UCLA head baseball John Savage via Gallery 2 Images
Yesterday, I posted part one of my two-part interview with UCLA head baseball coach John Savage. In part one, Savage talked about the Bruins' standing after the MLB Draft, the disappointing 2009 season and the two assistants he brought in prior to the season. His answers were rather candid and gave us some insight into how the 2009 season broke down from an insider's perspective.
While there have been some critics regarding the job Savage has done since taking over, especially lately, Savage didn't shy away from any questions. He answered them all honestly, while breaking things down, pointing out where things went wrong and even acknowledging his own mistakes. He didn't just point out what went wrong though, he highlighted some of the program's stronger points and detailed how the program can improve upon their weak spots. Whether or not those plans pan out, you cannot criticize him as a man without a plan.
With part one in the books, we turn to part two. In this second half of the interview, Savage discusses his scheduling philosophy and the 2009 schedule, which came under fire, in particular. Savage also addresses some scheduling points on a larger scale with his take on the recent change by the NCAA that allows for a longer schedule, as well as the possibility of a Pac-10 Tournament. Savage then delves into the state of Jackie Robinson Stadium and the need for improvements, as well as the search for fans, before outlining exactly what expectations are for the program. So, here you go. The final part of my interview with John Savage.
BN: Year in, year out, you schedule an incredibly difficult slate of teams. Boyd’s World has ranked your schedule as either the toughest or second toughest in the nation for four consecutive years now. What’s your philosophy behind such a difficult schedule?
Coach: I think the reason why there has been so much interest over the last three years, going to the postseason the last three years, is we’re playing anybody, any time. You can’t fault that. You can talk about, well, the schedule’s too tough and the team is too young, but that’s not facing challenges. That’s not taking opportunity. One of the reasons this program has been built, with that first recruiting class is, let’s get that class to Regionals the first year, with the monster schedule. They went to Miami, they went to Ole Miss, they went to North Carolina State. The second year, we go from Regionals to winning a regional to go to a Super Regional. Last year  should have been an Omaha team, and a lot of that was based on good players. A lot of it was based on how tough the schedule was. You look at the last four years. We’ve had the second-highest winning percentage in the Pac-10, behind Arizona State so we’ve done our work in league. If we would have done our work out of league this year, we would have gone to a fourth straight regional. Players love it, recruits love it, families love it. You travel to high-end facilities. You travel to the SEC, the ACC, then when you get into the postseason, the plan is you’ve been there before. I think some of it’s worked, but we haven’t been to Omaha so we haven’t totally put a stamp on it, but I think that the playing the people has paid off. I’d like to get 40 wins, but if you look at the last several years it’s kind of been a 30 to 33 win season, but a lot of it is self-inflicted because of the toughness of the schedule. The kids love it, they love the challenges. It gets us Pac-10 ready, which I think it’s done a good job of, but it’s tough to get on a major role when you play that type of schedule and I think we need to look at that a little bit.
BN: So then would you agree that the schedule this past season was a little bit too tough? Not only did you play the nation’s second toughest schedule, but it set up so you had four consecutive weekends away from Jackie Robinson Stadium. Was that just too over the top?
Coach: Yeah and I saw it. I knew it was coming and you cannot pass up Minute Maid in Houston. It was too good to pass up and that weekend we had [originally schedule to play] at home. Unfortunately, in conference, we opened up on the road. We had a home and home return with East Carolina and with Oklahoma and I probably should have moved one of them back to this year so I had at Oklahoma, at Minute Maid and then a home-home, probably with Davis and another team. If I had to do it over again I would have had one more home weekend. I don’t think I’d sit here and tell you two, but really, all we had to do was win one at Oklahoma and one at Minute Maid and we probably are in the postseason because we beat East Carolina five out of six the last couple years so that went well for us. I think in terms of the compacted schedule, four straight weekends is a little much. The travel, the health, the academics, it’s a little much. With that young team, they weren’t quite ready for it so if I had to do it over again, I would have scripted it differently.
BN: Along the lines of the schedule, the NCAA just added a week to the front end of the season so there are 14 weeks to play 56 games instead of 13 weeks. Do you like that extra week that allows you to start the second weekend in February instead of the third weekend of the month and what are you going to do with it? Are you going to try to skip the weekend after finals or eliminate the five-game weeks?
Coach: It’s a great question. I’d like to do exactly that. I love the fact they added an extra week, in terms of our players - their academics, the travel, the compacted schedule and the lack of practice time. As soon as the season started the last two years, you feel like you barely practice. The lack of practice is alarming in terms of slowing your team down or getting your team out of a rut so I love the 14 weeks. Adding it to the front end is the way they should do it. They don’t need to add it to the back end.
The second part of your question. They added the week so late and I’ve been so advanced in our schedules, in terms of the 10th and 11th and 12th weeks…the 10 was already set for 2010. We have one game each against Vanderbilt and Oklahoma State and USC that first weekend [of 2010]. So I’m trying to get Oral Roberts moved to the front end and try to play them on that new first weekend [of the 2010 season] and not play on the back end of finals. And the reason I would do that is because we have Cal Poly after Oral Roberts, and I don’t like taking a weekend off before [opening] conference. I think that’s setting yourself . Then we have Cal Poly Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The reason why I schedule that is to stay in relation to the following week, which opens up conference and is Easter week so we don’t play Sunday. I want to keep that Bauer, Cole set up Thursday, Thursday and Friday, Friday. So I’m waiting to hear back from Oral Roberts to see if they can move that series to the first weekend and that’s what I would do from here on out. Then, if you throw in the Pac-10 Tournament, that could change things again.
BN: There has been a push in the last year or so from some coaches to add a Pac-10 Tournament. Are you in favor of it and do you think you’ll have it added for this year?
Coach: We’re not going to have it for this year and I’m really not in favor of it because we don’t need it. We have so many strong midweek games. You can’t run from anybody. We play the entire Big West, throw in Pepperdine. I’m a believer that baseball is a game where you prove it over time. I don’t like the fact that a fifth place team from the Mountain West, Utah, wins that tournament and all of a sudden the Mountain West gets three bids when they’d only have one or two so that knocks out a fourth or fifth place Pac-10 or Big West team. So I’m not in favor of it, but it could be coming down. As you know, with how little attendance the West Coast gets, where are you going to have it? Are you going to draw? Are you going to have TV involved? One of the reasons the SEC and ACC have it is because of money with how much they draw and TV [revenue]. It’s kind of a round robin that strengthens their RPI more. It’s not really even a true tournament. It’s more of a, let’s keep on playing each other and get that RPI up. It would help our RPI, but I don’t think the last three games, if we played a Cal and USC and Arizona State, it’s not going to jump our RPI from 35 to 18 so I’m not in favor of it.
BN: With the 2009 season behind us, what’s the main goal you have for your players and program this offseason?
Coach: Our number one goal, and we told our players this, is that we want their teams to win this summer. Don’t worry about individual statistics, don’t worry about yourself. We want you to be on a winner. We need you to create a mentality that the reason you play is to win. I think that this has been set from Coach Vanderhook and myself as the message to the players. Of course we know the development in the summer is a big issue. The fact that some of the young guys are playing in the Cape Cod League and the New England League is a big deal for the personal development and we want them to get bigger and stronger and get more at-bats and more innings and more reps, but we want them to play on winning teams. We want them to come back and despise losing and know how to play nine innings - to know how to finish somebody off because that was our problem. You play a 56-game schedule and you go 2-14 in one-run games, there’s your season. If you win five more of those, you’re in good shape. So we have to create a mentality with the younger players. I’m talking about the younger players, who are coming back, of a winning mentality and their development on a personal level.
BN: Two of the problems the program has had for years is a facility in Jackie Robinson Stadium that doesn’t match up with a lot of other places and also, a lack of interest in the program. In your five years here what do you think has been a bigger obstacle for the program?
Coach: I think we’re making strides in both. I want to see more people in the stands. I’m looking to put seats above each dugout. I’m looking to do that. I want to get [the capacity] into that 1,600 or 1,700 range with nice chair backs. I took out the backstop and put in a nice screen. I want it to be a fan-friendly place. I want it to be exciting baseball. As you know, we draw much better during the day than the night so that Tuesday night and that Friday night - trying to get here on a Friday night is tough. It’s an unbelievably tough place to get on a Friday night so we fight that a little bit. We didn’t play too many home games this year because of our schedule, but I think the environment on Saturdays and Sundays was pretty darn good. We need more people in the seats. I think the Little League community and the youth baseball community, we’re reaching out better to. With the economy the way it is, Major League Baseball, the prices, the concessions, we have a chance. We need to create a fan=friendly atmosphere. So I’d say number one, we need to get more people in the seats and get more seats.
In terms of the facility, it’s an ongoing process. We got a million dollars to redo the field. The late Jack Gifford was kind enough, he and his wife, to build a state of the art hitting facility, but we need more concessions, we need more bathrooms. Parking is great. Parking is one of our strengths in terms of space when you compare it to West Coast facilities. I have a hit list, there’s no question about it and some of it is checked off, but we need to do better. To get to Omaha, you need to finish first or second in your league, bottom line. You need to host. The people that are hosting are the ones, if you did a percentage in terms of going to Omaha, it’s a high number of teams hosting Regionals and Super Regionals. You get your Virginias and your UC Irvines, you’ll get one or two a year, but consistently, the teams you see in Omaha are the ones with facilities, the ones that are finishing at the top of their league. We’ve been in third place. That’s good, but not good enough. To finish third in the second year, I thought was a hell of a year. The third year, to finish third, I was disappointed. I though that was a one or two. The fourth year, I thought that was a one or two, but having said that, in year three we did make it to a Super Regional.
We need to create more of a home field advantage, no doubt about it. We need to be a 28-5 team at home or a 28-6 team at home. Arizona State has been so dominant because they dominate at home. No question about it. They have a good fan base, their stadium is nice, but there needs to be some work. The surface is so fast and they have good team speed. They’ve built their team for their ballpark and I think they’ve done the best job of anybody, clearly looking at the numbers, of any team in our conference. Jackie Robinson Stadium is a hitter’s park and I think we’ve pitched pretty well in a hitter’s park. We need to become more consistent offensively.
BN: Do you have any specific plans that you know will definitely be done to the stadium this offseason?
Coach: By the beginning of this year my goal is to have seats from end of dugout to end of dugout. I want to do something with both dugouts because they need an upgrade too. Then I want to get an architect and start working on a facility over there in right field. We need a facility over there. I want to build a facility over there with a state of the art clubhouse, video room, team room that will be somewhat connected to our hitting facility. You drive right up there, park right next to the palm trees and walk right into the office and right into the clubhouse, then do away with all this stuff we have now. What we have now could be a weight room or visiting clubhouse. We want to take our facility now and give it a major upgrade.
I think you’d be surprised at the lack of the facilities on the West Coast. We’ve got the best players, just take a look at the draft. You look at the national championships, I think the Pac-10 has won 25 national championships, you look at the history of the draft, the history of Major League Baseball. I mean the Pac-10 is either one or right by the top of everything, but not for facilities. I think the whole West Coast needs to take a hard look and if you build the facilities, it answers the second part of your question, I think you’d have a bigger fan base. I know it’s hard to generate fans and winning is a big formula of that, but on the West Coast, there aren’t a whole lot of 40-16 teams. I think you can do it every couple of years and you can do tailor it a little bit by your schedule, but I’ve chosen not to do that. That’s something I consistently look at. I’m a big RPI guy and I know how to create a good RPI, but we need to look at owning our home ballpark more.
BN: In terms of building that fan base, I know a lot of people say it’s tough to follow the program. They can make it to some games, but it’s tough to follow the program otherwise without much media coverage. Do you have any immediate plans to build a real press box for the media or add online streaming video for people who can’t make it to every game?
Coach: We definitely would like to have video online and that’s a big deal. There’s no question about it because we’ll go to Ole Miss and to East Carolina and people are watching us online. They can pay $9.99 for a month or it’s free sometimes, whatever the case may be. We need to upgrade the press box, no question about it. We need more rest rooms and more concessions. I’d like to upgrade the press box certainly and make it more media friendly, so it’s a work in progress. I think I can juggle all factors. Roster, schedule, facilities, recruiting. I’m more than capable of handling those things and we’ve been very successful in many and we keep on striving to be more successful in those other areas.
BN: What do you expect for this program in 2010 and do you think this program is ready to take the next step? While you can’t go to Omaha all the time, do you think the program is one that could be a threat to go there year in and year out and if not, what are the keys to getting to that point?
Coach: I think every year we should be capable of getting to Omaha. I think we should be a team that should be a team that goes to the postseason. A team that is very capable, with the depth of their roster, of winning a regional and is capable of getting to Omaha. You saw this year’s team. If this team would have gotten to Regionals, we would have been a dangerous team, in large part due to our pitching. Anyone can say shoulda, coulda, but I think we need to think of ourselves as a contender for a national championship every single year. Until you knock the door down and get to Omaha though, everyone’s going to say, "UCLA has done okay, they’ve been to Regionals, they won that one Regional, but they haven’t been good enough to knock the door down." We have to knock the door down. That’s the bottom line. We have the players, we have the coaching staff. We need to take the next step. I know it, the players know it and the way you do that is through confidence, trust, the development of players and toughness. We have to get better in those areas. And really, the answer is yes. We should be a team capable, year in and year out, regardless of whether you lose 12 players to the draft like 2006 and then eight this year, of getting to Omaha. It’s not easy. What I’m saying isn’t easy, losing two, three, four, five guys and your ace, in this conference, but I think with the recruits were getting in, we are very capable of playing at that level, year in and year out and that’s my responsibility.
BN: Thank you again Coach. On behalf of Bruinsnation.com, this was fantastic and best of luck as you head to next season.
Coach: You bet. It was my pleasure.
Again, thanks must go out to Coach Savage for taking the time to sit down with me. SID Marc Dellins and Assistant SID Alex Timiraos were also instrumental is arranging the interview so a huge thanks to them.
I believe this interview shed some light on the state of the program, as well as things to look for in the future. Make sure to check back in next week as I provide my detailed thoughts on Savage's answers, but for now, what do you think of the interview? Do you agree with Savage's scheduling and expectations for the program? Are they doing enough to draw you and other fans to the ballpark and are their plans for the ballpark good enough for you? Share those thoughts and any others you might have on either part of this interview below. Go Bruins!