Transforming and Maintaining a Championship level baseball program: The Five Elements

study conducted by Barry Davis, Ph.D, head coach, Rider University

The current athletic climate brings high expectations, and little time to meet those expectations. In recent years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division I (D1) football and men’s basketball have become a cultural phenomenon in the United States and a premier revenue producer for their respective universities. However, closing quickly on a smaller scale is Division I (DI) college baseball. Although College baseball does not appear to have ultimately captured the nation, it can be considered a university’s third most popular sport is bringing with it the pressures associated with winning and winning now. Rarely regarded as prior, several factors are perpetuating these pressures. The first is the realization by University leaders that baseball can be a revenue producer and self-supporting program. A second is a growth spawned by television. With the advent of conference networks, live Internet streaming, and ESPN, one can see many of their favorite programs more often than ever before. A third factor is the salaries a head baseball coach can now garner. In 2019, it was reported by The USA Today’s that nine college head coaches had reached million dollar plus salaries surpassing eight then-current Major League Baseball managers. Lastly, a fourth factor is the continuous development in facilities. It is these elements formed in the aggregate that has led to many of the 88 head coaching changes in college baseball between 2017 and 2019.

With the pressures to win increasing, access to seemingly limitless resources, coupled with high expectations, a DI college baseball program requires proven leadership. These facts strengthen the notion that the head coach is the crucial figure in any athletic program. By understanding the magnitude a successful and transformed athletic program can offer a university and its stakeholders, it is seemingly clear the hiring of an elite head coach, fitting precisely within the university’s mission, can be the primary link to success. While knowing the cost to obtain an elite head coach can be boundless, the gap university administrators have to determine are the key components and leadership approaches of the elite coach who has proven to possess the talent and skills required to transform a perennial losing program into a recurring winning one.

A qualitative study was designed to assist in finding those key components by exploring the leadership approaches of nine elite NCAA Division I head baseball coaches who have transformed a perennial losing program into a recurring winning program. These nine coaches have a combined six national titles, 186 years of experience and well over 7,000 wins. Framed by leadership, coaching, and culture change, the findings would provide university administrators, stakeholders, and search firms a guideline for identifying and selecting an elite head coach. To uncover the common themes required to transform a losing program into a winning program, nine purposely selected elite head baseball coaches participated in one on one, face-to-face audio-recorded interviews. The semi-structured interviews centered on two research questions. The first asked, how do elite coaches describe their experiences of transforming a losing program into a winning program? The second question asked, how do elite coaches describe the importance of creating and maintaining the culture to support the transformation? The study revealed five common themes found among elite coaches and their programs. These include (a) leadership and leadership development; (b) consistency and consistent communication; (c) setting standards; (d) acquiring the right fit; and (e) a growth mindset.

Barry Davis

The five themes discovered in this study offer a brief and limited look into the minds and personalities of elite DI head baseball coaches who have demonstrated transformational and culture-building competencies and skillsets. These “elite seekers” or “serial-winners” have found a proven method for recurring success in a challenging athletic climate where winning and winning now is perceived as a program necessity. These findings offer a proven foundation for university administrators, stakeholders, and search firms to assist in head coach identification and selection. The results of this study also have the potential to cultivate new ideas and alter mindsets while deepening an ever-evolving philosophy on leadership, coaching, and culture change. Creating another generation of successful and effective leaders in the field of higher education and athletics seems worth the task. 

The Five Themes

1.         Leadership and Leadership Development

2.         Consistency and Consistent Communication

3.         Standards

4.         Right Fit

5.         Growth Mindset

For more information on this study, contact bdavis@rider.edu or via Twitter @BarryDavis42