July 13, 2010

An Interview With:

COACH Mik Aoki

MISSY CONBOY: Good afternoon, everyone. Before I get started and make the introduction I wanted to let everyone know how much Father John Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick wanted to be here today, unfortunately they are out of town at the officer and dean’s retreat that was scheduled since last summer, and I know particularly Jack is disappointed that he could not be here to make this introduction and welcome our new coach to the Notre Dame family but I am very happy to fill in.

Beyond his very impressive track record of success at building programs, there were five key factors that convinced us that Mik Aoki was the right choice to return Notre Dame baseball to Omaha.

First, we wanted a coach who has a strong track record for player development. This is consistent with our increased focus in this area, generally in our belief this skill is absolutely critical to the future success of our baseball program.

Second, we sought a coach who had experience working in an elite academic environment.

Third, we wanted to make sure our new coach had an understanding of the unique elements of northern college baseball.

And fourth it was critical that our new coach be comfortable with and committed to national recruitment.

And finally, it was essential that we identify a coach with a passion for Notre Dame and its model for intercollegiate athletics.

After applying these criteria to the candidates, it was obvious to us that Mik Aoki was a perfect match and possessed a complete understanding of the landscape that’s Notre Dame baseball.

We are extremely grateful to senior assistant athletic director and baseball administrator Josh Berlo who played a key role in the selection process.

And we would like to acknowledge interim head coach Scott Lawler and assistant coach Dave Dangler who have been extremely professional and committed during this transitional period. We appreciate all of the selfless contributions that they have made over the past several years, but certainly, particularly, during the last few weeks.

And finally even though many of the players who are away from campus during the search process, they have been very willing to provide us counsel and feedback when called upon to do so. Their ongoing commitment to the program is very much appreciated. Before I ask Mik to the podium, I wanted to share with you some of the reasons why we felt he would be such a tremendous fit here at Notre Dame.

Mik bought the Boston College baseball program into the national forefront after leading BC to consecutive appearances in the ACC tournament during the past two seasons. Last season, BC recorded five victories against schools ranked in the Top 10. In 2009, Mik led Boston College to its first regional since 1967 and but for a 25 inning loss to No. 1 seed Texas they would have advanced to the regional finals.

Mik has coached 28 Major League draft picks and four free agent signees during his time at Boston College, which speaks both to his ability to recruit and his ability to develop talent; and Mik understands the unique challenge of recruiting students to a highly competitive academic environment.

In addition to his time as head coach at Boston College, he also served as head coach at Columbia and assistant at both Dartmouth and BC. Finally, Mik understands and appreciates and is looking forward to the challenge of returning Notre Dame baseball to national prominence.

We, in turn, are very excited to welcome Mik to the Notre Dame family, his wife, Sue and their three children Kai, Bryn and Reese could not be here today but we look forward to their arrival in the near future.

Mik admitted this morning that he’s only the second best athlete in the family, his wife, Sue, was a two sport athlete at the University of Delaware and is a member of their Hall of Fame. Mik, that’s a pretty strong gene pool; once your kids get a bit older, it’s going to be hard to hold on to that No. 2 spot.

On behalf of the entire Notre Dame family it’s my pleasure to introduce Mik Aoki as the 20th coach in Notre Dame baseball history.

COACH Mik Aoki: Thank you. First off, I’d like to thank all of you guys for being here. I’d like to thank father John Jenkins, Jack Swarbrick, Josh Berlo and Missy Conboy. I’m thrilled to be the next baseball coach here at Notre Dame. I don’t know of a university that does it better in terms of combining athletics and academics at such a high level, and I can’t wait to get started.

I had an opportunity on a conference call to talk to a lot of the players, and I just like I said, I’m really looking forward to getting started here. I think that this is a place that arguably, Notre Dame is the biggest brand name is college athletics, and one of the best academic institutions in the country, and I feel that that model is one that can help us get back to Omaha.

I don’t think that the academic requirements are something that prevents us at having success at a very high level. In fact, I think it’s something that attracts kids and will help us get back to that level.

You look, the very reason, to me, that athletics are on a college campus is because it’s a greater part of the educational mission of that school, and I think that’s obviously a really strong component of this job and the University of Notre Dame, and I believe in it wholeheartedly.

I believe that there’s a partnership to be had between athletics and academics; that it can be done successfully at a really high level and that you can do it with integrity; that our kids are going to, No. 1, be the very best students that they can possibly be. No. 2, they are going to be a positive contributing member of the community, not just at Notre Dame but in the surrounding South Bend community. And then we are going to try to produce the very best baseball players and the very best baseball team that we can possibly produce here.

And to me, I think that’s a component to win championships in the Big East, it’s an opportunity to win regional championships and super regionals and get to Omaha and win the National Championship. I think the support is here from Father John all the way down to Jack Swarbrick and the rest of the administration, and I’m really looking forward to getting going.

Q. Speaking with Brian O’Connor, former assistant here and Virginia head coach that you competed against, he said it was obvious from the way that your team tends to details that you communicate fundamentals to your team well. What is the key to being a good communicator with your players?
COACH Mik Aoki: That you have to have the gift of gab maybe. I think No. 1, you have to be truthful with them so that you have some so that you build up a certain amount of credibility with them. I try to present to my players their strengths, their weaknesses, what I feel they have to improve on, what they do well at, etc., etc., and I try to tell them as truthfully as I can, be that truth that they might not want to hear; you communicate that as much as the truth that they might want to hear.

I think if you can do that and treat them in a first class way and still challenge them on a daily basis to be the best that they can be, I think that’s what you do.

Q. Also, speaking from experience, having competed against you in the recruiting, he said that you and your staff will really get after it on the recruiting trail. How do you convince top talent to choose Notre Dame in the Big East over more established baseball schools and in conferences that are higher rated, as well?
COACH Mik Aoki: To me, No. 1, Notre Dame bring us an opportunity to win championships, and I think that goes a long way. If we are doing it right, to me, there’s only a handful of schools, really, that we are competing against throughout the country for those kids.

We are looking at kids who have a record of high achievement in the classroom and a record of high achievement on the baseball field. And if you look if you really look closely around the country, there’s a small handful of schools that are doing it at that level. So, No. 1, it’s just a matter of turning over enough rocks to find those kids and getting out there and beating the bushes so to speak, and any other recruiting cliché that you want out there.

Once you get out there, you have an opportunity to get an education from one of the best universities in the world; an opportunity to play in what I think is a very underrated baseball conference; and you have an opportunity to win championships in that baseball conference, which means that that gives you the opportunity to go compete for national championships. And if you can’t sell that to a kid, then you need to be in a different line of work.

Q. If you could objectively look at Mik Aoki from the outside and offer an opinion, what would you say your strengths are as a baseball coach?
COACH Mik Aoki: I think I do a good job of communicating with our players. We do a good job of giving kids an opportunity to perform at their highest and try to put them in situations on the baseball field that they are going to succeed.

And hopefully, in my romantic view of coaching, that you’re teaching them a lot about life, you’re teaching them a lot about baseball, and that they come in as better baseball players and better people than they leave, rather, as better baseball players and better people than they came in as.

We have done a good job at that at BC and I think I have done a good job of that throughout my coaching career, and it’s important to me that we do that; it’s not just that I care about them as baseball players, but they know that I care about them as human beings and as people.

Q. Are you aware of the name Frank Leahy and that 70 years ago he left Boston College to come to Notre Dame? Do you expect to have a statue out front some day like he did?
COACH Mik Aoki: Do I expect to, no. But that would be all right. Statues are a little more expensive nowadays than they were back then, too.

Q. Talk about the style of baseball you like your teams to play.
COACH Mik Aoki: First and foremost, any baseball cliché starts with pitching. You have to try to get the best arms that you can possibly get through the recruiting process and develop them as best you can.

You know, I’d like to be able to defend it at a really high level, which is something that we were able to do in our last couple of years at BC.

And then from an offensive standpoint, our entire philosophy has been about getting as many players into scoring position as humanly possible; be that the bunt, the steal, the hit and run, whatever it is, taking the extra base on that sort of tweener ball in the gap that might be a single in you’re not hustling or could be a double if you are.

It comes down to really a simple matter of percentages. If you can put as many guys at second and third with one guy at the plate, you don’t have to have a ball that leaves the yard in order to score runs. Every inning, to try to do that, to play for one run every single inning is basically what our philosophy has been and it’s served us pretty well.

Q. You talked about communicating with players, but obviously there are other things that have gone into this strong track record of player development; what are some other things that you see?
COACH Mik Aoki: I think the biggest thing is identifying them and recruiting them. Our model at BC, which, obviously in a modified format, we are going to use here, is that we try to do the best job that we can possibly do in locking down what we consider to be our backyard and getting the best players in the northeast to stay and choose to play at Boston College.

And then, to work with them on a daily basis through team practices, through individuals, in the weight room, in our, you know, our running and everything else; and develop the raw talent, if you will. I think we had a pretty good track record, of those 28 players and those four free agent signings, there were I think there were only four kids who have been drafted out of high school who went on and did that.

Tony Sánchez (fourth overall pick from the 2009 MLB Draft) was a kid tat wasn’t drafted out of high school, nor was Mike Belfiore (44th overall pick from the 2009 MLB Draft) who is playing here locally. A majority of kids might have flown under the radar from a recruiting standpoint a little but the majority of kids we were able to identify early and recruit early and get commitments from early.

Q. From a staff standpoint, are you keeping any of what was on Dave Shrage’s staff, or are you bringing some of your coaches from BC with you?
COACH Mik Aoki: I think that’s one of my priorities obviously is get a staff together so we can recruit and see as many players as we can. I have some guys targeted but that’s kind of wide open.

Q. And I realize this is a question where you have some of the players in the room with you, but have you taken a look at what you already have on hand? We have heard about recruiting a lot, but if you take a look at what you already have on hand and give an evaluation of the talent pool, what do you have to report there?
COACH Mik Aoki: A little bit. Since BC left the Big East, obviously I don’t have as much familiarity with the Notre Dame players as we would have five years ago. There are also some kids that we recruited at BC who are here now at Notre Dame. I would say that the talent level is decent.

Q. Wondering first of all which is the more pressure packed situation, going through the job interview processor going up against guys like Mike Fox and Mike Martin?
COACH Mik Aoki: I guess that’s a little bit more familiar territory, I guess, in terms of just being out on the field and competing against another team. And I don’t think that I ever looked at it as I was competing against Mike Martin, because if I had really started to think about that with his like 17 million wins, that would have been a pretty daunting thing.

The job interview here was great. All of the people here were really easy to talk to. As a matter of fact, I think there wasn’t a single time slot that I actually stayed within, so that was pretty good.

So the background check thing has been challenging a little bit but I understand the reasoning behind that. I guess probably the interview process was a little more challenging than the other piece.

Q. You’re pretty much a life long northeast New England guy; was it tough for you to make the decision to leave your comfort zone so to speak?
COACH Mik Aoki: No, not really. I love BC and my family is there in Massachusetts, the large part of my family is there in Massachusetts. But I think both from a professional standpoint and a personal standpoint, I just felt like this was a tremendous fit that had I been able to draw it up on a piece of paper better, I couldn’t have done it outside of maybe a climate change of South Bend, but that one’s not going to happen.

Outside of that, I think it’s great. It’s an opportunity for a young family to grow up on a college campus and a college campus with the prestige of Notre Dame; to come to a place from a baseball standpoint where we have the resources in order to be able to go and try to win championships and compete for that year in and year out. I think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that this is what we wanted to do.

Q. You talked a little about maybe it’s not the sexiest thing, you had a guy lead the nation this year, but when you look at college baseball specifically, there is a pretty direct correlation between teams who do and teams who don’t when you look at teams that were in Omaha this year; do you have a specific philosophy that goes along with that?
COACH Mik Aoki: The philosophy basically is really just to get back to just putting as many runners in scoring position as you can, and then you need a hit. And you don’t need a ball to get to be a home run in order to score runs.

I also think with the possible return to the original bat standards and taking the composites out and the new 2011 bat legislation that’s out there, I think there’s going to be more of a premium on that type of baseball. If you look at the teams that have been successful recently, a lot of teams sort of subscribe to that. I think we were up there with Texas in terms of most sacrificed bunts in a year with Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine and a lot of places like that. Even as good as those Omaha teams that Carolina had was, Coach Fox played a lot of that sort of style and flash and hit and run and bunting and doing different things.

So I do think it that it’s a good model. I think one of the things for us is it gives us an identity and I think the other part of it is that it allows players to play within themselves, and this is a game that you have to play relaxed and within yourself and try to come outside of who you are and ask a kid who is a gap/power type of guy with a runner on first, hey, we need to leave the yard in order to score a run, I think they are playing outside of themselves, and I think that goes back to you’re putting kids in a situation where they are not optimized for success.

Q. And the last thing, you touched on this a little bit, too, but this is a pretty important recruiting month. What is, beyond just the staff, what is the first priority you have along those lines?
COACH Mik Aoki: Is to start banging the phones and trying to get out there and see as many kids as we possibly can.
Obviously I was pretty hands on in our recruiting process in terms of being out there evaluating kids and everything else, so it’s not like I’m evaluating a completely different kid in terms of their profile academically and from a baseball standpoint. We do have a pretty decent list of names that I’ll start officially phone calling as soon as Bill and whoever else around here tells me that I can start doing that.

Q. You mentioned scoring one run an inning is a good idea, and goes back to a guy like Walter Alston that I’m old enough to remember; I don’t think you saw him manage, but are there other management styles that you try to emulate and who are they and why?
COACH Mik Aoki: Styles I’ve tried to emulate I think when you I mean, I would guess you could say that Augie Garrido has a pretty good style down there in Texas. We lost that darn game to him last year, to Texas last year, but that was two pretty evenly matched teams in terms of what we were trying to do and it resulted in a 25 inning record setting type of deal.

At the Major League level, I don’t know, I think the two games are so different in terms of what’s going on, that I think that most of my influences have been, you know, a guy like an Augie Garrido that I’ve had an opportunity to see from afar, coaches like Coach Carbone at Ohio university and Bob Wren (ph), and I don’t know if you remember Bob from IOU’s glory days. He was down there when I was down there.

So I think I’ve taken a little bit of everything that I’ve worked with and worked for and had an opportunity to see and everything else.

Q. The Notre Dame schedule is obviously a lot of spring trips and the weather is usually better in the south than it is here; but anybody that you’re looking maybe down the road you’d like to schedule a team or create maybe a back and forth series with somebody?
COACH Mik Aoki: If I could convince Florida State to come up here later on in the year, that would be great. Over the years I got to really enjoy competing against Coach Martin’s teams. But I think we have to, obviously, do the best thing for Notre Dame, which is to make sure that we are competing against a very good schedule that gives us a good RPI; that allows us, if we were that year to not win the Big East tournament, to give us the best opportunity possible to get in that NCAA Tournament.

Q. Mike Belfiore said that one of the greatest things that you do as a coach is create an environment for achievement. Can you elaborate on how you do that?
COACH Mik Aoki: I think it starts again with communication. I think that I’m honest with them and I communicate to them, hey, this is what you do well and this is what you don’t do well. And then we give them an environment and a toolbox as to how to get better.

We are going to push them to be as good as they can be possibly be, but I really believe that in the final analysis that the players is responsible for his own development. If I’m communicating it to them and we have an environment there that perpetuates like an ethos of hard work, that those kids have to eventually, the old saying about you can’t lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, that’s a really big thing.

And in Bel’s case, he wanted to work and get better. We started him in a mid week game as a freshman against kind of a nondescript school and it was like a laser light show the first nine batters of the game. His last outing at BC was in that Texas game last year, and it was whatever it was, 9 and 2/3rds and 12 punches and the dude was dominant. He was one of those guys that we gave an opportunity to, and we gave him an environment where he could take that work ethic that he had and really grow and develop and thrive in that whole thing.

And a lot of that is, you know, to me, is the majority of that is about him. We can create, as coaches, the environment, but the kid has to really buy into that, and Michael and so many other guys at BC bought into it and did a great job with it.

Q. Notre Dame has had to deal with injuries to pitchers the last couple of years, and some of the pro scouts have been critical of college coaches, how they use pitchers. Do you have a philosophy how you maximize a pitcher’s production but protect him and protect his future?
COACH Mik Aoki: Well, I think a lot of it is just, you don’t want to go like strictly off of pitch counts, but I think a lot of it goes back to the hard work type of thing and preparing a kid and building them up to and identifying particular roles for them.

So for a starter, for instance, for me, if he’s going to go from Friday to Friday or Saturday to Saturday or what have you, and early on in the year, we are probably going to cap that pitch count between 90 and a hundred as long as we have been able to do the prep work to get him to be physically able to do that.

Then as the year goes on, get him up, maybe about 110 or so is about the time that we are going to get a guy out of there. With relievers, you condition them to maybe throw two days in a row. You probably want to stay away from three days in a row.

But a lot of it, too, is the eye test. If you look at people who were critical of me last year with Belfiore having gone 129 in that game, but if you put the eye test to it, he didn’t have very many innings that he labored through. The pace of that game when Austin wood came in and Belfiore came in, we played 13 innings in like two hours. I mean, no team was putting up a whole heck of a lot of runs.

So I think that when a guy is cruising along like that, they can be extended a little bit, especially at that point in the season. They have had four months worth of being conditioned to that, and I think the conditioning and the prep work leading up to the season is as important as what you’re doing with them during the season.

And then on a final part, you know, is that arm injuries, unfortunately, are just a part of the nature of the beast with the pitchers. We went through, at BC, we went through a six year stretch where we had hardly any injuries at all and got bit by that bug a little bit last year.

You plan as much as you can, but at some point or another, I think almost any orthopedic will tell you that at some level or another, some of these guys are going to break down.

Thank you very much.