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bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 08/13/13 | bleedCrimson.net :: Your Source for NMSU Aggies Sports News

bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 08/13/13

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We spoke with Aggie baseball head coach Rocky Ward after the University and athletic department announced a $1.4 million donation for baseball facility improvements. We got his thoughts on what the donation and facility upgrades will mean for the program and the future of New Mexico State baseball

bleedCrimson.net: An historic day not just for New Mexico State baseball but for New Mexico State in general. Mid-major schools don't often see large gifts like this.
Rocky Ward: No and in fact somebody had said maybe less than 30 in the history of the school across the board and this is only the second for athletics. It's a pretty big deal.

bc.net: Your dad has a lot of experience at two different schools and building them up and doing this kind of fundraising [Yavapai College and Oklahoma State] and so you've seen firsthand what this type of donation can do for a program.
RW: Yeah, we can kind of break it up into three areas of what it does. One, it's going to give our fans a much nicer viewing experience. It'll bring more people and more attention to Aggie baseball. That's a big benefit. It think that's not just the local people. I think it's people from out of town and out of state as well.

The second thing it does is it sends a strong message to recruits that it's a program that's growing and that is willing to invest in its facilities. I think when you go back and look at the history of college baseball programs, in almost every case when you've seen a baseball team make significant progress it's been a result of the stadium or some sort of major upgrade that has made that happen. There have been a couple of scenarios over the years where some NCAA rule changes, in particular the ability to stack academic and athletic scholarships, had a pretty significant change in some universities, in particular the higher academic institutions that relied a lot of academic scholarships for function. But the stadium is the number one thing as far as being the number one reason teams make large improvements quickly. That's the number one thing across the board.

Mike and Judy [Johnson] donated money to Rice University and part of their donation and some other people's helped build Reccling Park and that led to significant progress in that program. In my comments at the press conference I brought up the story of Allie Reynolds who in 1980 gave a large donation to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma State is maybe the best example in history of what a stadium can do. They went on to win 16 consecutive Big Eight titles and seven consecutive trips to Omaha after the stadium was built. The program was on its way but the stadium has to be a part of it. You cannot do it without it.

Cal State-Fullerton had a very good baseball team, they had huge advantages in the fact that they had tons of players in their area, their school was not overly expensive, they had good weather, had a good baseball area, had all the peripheral advantages that you could ever ask for but they didn't really jump until they had significant stadium improvements. Larry Cassian who is the pitching coach at Portland, I ran into him last week and he played at Fullerton back in the day and they used to have to bring in bleachers from the football stadium after the football season was over for baseball. They were good but they weren't able to move to the level they moved to until they got the stadium. University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt, two programs who ten years were almost non-existent, have become top ten, top twenty type teams. There are differences. They built big beautiful stadiums, that's not really what we're doing. We're trying to build a nice ballpark for our fans and for our players but it's a significant upgrade.

Then the last factor involved with it is on the field performance because we're going to have more people in the stands and the players are going to be more proud of the facility they play in. And that extends past just the games you play at home. I know that the first time that my players walked into Hawai'i or walked into Fresno and saw those stadiums, it's cool but they're not used to being in a nice place. I think players react to that one of two ways. Either, "That stinks, this is what they've got and we don't have anything", that's the negative of course, or it's a little bit intimidating because they're in a nice place. End result, it's not a major deal but when you're talking about a program like ours, being able to impact four or five games in a year makes a huge difference in a season. The difference between wining 30 and 35 is sometimes the difference between making it to a Regional or not. This type of donation for a facility improvements takes some of those negatives we've had to deal with over the years off the board.

bc.net: You have been involved with the Aggie baseball program for 15 or 16 years now. What does a gift like this mean to you as a coach, as a person has put your blood, sweat and tears into building the program to what it is now and as you continue to build it?
RW: It gives you hope. There are days as the Aggie baseball coach, even in the last four or five years that have been pretty successful, where you're not sure that you have enough to get it done. The work you have to do every year in order to put a team on the field requires that you train them very, very well at a very high level, requires that they don't get injured, requires that you have a little bit of baseball luck in order to piece it all together. More than anything it means that you can develop continuity in the program and that's been the hardest thing for me to do over my tenure. There have been ups and downs and there have been more ups now than down but the first several years we had bad year, bad year, okay year, good year, bad year, just back and forth. I've described to you and other people, it's like walking along the cliff ledge. What this has done is say, "Hey coach, we'll let you walk 100 yards from the cliff ledge now and you don't have to worry about falling and having a bad year." Now the stadium doesn't guarantee any of that stuff but it takes a lot of the negatives out of it. For the first time you feel like we have enough money to do it all up pretty nice. We've built this piece by piece and what I've feel like over the past four or five years in particular is that some of the pieces I built 15 years ago need redone. Every time you redo or fix something, something else is getting older. So, it's the first time we have a chance to do it all at once and have everything nice all at once and that helps you to concentrate on the things that you need to do within the program to build it with players.

bc.net: You and I have talked every season at the beginning of the season about how you talk to each new ball club about them standing on the shoulders of the players that have come before them. How great is it for those players that have contributed to the success of the program to be able to see a gift like this happen?
RW: That's two-fold, I got a text right before from Evan Mott asking when are you going to start it? That's unusual because usually the player is really happy for you or upset that they didn't get to be a part of it. I think in general they've very happy for it. They've understood the difficulties and they're rooting for their alma mater and a donation like this gives their alma mater a chance to success. As people get older they have pride in their school and even though they may have not had access to the type of facilities that we're going to build, they know that we have a chance to be successful on a consistent basis.

bc.net: The answer to this question is probably obvious but do you feel like a gift like this would have been possible without the success that you've had over the past five or six seasons in the WAC?
RW: No. I think that's the issue that we deal with as coaches. When we take over mid-major programs that don't have very good facilities, we know how hard it's going to be to get the program up to a point where it can get attention where somebody might have interest in giving a gift. I've been frustrated for the past four or five years because I thought we'd gotten ourselves there. We've been pretty consistent, ranked in the top part of the country. We had the conference championship team, we had the year we were a tick away from being in a Regional and two years ago being in a Regional. I thought we'd gotten to a point where I'd built it up to where I thought this might happen, I just didn't know that Mike Johnson and Judy Johnson were watching. I think it had a lot to do with it. Nobody wants to put money into a program that has too much that has happen to get it to success. We've got one that has shown that we can do it without anything. I think that had a lot to do with it. Mike was involved with the Rice program. There are some parallels in the way he was involved with that program and what they did. They didn't have much of a facility. Rice baseball was not the big guy in town. They were not very good at one point but then they hired a guy named Wayne Graham and Wayne brought a hard-nosed environment there and built it and won some games and I think that the point that Mike got involved with Rice baseball was somewhere around the same stage that we're in. He was smart enough to have seen where Rice was and what the stadium did for them and through experience he understood that New Mexico State needed a facility in order to make the next step. He recognized that and he really truly believes as I do, the main reason he's making the donation is that he believes that it is a difference making donation. What he's doing for us will help us get to the next step and the next step was probably unlikely without it. What is the next step? I don't know. Is it reasonable to expect that we start dominating our conference, is it reasonable to expect that we go to Regionals every year? I don't know, probably not yet but what the donation does is it gives us hope and puts us closer to that being a reality. It's a difference-making, life-altering, program-changing gift.

The neat thing about it is Mike Johnson knows exactly what he's doing. I think that some people that donate just want to donate and they know it'll help but they don't know how much it will but I think Mike knows exactly how much this gift will help us.

bc.net: Obviously the last couple of seasons has been transitional with the WAC but the baseball side of things keeps some of the core with Bakersfield and Sacrament State still being in the league. How much does this, assuming everybody stays in the league, help keep you established in the top half of the league.
RW: With the facility we have right now in the new league, Chicago State just built a new place, I don't know how nice it is but it's new. Grand Canyon has a nice facility, Bakersfield is upgrading their, Sacramento's isn't very pretty but it's a reasonable place. We still would have been at the bottom of the league in facilities. Texas-Pan Am plays in an older facility but it's an old minor league park that already has chair backs and the base of that stadium is a good enough place to use as a base. It has good dugouts, good chair backs, good press box. I think what this does does is once we get it completed is it'll make us one of the top two or three if not the top facility in the league and that's a big advantage when it comes down to the league. Whether we had it [upgrades] or not we were still going to be a top tier team in the league.

I think in the future if there's a change in league and we go back in to like an old WAC or Sun Belt or Missouri Valley, all those conferences were bandied around at some point, that our facility will be able to compete favorably with leagues like that. I think you have to look long term. If the WAC is long term for us then that's fine but if you moved into the Mountain West for example, our facility would be equal to what UNM has right now and it may be a little bit better. What they have is about what we're trying to do except we'll have a sun cover and chair backs. They have other plans for their facility but we played up there last year and our place would be slightly better than what they have.

Mike and Judy have made it pretty clear that they are hopeful that this donation will lead to more. Whether it will or not I don't know but it might. There's some momentum involved where somebody's put up the big number and now people can feel like in order to help us they don't need to give $1.5 million but a $100,000 donation is meaningful. $100,00 is a lot of money but it wouldn't have been enough to put chair backs in. But $100,000 on top of what we have can go to lots of other things. One thing we don't have is we still have a portable ticket booth and a portable concession stand and one thing we'd like to have is to make those permanent and build those under the stadium where they can be permanent and convenient for people. There are always things that can be done. Once we get what will be approximately 1,000 chair backs and a completed stadium, the next stage would be to put in additions to the wings of bleacher seating so we're not that far away from maybe going from 1,000 seat all chair backs to 1,500 seat total stadium with 1,000 chair backs and 500 for bleachers. It puts us in a position where over the next couple of years if we're running out of seats, the overflow seating and seating like that makes you a more viable candidate for Regional hosting. They're not that far away. I would guess that the bleacher seating probably still costs a couple hundred thousand but you might be able to find a couple people willing to help you out at that stage.

bc.net: How much does the facility play into being able to bring in teams in the non-conference.
RW: I think it has something to do with it. To me it's not a significant thing at this point but in the long run yes I think it's something you can look at as an advantage. For example, I probably lost Texas Tech this year because they don't want to come into that facility. They didn't say that but that's kind of the way it is. We're going to go play Texas Tech on a weekend but they really don't want to come over to our facility and I think that has a lot to do with it.

Scheduling, everything around the program will be impacted. The attention, people who want to come see the new facility, attendance will go up, recruiting will be easier. It is the one single silver bullet that you have in an athletic program. A new facility does everything for you, it makes everything easier.