For the last five seasons, FIU baseball could not get gas in its tank, much less find any kind of road to get to Omaha.
Last Thursday, The Road to Omaha was discovered for the Golden Panthers as they filled up their tank and got a driver, Turtle Thomas, to show them the way to the College World Series. Having been in the CWS 14 times, TT knows the way. In fact, he's there now with the Arizona State Sun Devils who won Saturday and play tonight against defending champion Oregon State.
Before TT hopped on a plane to Omaha, he went recruiting for FIU at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Cincinnati last Friday. The PGNS is the first chance coaches get to see the top high school juniors in the nation. Depending what happens tonight with ASU, TT said he will also fly to North Carolina this week for the Tournament of Stars, which is another h.s. juniors showcase. TT described it as the USA junior national trials. Is there any wonder why TT had 19-straight Top 10 recruiting classes, that included players like Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez?
Here's what TT had to say to the GPP about his new job before he was introduced as the FIU baseball coach last Thursday...
GPP: What interested you about the FIU job?
TT: The Miami area for recruiting is probably the best area that plays high school baseball of anywhere in the country. I'd say that and Southern California. We feel like we can get the majority of our players from the South Florida area. I have always thought and many coaches around the country have always thought that FIU is a sleeping giant that has been asleep for a little while. Hopefully we're ready to wake it up and get things going.
GPP: What do you think of the Sun Belt Conference?
TT: First of all the Sun Belt is a good baseball conference. Three teams made this year's tournament and you compare it to the Pac 10, which had four teams and the SEC had five. That's not far behind. There are two big schools down here. Miami is going to get its share of players. FIU is going to get its share of players. We're going to be one of those people that is not afraid to go after any of the big boys.
GPP: Attendance has dwindled at FIU baseball games the last 5 years. How do you get people in the seats?
TT: Skip Bertman had the blueprint 23 years ago. They had about 350 fans a game at LSU. Skip and his staff went to every Lions club, Rotary club, Kiwanis club, every service club around and they took season ticket brochures, camp brochures and at the end of their speeches they would make a pitch for LSU athletics and we're going to do the same thing. We're going to sell season tickets right on the spot. We're going to do every thing we can to get the message out and get people excited, to keep people excited about FIU baseball. Winning is certainly big. There's nothing you can do to substitute for winning. That's the number one thing that draws people to your games. We fully expect to do that.
GPP: What kind of situation are you inheriting at FIU?
TT: What we want to do is make steady improvement. This is not a fix-it immediately type of thing. It's not going to be an overnight success. We have to move up the ladder. Get a little better in the Sun Belt, get better nationally so that we can get to where we want to go.
GPP: How do you sell FIU baseball to a high school player that has been turned off by the previous FIU baseball coaching staff?
TT: This is going to be a situation where you are going to help us build this program. You are going to be one of those foundation type of guys. You're going to help us get to where we want to go. Our coaching staff I guarantee you is going to be a good one. I'm going to still handle the hitting and catching. We're going to have a very good coaching staff that is going to help develop them as players to make them a better college player and eventually a higher draft pick. We're going to try and develop their skills as much as we possibly can.
GPP: Were you offered other head coaching positions along the way in your 30 years in college baseball? If so, any reason why you didn't take them?
TT: Yes. One was Evansville (Ind.). I had it, but honestly I didn't really want to go north and the financial whatever was not the greatest in the world. I would have had to take a big cut in pay. Some people can do that, some people can't. Most assistants don't have a large amount of extra money laying around. I just didn't think that mainly because it was in cold weather and it was not a great conference and things like that.
GPP: So I guess for a college coach, coaching baseball in a warm weather city is a big deal?
TT: No question. Just like in recruiting, obviously, you've got some selling points here. The best weather in the country. The Miami/Fort Lauderdale area there's so many things to do and see. You got the four major sports franchises down here. Championship level play. There are many attractive things to attract a recruit to this area or keep one at home. Here, if we can keep the homegrown talent around then that increases attendance for one thing, because you got families and relatives and girlfriends that come to the game as well. We would like to keep the best players at home and attract them to our school.
GPP: Why do you think you have had 19-straight Top 10 recruiting classes?
TT: One thing, you're at a good school and that attracts players right away. Number two you have to have a great work ethic to be a good recruiter. You can't let an hour go by without making a recruiting call. Calling a coach, a player, whatever it might be. It's perseverance more than anything else. You sit down every night and you make at least 3 to 4 hours of phone calls every night. You keep information coming to them through e-mails and texts and mail outs. You try to keep that stuff going to them as much as you can. It's much hard work, perseverance, be willing to sit at 4 or 5 games a day from 8 in the morning to 11 at night, which you do so often during the summer. I think you have to have a pretty good idea for talent too and not everybody is able to do that.
GPP: Have you thought about your assistants? A lot fans have been clamoring for a "real" pitching coach since Mark Calvi left. Will you have a "real" pitching coach?
TT: I have contacted some people and we've discussed some terms and job descriptions. I will hire a pitching coach. Mark was a good one. The guy I have in mind I am interviewing him when we're done with the press conference. He's been in professional ball and he's in college now. He's supposed to be absolutely tremendous. He's a Hispanic kid and he's not too terribly far away from here. It's not anybody from Miami.
GPP: Where did your nickname "Turtle" come from?
TT: It came from a friend in the 9th grade back in North Carolina. Back in those days I was as tall as I am now, about 6-2, but I was 155 pounds. I had a long, skinny neck and the school I caught for had green catching gear. The chest protector looked like a turtle shell. It wasn't that I was that slow, because I was a relatively fast runner.
GPP: What do you think of the FIU baseball facilities?
TT: There's a good base there. I think it has to be spruced up some. Pete [Garcia] has some plans to do some luxury boxes and things like that. Maybe move the coaches offices to another part of the stadium. Just some different ideas to do some things, which I thought were all very good ideas.
TT added he wants to coach another 20 years, so that he totals 50 years of coaching in college baseball. TT signed a four-year contract with FIU for $320,000. He added that in addition to recruiting at the tournaments in Cincy and N.C., he has compiled a list of 75 "scavengers" -- players that are still available to sign with FIU. These are junior colleges players or overlooked high schoolers.
PG announced after the TT press conference that FIU will host USC (Southern Cal) for a 3-game series next season. FIU is also working on playing FSU next season, likely in Tallahassee. No more of those road trips where the FIU bus bypasses FSU and parks in Florida A&M. To be the best, you have to play the best.