I moved to Minnesota to spend a year working with a national champion coach. I was young and deeply involved in the world of fastpitch softball. I had high school coaching experience and a mentor who had won three national championships. After five years learning from him, I wanted to learn from others. In my pursuit to climb the coaching ladder, I moved to Minnesota to work with a young fastpitch softball coach named John Tschida.
Coach Tschida was a former college baseball player and coach who had crossed over to the world of fastpitch softball. He also happened to be one of the top men's fastpitch players in the world. While I spent five years with my mentor, George Wares, we kept running into Tschida's St. Mary's squads in the NCAA Playoffs. Tschida's teams had dominant pitching, they ran the bases aggressively, and they hit for power. Though we battled each other in the playoffs, his program quickly earned our respect. You could see the improvement they had made from year to year. At first, they were the new kids on the block. Then, they made it known that they belonged in the post-season.
Our normal aggressive baserunning tricks no longer worked against them the following year. It was as if they had learned from our program and added some of those weapons to their arsenal. The site of the playoffs changed from year to year, but we kept running into John Tschida's St. Mary's team. We beat them 1-0 in 1997, beating Tschida's pitcher who averaged over two strikeouts per inning. We relished the challenge in facing one of the top pitchers in NCAA Division III. After we won, we were relieved when another team beat St. Mary's. In the double elimination format, we no longer had to worry about Tschida's team- until next year.
After battling Tschida's teams in the playoffs for several years and after hearing him speak at a National Fastpitch Coaches Association event, I sought an opportunity to learn from this young coach. I loved teaching the skill of hitting and Tschida's teams were among the best offensive teams in the nation. He had since won his first national championship and moved on to the University of St. Thomas. He took his new school to the College World Series in his second season.
I reached out to Coach Tschida to propose my idea. I drove up to St. Paul, spent a morning visiting with him on campus, exchanged ideas, and picked his brain. Then, I spent the 2002-2003 academic year working full-time assisting him and the program. It was an incredible experience but difficult too. It was hard because I spent that year apart from my wonderful wife who was teaching and coaching back in Iowa. This is a move I would not recommend to other young people. However, in my unbridled enthusiasm, I was willing to do anything in order to learn from the best. So, I was alone in the Twin Cities area, learning from a new program, and hoping it would all lead to a head coaching opportunity at the college level. All while making weekend drives to Iowa to visit my wife. It was a hard year.
It was an amazing year of baseball and softball. On the field, we went 32-6 and set numerous offensive records. The Minnesota Twins went to the post-season. Barry Bonds set the record for most intentional walks in a season. And I had lunch every day with Tschida and the head baseball coach. We would talk shop and discuss different scenarios and lineup ideas. We all agreed that Bonds should bat leadoff. See if the opponent was willing to walk the first batter of the game, and give Bonds the most at bats possible.
Throughout the year, I carried a giant 3-ring notebook with me. I took copious notes, collected drills and practice plans, and put the finishing touches on my philosophy. I kept a Rick Majerus quote on the cover of my binder, in order to keep me motivated. Rick Majerus was always one of my favorite coaches. He died in 2012. It is hard to find a basketball coach who was more respected by his peers. He was a master of teaching half-court offense and man-to-man defense. Majerus coached alongside the great Al McGuire and he spent time in the NBA with Don Nelson. Majerus developed players and was a master of Xs and Os. In his famous run to the national title game, Utah stopped an Arizona Wildcats team that most people thought was a given to repeat. Majerus pulled out a Triangle and Two defense and upset the defending champs.
Majerus believed in academics and he made his name at Utah, long before the Utes were considered a Power 5 team. They played in the Mountain West and took up the late night time slot of ESPN college basketball. He built a national powerhouse at a Mountain West Conference school, sent several players to the NBA, and turned down offers from the NBA and other schools in order to stay at Utah.
In his book, "My Life On A Napkin," Majerus offered a short bit of wisdom that encouraged me as a young coach. For a Division III school, Tschida did not lack a staff. He was in a major metropolitan area, he had previous success at St. Mary's and immediate success at St. Thomas, and he was well-known in the area. He had several people like me volunteering on staff in order to learn from him. I had to stand out; I had to make my mark. Everyday, I looked at my binder, read my quote, and reminded myself to put in the work.
Majerus talked about his days on staff with the legendary coach Al McGuire. He said, "I was the third guy on that Marquette staff. There was Al, the free spirit; there was Hank, who was more conservative than a savings bond, and there was me. Al would take me out with him once in a while. Al was the cool guy, which is the last thing people would say about me. He dressed like the movie stars of the day. Meanwhile, Hank dressed like Ward Cleaver. I dressed like a hick.
"My salary was $5,000. My responsibilities were less clear-cut. Al had the big name, was a terrific motivator, and a much better coach than people realize. Hank was a great Xs and Os guy. He and chalkboards were meant for each other. Put Al and Hank together, they were a sensational pair."
That's the backstory. Then comes the small piece of wisdom I want to pass on to younger coaches. It was the quote I carried with me daily to encourage me and to remind me to become invaluable. Majerus said, "What I had to do was find my own niche. I had to worm my way in and make myself indispensable. Stu Inman, a shred NBA sage, always used to say, 'Pick up the towels, put the water cooler away, open the gym, turn on the lights. Someone will realize you're valuable and you'll have a job.'" Majerus went on to say that in order to become invaluable to Al, he picked the only specialty not entirely covered by the staff: recruiting. He had found his niche.
Your responsibilities may be unclear. You are probably getting paid next to nothing. You may even be trying to make your mark on an overcrowded staff. Whatever the case, listen to the words of Majerus. He was not a great player. He had to worm his way in. Find your niche. Pick up the towels. Open the gym. Turn on the lights. Do the jobs that others aren't willing to do. Trust me, someone will realize you're valuable and you'll have a job.