. He’s wasted no time getting to work. Already, Smith has changed the team’s hats and logo’s as well how they practice. He prefers an up-tempo high intensity style, not common in a sport known for its leisurely pace.

"If we're going to get involved with something, in a practice setting, it's going to be done with energy," he said sitting in his chair with his arms folded, a picture of intensity with his fresh shaved head and piercing blue eyes.

Smith likes to run his baseball practices like a modern day no-huddle football offense, lots of speed, running and reps, with few breaks. He often makes the players run sprints, and they do drills at full speed, unlike many teams.

"It was a huge adjustment to switch over … A lot of people had a lot of trouble in the beginning (as) we were getting used to his new system," said sophomore center fielder Tyler Wells after practice one day. "We as a whole team weren't ready for it. We were really out of shape for what he brought in to us."

Jake Miller, the team’s freshman ace said, "I think it's really beneficial in games because we practice at game speed so then nothing is really new when we're out there working." Smith’s philosophy is just that. Practice at game speed striving towards perfection and in time it will translate into success in actual games. Though he prefers the word execution to perfection; Smith makes it clear to his players he doesn’t accept mistakes in practice.

Even the recruits understand how serious Smith is about executing. During phone conversations with two 2013 Ohio recruits, Mitch Longo and Ty Black, the soon-to-be Ohio ballplayers mentioned how they liked the way Smith expects "perfection" from his team. It’s the constructive criticism and push Smith provides that made him choose Ohio, Longo said.

While it’s certainly been an adjustment and the players seem to be buying into most of it, the transition hasn’t been perfect. Smith says he still struggles to get the players involved emotionally on game day, something Wells agrees the team needs to get better at if they want to improve on their rough start to this season.

But while Smith admits it’s still a challenge, he says his past experiences in baseball have prepared him for the current task of creating a new culture at Ohio. During Smith’s 16-year coaching career he has often been involved in culture overhauls, and in one case even created a team from the ground up.

After his playing career ended in 1994, Smith enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. to work on his Bachelor’s degree in general studies. While there, Smith started a high school level travel league team from scratch. The team was known as the Indiana Bluestorm. Smith had to run all aspects of the organization, from planning the road trips to fundraising to administration. It was a great experience that taught him a lot about the game. It even helped land him his first opportunity to coach at the college level.

Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber, who was hired as head coach of the Boilermakers in 1999 asked Smith to join his staff as a volunteer assistant. "I always kind of knew he'd be an up-and-coming coach, even when I hired him as a volunteer. I saw him coaching a summer travel team. After meeting with him and discussing with him and talking with some of the parents of kids on his team, I just felt like, again, that he was someone that was very passionate about what he was doing. Coaching baseball.

"He was able to create a summer travel team and really build it to be one of the better travel teams, I thought, in the state of Indiana … I knew that if he was able to get into college coaching that he'd be successful there as well," said Schreiber.

At the time Smith had twin daughters, Sierra and Serena, on the way with his newlywed high school sweetheart RaeAnna. He left Purdue at the end of the 1999 season to join the coaching staff of the Wisconsin Woodchucks, a collegiate level summer minor league team, on a paid position. By the midway point of that first season with the Woodchucks, Smith had taken over as head coach and general manager. By the end of his second season he led the Woodchucks to their first division and league championships in team history.

Smith credits that job with teaching him about all the other aspects of running a team. The one-time broadcast communications major said he found a new appreciation for the media during his time with the Woodchucks, seeing firsthand what their job took. But learning experience aside, he left after just two seasons.

"I loved the experience but I knew I wanted baseball full-time, year-round. I didn't just want it three months out of the year," Smith said one day while hanging out at an Athens radio station before going on to do an interview with the show’s host. So he went back to Purdue in the spring of 2002, this time as a paid pitching coach. During the next five seasons Smith helped lead the Boilermakers to three Big Ten Tournament appearances and learned a lot about recruiting from Schreiber.

"He really brought a lot of experience and ways of doing things on that end that I still practice and utilize today," Smith said.

In 2007, the season after the birth of his fourth child, Isabelle (a son, Tyson, was born in 2004), Smith left Purdue to be the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Creighton University. During his six seasons with the Bluejays, Smith’s pitching staffs continuously ranked near the top of the Missouri-Valley Conference.

The team flourished, winning four MVC titles (one regular season, three conference tournament) and reaching the NCAA regionals three times. It was that success, combined with his experience helping establish and build new program cultures, that earned him the opportunity to be the next Ohio head baseball coach. The lessons learned from his previous stints are proving invaluable for the first-year head coach. He’s focusing on building the program one step at a time. He’s taught the players to practice how he wants, but knows the challenge is to get them to think the way he wants. Convincing them to play with emotion is one of those things he’s been working on.

"To me that's been one of the things that I've been begging them to do since the fall, is to play with that emotion and that intensity that comes from belief. If you really believe that you can be good, you'll let your guard down. You'll play with more emotion … We're constantly encouraging these players to just let go and play with enthusiasm and play with that expectation that they're going to be successful," he said.

Chewing on a stick of bright blue gum, sitting in his office, Smith continues to talk about the process of getting the players to buy in 100 percent. He mentions taking things one day at a time, establishing a new thought process and really getting the players to believe in his system. He comes off as a bit of a baseball radical, with his new-age ideas and iPhone and MacBook Pro to help him get things done. It’s like he’s having out a mini battle with the traditional approach used by baseball coaches.

Hanging in his office is a hastily drawn penciled picture of a giant eyeball staring over his shoulder. It’s his 7-year-old daughter Isabelle’s latest masterpiece, and it’s the only thing hanging in the coach’s office. The rest of the walls are barren. Besides some papers and jerseys scattered across his giant u-shaped desk, the only personal items in the office are an award he received in 2008 for being the nation’s top pitching coach, and a photo of his family.

He talks lovingly about his four children and wife of 15 years (as he likes to point out they’ve been together for 22). He refers to RaeAnna as a strong independent woman, tasked with the hard job of keeping a baseball family together. Not an easy task in a sport that requires so much travel.

"There's a lot of women that would probably struggle, do struggle with coaches lifestyles and the demands of it but she's handled it tremendously," he said. But when he’s done for the day, after hours of practicing and teaching his young team, he takes his jersey off and heads home. There the young baseball coach with the unusual approach is just a normal husband and father, heading home to his wife and kids to watch some golf with his son.

"Tiger Woods is his favorite," he says smiling, leaning back in his chair chewing intensely on his gum.