The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews with various head coaches around the nation. We recently were able to talk with South Alabama’s Steve Kittrell. He is entering his 26th season in charge of the South Alabama Jaguars. He last led the team to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 when they received an at large berth. They last won the Sun Belt tournament title in 2005 and won the entire conference in 2004.
1. South Alabama is coming off a 32-26 overall record and a 15-15 record in the Sun Belt conference. This season you enter the season in with five returning position players coming back . Out of the position players, Who do you think has improved the most during your fall workouts in 2008?
Steve Kittrell: Nathaniel Lami made the biggest jump from one year to the next, so he’s battling for a starting job. Sean Laird had a really good fall, and Chris Davis is on the verge of having a breakout year.
2. The Jaguars lost nine pitchers and return 10 pitchers from the 2008 team. Who do you expect to fill these holes in the upcoming season?
SK: Matt Jackson is going to be a weekend starter for sure. He had a great fall and he’s a guy we’re counting on heavily. Lance Baxter and Brandon Sage are in the mix for the weekend rotation. Miles Ethridge is another guy who we’re debating whether to start him or use him as a reliever. Chris LaGrow is capable of doing big things if he can stay healthy, but we didn’t get to see much of him in the fall. Michael Raia came on strong at the end of last season, and he continued that in the fall. We’ve got a lot of left-handed pitchers with Baxter, LaGrow, Sage and Phillip Byrd, and we were impressed with the overall depth of our staff.
3. Have any of your incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you see any of them breaking into the starting lineup/rotation this season?
SK: Phillip Byrd had a really good fall. He could be a starter during the middle of the week, but he could also come out of the bullpen on the weekends. He’s going to see a lot of action on the mound. Matt Drake had an ankle injury and missed most of the fall, but he’s a guy we feel like we can count on from both sides of the plate. Brad Hook is another guy who has made really good strides. There are a lot of them with a lot of potential, so we like our freshman class.
4. The Sun Belt conference has become more competitive over the last few years. What team do you expect to be your biggest challenge in making back to the NCAA Tourney for the first time since 2006?
SK: It has become more competitive. It’s a really balanced league, but we haven’t been as good of South Alabama teams as the team of the past. Last year we had the position players, but we just didn’t get it done on the mound. We had some decent pitching, but we just didn’t have the number of good pitchers you need. This year’s team has a good nucleus that can get us back in contention no matter how good the Sun Belt is, and I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in contention. Western Kentucky is going to be the favorite, and I voted for them to win the league. They’ve got everybody back. They’ve got (Matt) Ridings on the mound, who is as good as anybody in the league, and they’ve got (Chad) Cregar and a bunch of good hitters too. They’re going to be a team that is going to have to be reckoned with. We open up conference play with them, but we’re going to have to take it one weekend at a time because this is a tough league. Every weekend you’ve got to show up because it’s not like years ago when you could sometimes play an average or below-average game and still win against a few teams. That’s not the case anymore.
5. Last season we saw the implementation of the Uniform Start Date. What are your early impressions on it? Did you think it has leveled the playing field?
SK: I like it because I think it’s fair. It needs to be fair for the northern teams. Anybody that plays Division I baseball should have an equal chance to win the national championship, and this makes it a little more fair. I’m still for backing the season up a little further into the summer. That would be even better because you could have Michigan vs. Ohio State in a nice evening up in Columbus. I’d love to see it backed up a little bit more, and I know there are some logistics to work out, but I like the starting date. Most of the coaches don’t want to give up any games, but I’d love to see us give up about six games and go from 56 to 50. We miss so much class. You’re playing two games in the middle of the week almost every week, and that’s a little too much. We need to look at that, go to 50 games in the spring, and play six in the fall. Six doubleheaders in the fall would be outstanding.
7. How will the new rules with the way the scholarships can be split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
SK: I like it. The 25 percent minimum is a good start, but I still think they should increase the number of scholarships and then increase the minimum amount you can give. It’s ridiculous that our guys are on the little bit that they’re on compared to football and basketball. Our guys work extremely hard, and some of them are too talented to be playing for a 30 percent scholarship.
8. With the removal of the one-time transfer exemption that allowed student-athletes to change schools once without having to sit out a red-shirt year, do you feel that there is more pressure on a coach to recruit with responsibility or for the student-athlete to be aware of what programs are the best fit for them?
SK: First of all, unless we give these guys full scholarships they should be allowed to transfer out. I don’t think it’s fair to tell a guy that’s on 30 percent that he can’t transfer back home and play cheaper without having to sit out a year. That’s a ridiculous rule, but it’s a rule we live with, and we all have to be careful. I hope there’s always been that responsibility from the coaches. You’re always looking for the kind of guy that’s the right fit, who is a good guy on and off the field, and who is going to go to class. I hope coaches do their homework there.
9. Final question, who has been your biggest influence on your coaching philosophy or career?
SK: Coach Eddie Stanky. He was a great man. I was going to be a business major, I wanted to be in the FBI, and when I played for coach Stanky I just knew what I wanted to do. I loved the game and the way he taught the game. It was really exciting to play for him, but it was tough to play for him. He was very demanding, but he was a brilliant baseball guy. If you just listened and did what he said you grew to love him. He was a great guy.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Steve Kittrell for taking some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. Special thanks goes to David Kaye of South Alabama Media Relations for setting up the interview and giving us the picture of Coach Kittrell. If any other SID’s or Coaches would like to do a similiar interview feel free to contact me by clicking here.