Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham did not hesitate when asked his reaction to Tulane’s hiring of David Pierce as Rick Jones’ successor, rattling off his list of accomplishments.
Pierce won big when he coached at Texas high school Pasadena Dobie for five years, knocking off future three-time major league All-Star Josh Beckett in the playoffs twice. He won big when he moved on to college as a Houston assistant in 2001, helping the Cougars reach a regional in his first year and a super regional in his second.
He won even bigger after joining Graham’s staff at Rice. The Owls won the national championship in his first season, 2003, and returned to the College World Series three more times before Pierce left to become coach at Sam Houston State in 2011.
While there, he added three regionals in three years via at-large bids to his résumé — an incredibly tough accomplishment in the Southland Conference — before taking the Tulane job last weekend. The rest of the Southland has combined for two at-large bids in the past 10 seasons.
“He probably learned everything I know and has added to it,” said Graham, who has won or shared the Conference USA championship in eight of the nine years Rice has been in the league. “(Tulane) could have searched forever and not gotten a better one.”
If the testimonials of the people who have competed against, worked with or watched Pierce are even close to accurate, Tulane hit a grand slam with its latest hire. Their consensus: the Green Wave, which had unprecedented success under Jones for 15 years but has failed to make a regional for the last six seasons, can expect a quick resurrection.
Lamar’s Jim Gilligan, who has been with that Beaumont, Texas, school for all but five years since 1973, is the only Southland Conference coach with a winning record against Pierce (6-5). Gilligan loves Pierce’s move to Tulane, if partly for selfish reasons.
“He did a phenomenal job creating what you have to consider the best team in the Southland,” Gilligan said. “Life just got easier in the Southland.”
Pierce built his Sam Houston State program on conference and non-conference success. This year, the Bearkats beat College World Series-bound TCU and Texas Tech, super regional participant Houston and regional host Rice while losing by one run to Texas, another College World Series team.
This was not a case of a program winning solely because it was gritty and gutty. Sam Houston State had a school-record five players drafted this month.
“Talent, that’s their style,” Gilligan said. “His pitching staff, he had some arms on that staff as good as anybody you’re going to have to play anywhere. He goes out and gets good guys. He’s a good baseball man. He’s going to do a good job teaching them how to swing a bat, how to throw and how to field, but he’s like Wayne Graham. Wayne didn’t trick you out of any games. He just beat you.”
With Jones taking a leave of absence (that turned permanent) before the midpoint of the season because of health concerns, Tulane finished below .500 (23-29) for the first time since 1993, the year before Jones arrived. The Wave rebounded to make a regional in Jones’ first season, then ran off nine in a row from 1998 to 2006, including two College World Series appearances in 2001 and 2005.
Graham anticipates a similar turnaround under Pierce as Tulane enters the American Athletic Conference.
“He knows the road to Omaha, and that’s significant,” Graham said. “It will probably take a year of adjustment, but they are going to give that conference fits. Down the road there could be a new sheriff in town.”
Pierce talked his way into his jobs with Rice and Sam Houston State. When Graham was looking for an assistant in 2003, he called Pierce to ask his opinion about another coach.
Pierce, a Houston graduate who was coaching at his alma mater, recommended himself.
“He’s straightforward,” Graham said. “I thought he was content at Houston, but I looked into it and decided he was my best choice.”
When Pierce’s predecessor at Sam Houston State, Mark Johnson, retired, athletic director Bobby Williams lined up four candidates for interviews. Pierce called him after Rice was eliminated from a regional, and the list changed.
“He said he wanted to come in on Friday, and by Monday, I’d offered him the job,” Williams said. “I really didn’t know him, but it was just one of those feel things. He’s up front with you. He’s open, really accessible. He just lays it out on the line as to what he wants, and that’s easier to deal with.”
Others who are not directly associated with Pierce are just as effusive as the guys closest to him.
“Pierce is (a) perfect fit for Tulane,” Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt tweeted. “(He has) proven he can win at a private school in Tulane’s conference during (his) days at Rice. (He) kept winning at SHSU.”
UNO coach Ron Maestri faced Pierce in a conference-opening series in March. The Privateers got swept by the combined score of 27-9 on their way to a tough season, and Maestri liked what he saw from the Bearkats.
“David’s an outstanding coach and a fine person,” Maestri said. “He’s very intense. That’s a great hire. He will do a great job at Tulane. He will keep that program going and even improve them.”
The only concern lodged about Pierce is his willingness to stay at Tulane long term. He has been considered the heir apparent to the soon-to-be octogenarian Graham at Rice when he retires.
Graham, 78, questioned that logic, saying Tulane could be Pierce’s destination job. In a matter-of-fact way and without using the word, he pointed out it’s not always attractive to follow a legend.
“In all truth, he may perceive and it may be true that Tulane actually has more resources than Rice as far as baseball is concerned,” Graham said. “And there are a lot of people that might pause to come in here because we’ve had an extreme (number) of championships. What if they come in and don’t win that first year?
“David has the potential to put Tulane in Omaha.”