Fans, Media Can Destroy Coaches In Baseball

Editor/Collegiate Baseball

TEMPE, Ariz. — Losing can destroy people. It is a subject that Collegiate Baseball has never tackled in-depth before now.

Winning is cherished in society. The coach is put on a pedestal as the pressure to win intensifies.

When wins are hard to come by, society shuns that same coach as he becomes a leper.

Arizona State Head Coach Tracy Smith has faced both sides of this fence.

A fabulous baseball coach for the past 22 years with previous stops at Miami (Ohio) and Indiana, he was hired in 2014 to run the Sun Devil program and bring back the success that allowed ASU to win five national baseball titles.

The last came 38 years ago in 1981.

His first two seasons, ASU went to NCAA Regionals after posting 35-23 and 36-23 records.

Then the Sun Devils posted its first back-to-back losing seasons in school history in 2017 and 2018.

In 2017, ASU was 23-32 with a 10th place finish in the Pac-12 Conference.

In 2018, ASU once again posted a 23-32 overall record with a seventh place finish in the Pac-12.

As you can imagine, Sun Devil fans made life miserable for him and his family as the media pointed out every problem along the way.

What makes this story so fascinating is that the Sun Devils started the 2019 season 21-0 and were the last unbeaten NCAA Division I team. For much of the season, ASU has been ranked in the top 10 by Collegiate Baseball.

Fans of Arizona State believed Smith was the man who could bring another national title to this program.

Then they turned on him in 2017 and 2018.

“Anything worth attaining is going to involve struggles,” said Smith.

“If we all had the benefits or fruits of the labor without struggles or growing pains, I don’t know how meaningful it would all be. I’ve had some really high moments in my career, and I cherish those moments.

“But these last couple of years for me in 2017 and 2018 have put another tool in my tool belt. What it has taught me is that you must have an evenness and have strong conviction in what you are doing.

“You tighten your circle of friends whether you are winning or losing. There will be a few individuals whose opinions matter. Outside of that, it’s not even worth listening to.

“For the better part of my career, I have been on some pretty successful teams. We have gone through losing before. But it wasn’t at a place like this where the expectations are so high that draw such intense and vocal criticism.

“I’ve never had to deal with it to the extent we have here. I am thankful I experienced it, and people probably think I’m lying when I say that. I am thankful because I have never faced that before in my profession.

“To flip on the TV and see people literally talking about your job security or being fired or me being on the hot seat is extremely difficult to go through.

“It has helped me become a better coach and better person because it intensifies those close relationships I have with people, whether it be family, friends or players who are important to me. As an overall experience the past two years, I wouldn’t change anything.”

Staying With Plan
Smith has tried to remain true to who he is throughout the past two years.

He demands players go to class and do the right thing in their lives as well as being team players who genuinely pull for each other and thrive with ideal team chemistry.

Late in the 2017 season, five players left the team for various reasons as different media outlets presented a program in shambles which was far from the truth.

“A lot of that from the media was misrepresented. All they knew was that certain players left our program. We had to dismiss an individual who had conduct that was detrimental to the culture of our program. From the outside, people have their own perception of why they were leaving.

“What we have never done and will not do is give the reasons why. We don’t feel that is anybody else’s business. I would just say there hasn’t been a player who has left this program where it wasn’t mutually beneficial for all parties.

“My disappointment was members of the media putting their own spin on that without getting the facts straight. Their spin couldn’t have been further from the real reasons why people were departing the program.

“The media portrayed this as a giant exodus of players from Arizona State.

“It just wasn’t true and cost us a lot of time. The internet now allows anybody to say what they want. People will read that as gospel. People wanted to know what was going on at Arizona State. We had no problem, and we were fine.

“Of course, that led to a lot of negativity and a lot of unfair and unjust comments about our program. But you know what? I will take a passionate fan base any time even if some of that passion is a little misplaced.

“I was hired at ASU to do a job and build a culture that was consistent with the culture of our Athletics Director Ray Anderson.

“As far as the rest of the players on my team, those kids could have swayed to public opinion that was out there during that time which was on message boards, blog sites and other locations. They didn’t. They wanted to be a part of the solution. Those are the kids who are now experiencing success early in the 2019 season because they stuck with our process.”

“We started that process almost five years ago. I used the word process in the beginning when I took this job. People ridiculed us for even using the word process. They wondered why we needed a process at Arizona State?

“Any successful business or program has a detailed process on how you want things to go. We laid that out, and all we have done from that time is execute that process. It takes patience at times. I am thankful my athletics director and president believe in that process and have given us the autonomy and authority to execute it.

Freshmen Grow Up
Smith said a lot of people have asked him what the difference is this year as the team has played so well and racked up win after win.

“Last year, we played 5-7 freshmen a game, and we were the youngest team in the country. With youth and inexperience comes a lot of inconsistency. I was a little bit disappointed we didn’t win more games last season. But I also wasn’t shocked. I did see flashes of brilliance.

“The simple answer to people about why our team is experiencing so much success this year is that they have grown up. We’re older and more mature. These are the same kids who were being ripped last season.

“Sometimes there is a push to do things more quickly. We have a long way to go this season. But we are starting to see some great things that we laid out for our process years ago.”

Most Hurtful Moments
Smith has experienced some very difficult moments over the past two years.

“I can remember after one of the highly publicized player dismissals, I made a mound visit during a home game the next day. I got booed out of the stadium.

“I can handle being booed. But what struck me as being odd is that if fans really knew the reasons why some of these players left, I would have been booed if they would have been allowed to continue.

“Hurtful may be too strong of a word. But it just struck me that people were booing and going crazy. We did what we did because we have standards and expectations for our student athletes. We had an obligation as a coaching staff and leaders of this storied program to make sure we continue to uphold those standards.

“And that’s all we did. I just thought those actions by fans were odd, and that comes with the territory. I have had my share of hate mail and e-mail just as I’m sure my administrators have had.

“I’m pretty private about what has been said about me. It would surprise you what some individuals said and how vindictive those comments were.

“They were comments my mother told me never to say in writing. You read them, scratch your head and say, really? Coming from someone in your position, do you not understand that in positions of leadership you sometimes go through painful situations?

“I hang on to those e-mails or letters as motivation to keep me centered. I was pretty shocked what people said or the length they would go through to personally attack me over wins and losses.

“There was one message sent to my personal e-mail I did reference to the authorities. Most of the time it is someone spouting off about what a bad coach and person you are and blah, blah, blah. This had a connotation of physical harm. I wanted to make people aware in the event something happened to me.”

Smith said he had his eyes opened one time when he spoke to a booster group in Phoenix.

“I got verbally attacked during the booster group meeting. I am the type who can handle it and have some fun. It was very inappropriate behavior particular from a booster group of your school. People are passionate, and I try to put that in the context that they care.

“It may be misplaced and out of whack, but it made me less naive and wonder what a person’s intentions are. There were some people in your quarter. But when the losses started coming in 2017, certain people made it clear they weren’t with you.

“That happens, and it isn’t unique to Tracy Smith. It just made me a little more sensitive and in tune to my relationships with people and groups.

“I wasn’t going to let anybody and everybody in because I saw how quickly people turned.”

Smith said the negative comments really hurt his wife Jaime and three sons Casey, Ty and Jack. 

“All of this stuff has been much harder on them. I have had to tone my boys down. They get really protective. I would see something on Twitter where they are going at it with some fanatic. I told them to knock it off because it doesn’t matter. People who have those opinions don’t matter.

“When someone is saying something about someone you love, you get protective. But it is a great learning experience because it comes with the territory. Just let it go.”

Dealing With Parents
Smith was asked if he had a low point the last two seasons.

“You get in this profession because you want to serve and make student/athletes better. It is easy to be positive and good when things are going well which correlates to winning. But when you are faced with adversity, and I say this all the time to our kids, that is how we define ourselves.

“The low point for me was when losses were mounting and how some of the parents of players who were departing reacted. Our coaching staff spends an incredible amount of time, including many sleepless nights, trying to come up with ways to help our players every way possible.

“Some of the misinformed, low shots taken by a few parents is surprising with everything our coaching staff has done to help their kids grow as people and baseball players. Yet they can’t see that because maybe their son didn’t have a high enough batting average or throw with the velocity they wanted. That’s the stuff on a personal level that bothers me.

“As the parents of athletes myself, I understand what coaches do with the time they are with kids. Nobody is trying to make kids worse. It fundamentally doesn’t make sense to do that. Seeing some of these parents who you had great relationships with turn on a dime was the low point for me.

“One thing I have found is that coaches across the board want to help their kids. And often times, coaches might be the first people in the lives of some kids that hold these young men accountable for their actions. Often times I am so disappointed when kids do the wrong thing.

“In our recruiting, we want to know what the message will be from home as far as doing the right thing in life. We want that to be consistent at Arizona State as well as home with the full backing of parents.”

To read more of this article, purchase the April 5, 2019 edition of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE.