July 28, 2006
Notre Dame head baseball coach recently sat down with baseball SID Pete LaFleur to reflect on his first 10 days on the job, in addition to sharing his views on baseball and discussing his coaching philosophies. A full transcript of coach Schrage’s comments – in question-and-answer-format – follows below, as does a link to a similar Q&A with new Irish assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Lawler (plus additional ND baseball links from the past two weeks).
- Scott Lawler Named Assistant Baseball Coach At Notre Dame
- Getting To Know Scott Lawler (Q&A transcript)
- Dave Schrage Press Conference Transcript
- Dave Schrage Photo Gallery
- What They’re Saying About Dave Schrage
Q: You have added the first member of your coaching staff, Scott Lawler, who of course was a former member of your staff at NIU and Evansville. What are your thoughts on Scott and what he will bring to the Notre Dame program?
A: “I first met Scott when I was at Northern Iowa and was recruiting him, as a two-way player, out of high school. I’ve known his father for a number of years and later, when I was at Northern Illinois, Scott’s uncle told me that Scott could be your second assistant, even though he only was 24. He knew what he was talking about, that’s for sure.
Scott Lawler (left) and Notre Dame head coach Dave Schrage (right) coached together for two seasons at Northern Illinois and for three years at Evansville (pictured).
“Scott is a rising star in the coaching world and is going to get some great opportunities down the road to be a head coach. He was the first call I made when I got the job here, because I knew I was getting a guy who had a great passion for the game, who was a good person and who was going to be loyal to the Notre Dame program. Scott communicates well with the players, he knows the game and teaches the game very well. He’s not afraid to learn the next technique and always wants to improve himself as a coach. The players are going to love playing for him. Scott is fun to be around and keeps the guys loose, which is good because sometimes I’m too into the games and he kind of breaks the ice.”
“Scott is very knowledgeable about the coaching profession and comes from a great baseball family. He is not afraid to tell me if he thinks we should look at doing something different and I need that type of assistant – that’s how you become better as coaches and as a staff. A lot of things are second nature between us, because we have worked together so long and we know the type of player we are looking for. Your recruiting coordinator is very key, especially here at Notre Dame, to identify those kids who truly are interested in your program. Scott does a great job throughout the entire recruiting process of identifying the right kids.”
“We could be the greatest coaches in the world but you have to have talent to win. Scott recognizes talent well but, at the same time, we had limited resources in the past as far as budget goes and couldn’t just bring in 20 kids for visits. So we really had to identify key guys and Scott does a great job with that.”
Q: In general, what are you looking for in your coaching staff?
A: “First and foremost they have to be loyal to me, the kids on the team and to the University. And then I want them to have the same sort of philosophy as to why they are in coaching , to develop the whole person and not just be a pitching coach or a hitting coach, It’s very important that they are very team-oriented and they have a pretty good feel about what Notre Dame is all about. We’re a special place and we need to get that feeling where we can recruit for this place. I also want them to be great communicators. They need to be able to talk to the players, the media, our player and parents. If they can’t communicate on that level, it’s going to be difficult. They have to communicate well, they have to be loyal and they have to be good teachers.
“The loyalty comes in because a lot of times a player feels that his position coach is more loyal to him but then we are losing that team aspect. As a staff, we will tell the kids, `If you want to play, this is what we are looking for.’ Our assistants need to communicate the same messages from our coaches meetings, especially when they are working out with kids individually.
“I don’t want four versions of me on the coaching staff. I want four different personalities that the players can relate to. Everyone is different in their own unique way and it’s up to me to get that blend together but I don’t want four clones or four `yes-men.’ I want them to shoot ideas at me and not be afraid to tell me things.”
Q: You also are actively pursuing candidates for your volunteer assistant position.
A: “We have the opportunity at Notre Dame with the volunteer position where we are going to find a very good coach. We are going to use that position to almost be a full-time coach. There are people who have coached and have a lot of experience and yet still want to come to Notre Dame just to get the experience of coaching here, even if it is as a volunteer. Right now, our candidate pool is outstanding. There are some really great individuals out there right now. It’s going to be a tough decision but it’s going to be an exciting one, because we are going to have a quality individual In that role.”
Q: Walk us through your first few days on the job – there are a lot of tasks for you to complete in a condensed amount of time.
A: “Well, the first thing was to get my family up here on the day of the press conference and look at South Bend, in terms of housing and schools. The second thing was just learning all the procedures at the university to get started on the right foot and make sure everything is in line. The third thing was calling all our players, touching base with each of the guys and sometimes leaving messages back and forth until we finally could talk. The next thing was getting my staff on board, hiring Scott [Lawler] and now looking to finalize the staff with the addition of a second assistant and volunteer assistant. And then with recruiting, trying to map out what we are going to do the next few weeks – making the calls to figure out what kids already are interested in Notre Dame and decide if we are going to keep following up on that. There also are some of the guys that we know and that we would like to go after and recruit.
Q: How is your family handling the move and when do you expect them to join you?
A: “My family is turning into veterans of moving but we truly hope this is the last one. My wife Jody is outstanding in terms of supporting this move in my career. She played college athletics, as a softball player at Creighton, and she also has coached so she kind of has an idea of the coaches lifestyle and our ups and downs. She has been very supportive throughout this whole move and is excited. My two daughters also are getting more and more excited. They are probably my two biggest fans, in terms of going to games and supporting the team. They all are back in Evansville now trying to sell our house and hopefully we can get moved in the next month.”
Q: And it appears that your family is full of athletes, starting at the top with your wife.
A: “My wife is in the Iowa high school Hall of Fame for softball. She played at Urbandale High School and they won two state championships and have the state record for most consecutive wins, something like 60 in a row. Then, at Creighton, she helped the softball team make it the College World Series three times [’80, ’81 and `82] and was one of the top players. They had two great pitchers – Holly Hesse, who now is the coach at Missouri State, and Candi Letts, who is the head coach at Utah State. The shortstop on that team was Mary Yori, who now works for the NCAA and used to be the coach at Nebraska Omaha.
“Those players weren’t the only ones from that team who went into coaching. During my time coaching in Iowa, my wife also was a high school softball coach at three different schools – Woden-Crystal Lake, Lake Mills and Waverly Shellrock, after we had moved from Walford to Northern Iowa. Shortly after that my daughters were born and she gave up coaching – but, as you can tell, she knows plenty about sports and the coaching lifestyle.
“Our whole family are big sports fans and will be very supportive of all the other sports here at Notre Dame. We are a sports-oriented family, that’s usually our social events, going to college events or my daughter’s events. They also are musically inclined, one plays the clarinet and one plays the violin. Kaitlyn plays volleyball and softball and Brianne plays basketball and softball.”
Q: You also credit your parents with so much of your success in athletics. Why is that?
A: “Quite simply, my parents, Carolyn and Jack, were very supportive of everything I did. They weren’t pushy at all but kept me positive and I really respect them for that. My dad passed away last year but he had been a high school football player in the state of Illinois, at Quincy Notre Dame High School. He was a veteran of the Korean War and met my mom when he returned to Chicago. She had some athletic ability as well and was a professional dancer in Las Vegas and later at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago. My younger brother Greg lives in Joliet with his family. He played basketball baseball for one year at Loras College when Kevin White was the athletic director there and then finished his baseball career in South Carolina playing at Francis Marion.”
Q: You mentioned earlier that you have been very impressed with the level of support given to you and the baseball program by the athletic department here at Notre Dame.
A: “It really has been overwhelming to me, the amount of resources that the university provides for us to be successful, from academics to just things like the Xerox docutech center where we can have things like that done so we can have the ability to coach. That’s probably the biggest difference, is that there are so many people here to help you be successful and that’s what makes it such a special place. I think that recruits will feel that also in terms of how many people are involved and they will have even a better experience because of that. I have noticed it from a coaching perspective, in every aspect. The overall support staff and administrative staff have been great.”
Dan Kapala – who emerged as one of Notre Dame’s top pitchers in the 2005 season before missing ’06 due to injury – is one of several Irish players who have been able to visit in person with Dave Schrage during the past two weeks (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Q: How have your talks gone with the current players?
A: “I can tell we’ve got great young people in our program. They all are very excited, guys that I’ve had great conversations with and they all are driven and have that goal. A lot of them said they knew they have a better team last year and this year they are coming back to prove that. That’s a good starting point and they also said that the team is close as a unit and that’s important. The players all seem to get along together and have a great camaraderie among them.
“The main thing is to have that trust among the players. They need to trust us and we need to get to know them more as people. So, the more you call them and have contact with them, the easier it is to find out what they are made of and what’s going to motivate them. I’ve enjoyed calling them and it’s been a great experience from this first week.
“There’s always questions among those incoming players who already had signed and I just want to assure them that we still want them to be part of this program and that they are still part of our plan. They were brought in with a certain purpose and we are eager to see what they can do. Most of them are very excited to get started but there’s still an unknown out there for them in terms of what college and college baseball will be like. Most of them are playing for some pretty good summer travel teams right now.
“It also was great to visit with the handful of guys who are here on campus. I wanted to check in on them and their progress and just visit with them. I met with our trainer Mike Bean to get up to speed on their rehab status. All of the players who are here are excited to get started.
“In general with all of the players, there is an eagerness to come back because everyone will be on a clean slate. They are going to have the chance to prove to a new coaching staff what they are good at, so if a guy struggled last year then it is a new chance for him. And if a guy has been a leader for the team, he is going to come out and try to prove that to us. I think that eagerness is going to be great in the fall for our program.”
Q: How would you characterize your basic recruiting plan?
A: “Every year you need to bring in pitching and our recruiting will center around pitching. I think we have good pitching depth in our program, more than I thought we had. But still, every year, you need to bring in three of four arms to keep that going on a regular basis. We need to identify some of our needs. This incoming class will bring in good team speed and quite a few outfielders but to me we need to bring in some middle of the order hitters, guys who can hit 3-4-5 and have some presence in your lineup. This incoming class will add some speed guys at the top of the order and I have not seen our incoming catcher [Ryan Smith] hit yet so he may be a middle of the order guy.
Q: What will be the structure and goals for you during the fall and winter preseason periods?
A: “For starters, the outdoor and indoor facilities here are outstanding. We have everything we need to get a team ready to play win the spring, In the fall, it’s going to be a real evaluation time to implement our style and how we are going to play. Our signs are different and they will need to get acclimated to how we are going to do bunt coverages and relays, things like that. With our indoor hitting facility, we are going to get a lot of work done in there with the hitters. Our strength and conditioning facilities with the great prestige turf, that’s a great help. All of that will help to really prepare us for the spring and we will be able to develop well physically during the winter.
“We will start with the basic fundamentals with everyone. We will do some skill testing early to find out team quickness, speed and those type of things so we can evaluate. We can read the stat sheet but we want to evaluate. My structure always has been in the fall that every practice we will work on a team aspect like bunting defense or first-and-third situations and another day we might do some offensive team stuff. If we have enough pitchers healthy, I like to play a three- or five-inning scrimmage at the end of every day, where we might put guys in situations – bases loaded, nobody out or runner on second, nobody out or first and second, nobody out and we want to bunt the runner over. We want to be a team that can execute. We also may build in some sort of competition in practice where they are competing in a scrimmage and playing for something.
“And we will end the fall with the usual team Blue-Gold series and they will be competing for something there as well. I like our assistants to coach each team but I also like to have honorary coaches for the fall series, people from the media and community – so they are in the dugout with our players and can go out and coach first base.
“Our first day will be a team meeting, it’s not going to be a practice. We have to go through a lot of things, even little things like how I expect us to dress at practice to our team rules. I’d like to give them a calendar in the fall that shows the next few months so they can plan their lives. We will be doing a lot of talking in the offseason and that’s only normal when there is a coaching transition. We need to be polite and have good manners on the road, I know that sounds funny but we are representing our school in all facets. I like to look alike as a team when we practice, so we look uniform. We have to look sharp when we travel. People will know who we are and it’s very important that we carry ourselves with the utmost professionalism. Plus, we are going to be meting alums and we are making an impression on them wherever we may be.”
Former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner was a regular presence around the Fenwick High School basketball program when Dave Schrage played alongside Lattner’s son with the Fenwick basketball team.
Q: Growing up in the Chicago area and attending Fenwick High School, you must have come in contact with plenty of other big Notre Dame fans.
A: “I actually played basketball in high school with Johnny Lattner’s son, so he was one of the first contacts I had with Notre Dame and of course he was a great Heisman Trophy winner. He went to my high school and was very personable. During my junior and senior year in high school, he was around the team and was just a great individual. He was held in high esteem but you would never know what a star he was because he acts just like a regular guy.
“Growing up, my idol was Jeff Carpenter, who played basketball at Fenwick and then at Notre Dame. He was lefthanded and was a point guard just like me. I followed his career and went to a game when he was at Notre Dame and they played DePaul. I think he was involved in that `shock troop’ team that would come in for five minutes and press and do all sorts of crazy things and then come out.
“Fenwick is a classic Catholic prep school and quite a few students there have come to Notre Dame. It really prepared you how to study and was a very hard academic school and yet there was a sense of tradition and pride at Fenwick, which I think coincides at Notre Dame. We had Tony Lawless who was a legendary football coach and there was a great sense of tradition and pride there. On the first day as a freshman, you had to learn the fight song and sing it in the cafeteria. There’s that sense of tradition that everyone embraced, similar to here at Notre Dame. It’s going to be great to see some of my old schoolmates from Fenwick. Some of them I haven’t seen for a while, so that will be exciting.”
Q: You place defense at the top of your coaching priorities. Why is that?
A: “We are going to put a lot of time in practice on defending. I really think that helps you win games: make the other team earn runs. If teams hit groundballs and you can’t defend, that’s how you get beat. The teams that have better pitching and defense are going to win, you saw that in Omaha this year.
“At Evansville, our second baseman was extremely gifted defensively and ended his career without an error in the final 42 games. Our shortstop was almost as good. He will be the best shortstop in the Missouri Valley Conference this year. So we had a great middle of the infield. Throwing to the right base keeps the double-play intact and if you have strong guys in the middle, you can turn the double plays. And then the pitchers believe in their defense and keep the ball down, strike guys out and they relax a little more.
The defensive play of third baseman Brett Lilley and the rest of his Notre Dame teammates – who set the ND record for season fielding pct. (.972) in 2006 – will be a key focus for coach Schrage and his staff (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Q: And much of your offensive philosophy actually looks to exploit teams that neglect their defense.
A: “My personal feeling is that teams don’t spend a lot of time defending. So from an offensive standpoint, we have to put guys in motion and see if they can defend against us. You never want to be an easy team to play where the opponent can sit back and relax, because you never are going to do anything. You want to be a team where you make the other team have to be ready for a lot of things. You want to get the opposing pitcher out of his rhythm so he does not relax when he pitches. If he’s worried about the guys on base, he’s not going to be focused on the batter – and that’s where you win a lot of games.
“Our catcher has to be a guy who takes charge and is our quarterback. In the Missouri Valley championship game, we had a guy Jim Viscomi who stole 30 bases last year and he gets on and their ace pitcher was mowing us down, we weren’t touching the guy and it was 1-1. Viscomi got on with an infield single and the pitcher kept throwing over and eventually threw it down the rightfield line and the runner went all the way to third. The next guy hits a groundball and we won 2-1. So, those are the kind of things you need to do in your recruiting. You want to be balanced and have to have some weapons – Viscomi’s threat as a basestealer basically won us that game.
“Offensively, I really gauge our philosophy based on what we have personnel-wise. If you don’t have speed, you cant just run for the sake of running. We may have to manufacture more through hit-and-run. It looks like we brought in some speed with this incoming freshman class so hopefully that will be beneficial in how we play.
“I think hitting is contagious. If your team starts hitting, it rolls throughout your team. It takes one or two guys to get hot and everybody else starts falling in behind. Last year out three-hole hitter Casey Wahl started to hit and then other guys followed and we were a great offensive team at the end of the year.”
Q: What is your view on team spirit and contributions from the entire squad?
A: “I want players on the bench to be into the game. I want them paying attention and being enthusiastic on the bench. Last year we did a lot of things where the bench guys stayed focused on the bench and it’s important to be enthusiastic and give your guys roles during the games, because they all are used to playing. Keeping everybody involved is really important.
“You aren’t going to win if you have selfish players. If you have guys who are worried about where they are going to get drafted or focused on their stats, all of that is contagious too – in a bad way. You have to make sue that your guys are all focused on the ultimate goal, and that is to get to Omaha.
“Our teams will play hard. I’m big on how we run to first base and in general running hard. We will sprint off the field. I want the other team to know that we are there to play today and they need to take notice of our effort. If our effort is not noticeably higher than the team we are playing, then we need to step it up. I want them to know that we aren’t just going through the motions, and that’s hard to do over 56 games. It’s up to us as a coaching staff to keep on them about it, so they understand the style we are going to play every inning.”
Q: You tracked a statistic at Evansville called “freebies” that measured things such as walks, hit batters, errors and stolen bases allowed. Can you explain the importance of stressing those things with your team?
A: “After every game, we will talk about things like freebies and the overall team goals for each game. Last season, the team came to realize that meeting most of those goals usually meant a victory for us. One of our defensive goals was having no errors or only one error in a game. One of the team goals was not missing any signs. There’s nothing more painful than making mental errors in a game. Physical errors are going to happen and we as coaches need to make sure that one physical error is not going to hurt us. The more we teach, the less the mental errors will occur. If we keep teaching and reemphasize our points, they will get them and the mental errors will become less. And, on top of that, you have to make sure we are focused for all nine innings.
“The freebie system is all focused on not giving up any type of free bases and it all goes back to what I was saying before about being a strong defensive team. To turn around a popular saying: the best offense is a good defense.
“If we set these things as game rules, we will keep them in front of them so they can see that they are important and stay focused on the team. We had long road trips in our league to Northern Iowa and Creighton and we had those in back-to-back weekends, so that was a team focus of ours that we had to win those series. It was going to make or break our season and we had to be physically and mentally strong. Once we did that, the players knew we were over the hump and then kicked it into gear.”
Q: People who are new to college baseball may not appreciate the quality of the Missouri Valley Conference, a league that your Evansville team won last season. How would you describe the MVC?
A: “Well, there are a lot of great teams and a lot of great players. In the past few years alone, Ryan Howard has gone from Missouri State to be one of the top young players in the big leagues with the Phillies and Mike Pelfrey – who just finished pitching at Wichita State in 2005 – already is playing with the Mets. This season Missouri State had another great players, a pitcher Brett Sinkbeil who was the 19th pick in the first round by the Florida Marlins.
“The Missouri Valley is one of just four conferences that have sent more than three teams to Omaha in the past 20 years or so. Those teams are Indiana State, Missouri State, Creigthon and of course Wichita State, but many of the other teams are tough as well.
“It all stems from where Gene Stephenson and Wichita State took their program by winning a national championship in 1989. Everyone said if we are going to win the league, that’s who we are going to have to beat. That helped every team in the league get better and it’s a league that is going to have a lot of guys drafted every year. They’ve had a lot of high draft picks and have great facilities all over the league, with great competitiveness and a lot of enthusiasm. It was a mental grind and the team that withstood that was the winner, and that was us last year. We just were focused on winning each weekend series.”
Rising senior Jeff Manship could headline a talented and deep pitching staff for the Irish in the 2007 season (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Q: You have the potential to have a fairly talented and deep pitching staff here at Notre Dame this season. Can you discuss some of your pitching philosophies and approach?
A: “It’s really important in our recruiting philosophy that we do have pitching depth, because we are playing two midweek games. We need five good starting pitchers and that’s what we are going to be looking for in the fall. And then you kind of look at each player to figure out what kind of stuff each guy has. The guys who can throw three pitchers for strikes and locate them are going to be your starters. The others will be one time through the order guys and that’s how you kind of develop your staff. You might have a lefty with a tremendous breaking ball and he would be a great setup guy.
“It’s important when you develop your staff that you try to give opposing teams different looks. If you had a hardthrowing righthander start game-1 and then came back with a tough lefty in the second game, you give the opponent a different look and it keeps them off balance. I also play the percentages a lot. I like matchups and the percentages show that lefthanded hitters don’t hit lefthanded pitchers very well, so we will need to have a lot of quality pitchers to go to in the bullpen. That’s an important role on our team. I’ve had outfielders before who would come in to pitch and then go back into the outfield.”