One-on-one with Virginia Tech’s Pete Hughes
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
Commitment and family aren’t just words for Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes.
They’re a way of life.
Hughes has had quite a coaching career thus far. He got Boston College headed the right direction before bolting to Virginia Tech to look for another challenge.
After almost guiding the Hokies to an NCAA postseason appearance last season, Hughes earned recognition around the country. He also caught the eyes of many at the University of Washington.
Washington dismissed long-time coach Ken Knutson last summer. Several coaches were on its short list, but the job was offered to Hughes.
Staying true to his way of life, Hughes decided to stay put at Tech.
“I just don’t think there is any better place to raise a family than where I am right now in Blacksburg, Va. I have five children and family obviously is a big part of my life,” Hughes said. “I also am motivated from a professional standpoint. However, I’m not a fan of putting myself in a situation where I might be negligent as a family man.”
Though family is important to Hughes, he also has little trouble focusing on his baseball program, which is making significant strides this season.
The Hokies haven’t made an NCAA regional since 2000. But that trend may come to an end this season with Tech sitting at 23-11. It also has a winning record in the ACC and an RPI more than worthy of a postseason bid.
Hughes discussed his career, his program and plenty of other baseball-related topics.
Rogers: The team is coming off a huge home series win over Miami last weekend. What was the team able to do throughout the weekend to take care of the Hurricanes?
Hughes: I thought we pitched at a very high level in the two games we won. We played good defense and I like the series win even more when you consider that our best players [Austin Wates] had an off weekend and we still won a pair of games. We were deep enough to win the series without Austin doing too much. We have to be able to do that against quality opponents. Other people really picked up the slack.
Q: Looking back at the last two weekends, you have series wins over Miami and Florida State. Did your team kind of look at those two series as potential statement weekends for the program?
A: I think the Florida State series was more of a statement. I think after playing so poorly against Clemson, we really wanted to go on the road and make some noise. The growth of this program hinges on winning at places like that. We didn’t do that at Clemson. We did that at Florida State. The guys are motivated to get to the next stage by winning away from home. For us, Miami was just as business as usual. I’m not sure how many times I’ve had to explain to folks around here that we’re a pretty good team. If you look at what we had returning at the plate this season, some folks wouldn’t be asking those questions. I’m not really surprised at anyone in our program right now.
Q: Utility player Austin Wates had a tough weekend against Miami, but is havng an amazing spring overall at the plate. What makes him so special?
A: I think Austin is right up there in terms of top five players I’ve ever coached. He is just so athletic and has great work ethic and character. There are very few kids that have the type of character that he brings to the table. He definitely has a team-first mentality.
Q: Speaking of talented players, starting pitcher Jesse Hahn is finally having a season to remember. How would you describe him as a pitcher?
A: Honestly just very surprised by how well he is doing this season. Jesse has four-plus pitches, is very athletic and has a great and clean arm action. He also has a great body type. He has a lot more upside than he already has showed. To be able to pitch really well at 93-95 MPH and down in the zone is the difference. That is what has separated him from others so far this season.
Q: So far this season, what goals has the team met, and who are the biggest surprises from a player standpoint?
A: The biggest question mark for me going into the season was the productivity of Jesse Hahn. He always has been able to hit the right numbers on a radar gun, so that has commanded a lot of attention. However, up until this season, he hadn’t had a winning record on the bump. I’m very surprised at how he has approached things not only in the preseason but now, too. He has made a huge jump from a maturity standpoint. He is a pretty good guy to have throwing on Sunday, and our guys feed off that.
Q: What do you still feel like this team could improve on between now and the end of the regular season?
A: If you look at our series against Miami last weekend, we had four or five easy outs in the lineup. Offense is so cyclical and streaky. We won two of three against the Hurricanes and had four or five guys that really struggled. We’re not even close to what I think we can be at the plate. My biggest question mark, though, is the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. Our setup roles have to get better. We need some guys to step up in that department and take some pressure off closer Ben Rowen.
Q: The program fell short of an NCAA regional bid last season. Do you finally feel like the program has turned the corner or do you still want to see more?
A: We have lost too many games and sacrificed too much to not feel good about what we’ve done this season. Our focus has not decreased at all. We want these guys to enjoy the season. Two years ago, this same group of players broke the school record for consecutive losses. Now what they’re doing empowers them to do more. But still, it’s important for the players to not get caught up too much. No doubt there’s a lot of excitement around here, though. This region is filled with rabid Hokies fans.
Q: It wasn’t too long ago that Virginia was a non factor on the national stage. Now the Cavaliers are rolling. Do you kind of view the Cavaliers as an example of what your program can accomplish?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I think Brian [O’Connor] has done a tremendous job with the program. I think Virginia is a great model for a lot of programs out there. But honestly, it’s a little different for us. We are different schools with vastly different facilities. They’re doing a great job with Brian leading the way, but for me to look at Virginia and Virginia Tech and compare the two is false. It’s apples and oranges. We’re selling two completely different things.
Q: You previously coached at Boston College. What you have noticed as the similarities and differences between BC and Virginia Tech?
A: I think what is similar is the fact we’re trying to change the perception of our program in a top-tier conference. I think Boston College is one of the top schools in the Northeast and certainly the No. 1 choice of many kids around the region. But that isn’t the case at Virginia Tech. I would say Virginia is tops with North Carolina, Clemson and South Carolina also in the mix. I would actually say Tech is more of a recruiting challenge. Facilities factors into the equation, too. We won’t get involved with recruits that make decisions based on our locker room having a 70-inch flat screen television on the wall. But all we can do is promise that you will graduate and not get caught up in things that only will waste your time. We have a great campus and nice facility. Overall, though, BC is just similar in terms of trying to earn respect.
Q: You had an opportunity to take the Washington job last summer, but decided to stay put at Virginia Tech. What was your reasoning for staying put and why is Tech such a special place to you?
A: I just don’t think there is any better place to raise a family than where I am right now in Blacksburg, Va. I have five children and family obviously is a big part of my life. I also am motivated from a professional standpoint. However, I’m not a fan of putting myself in a situation where I might be negligent as a family man. As far as the administration here, they share the same goals that I do for the program. They showed me that they were committed over the summer [by extending his contract through 2014] and I wanted to finish the job I was brought here to do. I also knew our class of juniors were going to formulate a pretty good team this season, so it would’ve been really hard to walk away from that. I did that once at Boston College. I knew the type of kids it had, so it wasn’t a surprise to me it made an NCAA regional last season. Just to get paid off and leave would’ve sacrificed way too much in my life. I love the family I have and love living in this area. Sometimes those things are more important.
Q: You recently constructed a new hitting and pitching facility. Is there anything else on the docket for your program from a facilities standpoint?
A: We will have field turf in the near future. It’s a battle I have fought here and have won. Just a few years ago our administration would’ve never thought to install field turf. But from a developmental and practical standpoint, field turf is what we need. If we had field turf this season, even with the worst winter in 50 years, we still would’ve been able to practice. But we didn’t because we still had a grass field. So, having a field turf baseball field is important from a developmental standpoint. Also, it’s important to note that we have a very unique venue and facility, and a capacity of around 2,500. But it also must be said that we can’t really be compared to Virginia. They recently put several million dollars into their facility, and that is a different world from our program, at least right now. We get recruits that love Virginia Tech for what we have to sell.
Q: Who is the best team you have seen this season?
A: It’s tough for me not to say Clemson because they swept us and looked great in doing so. I also think Coastal Carolina was a very good club. The Chanticleers were very athletic and are very good in their home ballpark. They play good defense and don’t make too many mistakes. Their pitchers also throw strikes and the bullpen is solid. Offensively, the Chants are very solid 1-9. Florida State will be better as the season progresses. But honestly, I believe Virginia and Georgia Tech – opponents the next two weekends – are the best teams we will see this season.
Q: As a coach that is familiar with what is going on across the country, is there anything that stands out to you on the national landscape?
A: I love the story with California this season. I love that it is doing well. Oregon is a huge surprise so far this season, too. You talk about teams that recruit with bad facilities, and realize how hard that is. All I’ve ever done is recruit at places with inferior facilities. So I’m always trying to recruit on the program and coaching staff’s personalities. I think Cal coach Dave Esquer is one of the best baseball guys in the country. I know a lot of us want to give guys credibility based only on wins and losses, but I’ve done a lot of research on Cal and Esquer, and he has done a really nice job in terms of being a great teacher of the game. I also would say Pittsburgh and Connecticut are pleasant surprises.
Q: If there was something that you could change about college baseball, what would it be?
A: The only thing that really aggravates me right now is not getting the low strike called in college baseball. The sport gets such a bad wrap because the games are out of control. There are high scores and the games take so long. Not only do we have hitters using metal bats, we also don’t get the low strike. That is the reason you see some 19-17 games on Sundays. That doesn’t do anything good for the sport. Coaches and players are aggravated about the low strike issue. I think it is important to open up the strike zone and make you give the lower zone a priority. That improves our product.
Q: Who have you learned the most from throughout your coaching career?
A: LSU coach Paul Mainieri is one of my best friends in the profession. I got to know him well competing against him. I would also say Northeastern coach Neil McPhee. He was my first boss and aided me when I was recruiting in the middle of a city with poor facilities. I really learned a lot from him as a competitor. In terms of Mainieri and McPhee, it is two guys on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Q: After making statements the past two weekends, what would taking series over Virginia and Georgia Tech the next two weekends do for the program?
A: It would be as good as you can get for this program. It would get us to the level that we want to be at. And with the group we have right now, winning those two series wouldn’t surprise me at all. We’re in a stage where we expect to win games. That mindset certainly hasn’t been here in a while. But now we have that attitude and the fun is just getting started.