Let’s face it: David Pierce is never going to win a news conference like Rick Jones could.
Jones could talk his way to Omaha — or at least into an NCAA regional berth.
He would never start off Tulane’s baseball media day by thanking his staff and then essentially reading the schedule (at least he didn’t go through the roster), as Pierce did Tuesday.
It didn’t get much more exciting than that, either.
Pierce’s speaking style in appearances before booster groups — something he seldom experienced at Sam Houston State, his previous coaching stop — is reportedly about the same. But if winning over the players the new Green Wave coach inherited from his predecessor is the key to rebuilding the program after 21 seasons under Jones, then Pierce is off to a bang-up start.
“When Coach Jones stepped down, we wondered what our new coach was going to bring,” sophomore shortstop Stephen Alemais said. “But Coach Pierce started building relationships from the beginning by coming out to visit us in summer ball. I wanted to get to know our new coaches as soon as possible, so that was a big deal. All of the coaches are very approachable.”
So persuasive was Pierce and his staff, all of whom he brought with him from Sam Houston, that only one would-be returning player left the program, along with one signee.
That’s salesmanship. But they’re not always just Mr. Nice Guys.
“The biggest change is they’ve brought a lot of energy,” junior pitcher Alex Massey said. “They’re with us every step of the way — from the classroom, to the workouts, to running and to the practice field, of course. They let you know they mean business. But it’s brought an excitement that Tulane baseball needed.”
Sad to say, but yes.
After 21 years, the program that Jones led to two College World Series appearances and that, consistency-wise, was the standard bearer for all Tulane sports had run out of steam, failing to make the NCAA tournament for the past seven years. When you’ve committed so much to baseball, as Tulane has, that’s far from acceptable.
Jones, who poured so much of himself into the program, stepped down during last season for stress-related reasons, although he hoped to return for 2015, before passing the reins to Jake Gautreau, the former Wave standout and his top assistant.
But when the team finished 23-29, the Wave’s first losing season in Jones’ tenure, the administration wisely decided to move on.
And in Pierce, Tulane found someone with impeccable credentials — nine seasons as an assistant at Rice under legendary Owls coach Wayne Graham, followed by three years as head coach at Sam Houston, where his team made three straight NCAA regional appearances.
For Tulane, it was a rare time of being able to make seemingly the coaching hire it wanted and needed, rather than settling for what it could make.
And to his credit, Pierce said, Jones has been gracious and helpful despite his disappointment. When the team has its alumni game Feb. 7, Jones, now living back in North Carolina but feeling he’s not yet through with coaching, will be on hand.
And now the rebuilding begins.
Some of the blame for Tulane’s decline was because of changes in NCAA rules that made it harder for private schools to succeed. But sometimes it seemed like Jones spent more time complaining about those changes than adjusting to them.
Pierce will have to deal with those same changes, but he got a lesson in how to do so at Rice.
On the field, he has seven of last year’s top eight hitters back — which sounds good until you consider the Wave batted only .226. Of his three weekend starting pitchers, only sophomore Corey Merrill returns, but he was a luckless 0-5.
At Sam Houston, Pierce’s first roster had a majority of players he was able to bring in. That’s not the case at Tulane, thus the courting of the returnees.
Tulane, which is playing its first season in the American Athletic Conference, was picked sixth by the league’s coaches. Thanks to there being only eight baseball-playing schools in the AAC, the Wave is playing two series against Houston, the only returning AAC member to make the NCAA tournament last year. When last seen, the Cougars were eliminating LSU to win the Baton Rouge regional.
The nonconference schedule, at Piece’s insistence, is daunting, with separate California trips to play Pepperdine and UC-Riverside and dropping early weekend series against Grambling and Houston Baptist to instead play Creighton and Xavier of Ohio.
So, a little patience might be in order.
“No transition is easy,” Piece said. “That’s why we put so much emphasis on retaining a lot of kids. I think the fact that so many of them stayed with us is a good sign, and it’s thanks to the effort we put in flying around the country this summer, talking to them about coming back to Tulane.”
That’s about as animated as Pierce gets, but it’s clear his players have responded to the style and drive he and his coaches have brought to Ben Weiner Drive.
“When I first came here, it was because I wanted to play for Rick Jones and the other coaches,” Massey said. “But we were expected to win, get to Omaha and all of that, and we weren’t doing that.
“So they decided to make a change, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s been great. I already learned a lot, and I’m ready to go to battle with him.”