WVU baseball: Van Zant expects many hurdles for next coach
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Sometime soon, West Virginia will hire a new baseball coach to replace Greg Van Zant, who was fired May 19 after 18 seasons leading the Mountaineers.
The decision wasn't surprising.
Athletic Director Oliver Luck told Van Zant weeks before the final game of the season that he would not renew Van Zant's contract.
Before that, Van Zant had figured the crowd was rising against him.
He hoped he could do enough to earn a shot to coach in the Big 12, in a new stadium and finally with a full complement of scholarships - something only seven of the other 11 schools in the Big East had.
His successor instead will get to work with all the things Van Zant wanted.
"I've been extremely loyal to the university, and I've tried my butt off, but there's a picture being painted that this is my fault," Van Zant said. "The issue is not a coaching issue or a players issue. It's an administrative issue.
"They can say what they want about me and paint a picture of me not being a good coach. They can go out and get a better coach for the Big 12, but whatever they do, it doesn't matter if you don't support the program."
Van Zant, 51, was 528-451-1 as head coach at West Virginia and spent 27 seasons at WVU as a player, assistant and head coach. He won a Big East regular season and tournament title and two conference coach of the year awards.
He also saw hostility against him grow over the years, from former players and their parents, high school coaches and WVU fans. It showed up on Twitter accounts and a website lampooning his career.
From 2003-11, WVU was one of three teams across the nation to bat .300 or better every season. Yet in the past 10 years, the Mountaineers finished under .500 four times and one game above once. They were 24-32 this past season and finished 9-18 and in 11th place in the 12-team Big East.
"It's no surprise we've struggled," Van Zant said. "We never made a commitment to sinking money into the facility or into the program."
That's the perception WVU battles as it tries to hire a new coach.
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THE MOUNTAINEERS have been connected to some recognizable names, including former Notre Dame and Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, former Tennessee coach Rod Delmonico, Virginia assistants Kevin McMullen and Karl Kuhn, St. John's assistant Mike Hampton and North Carolina State assistant Tom Holliday, who was born in Uniontown, Pa., and worked for 26 seasons as an assistant and head coach at Oklahoma State.
Whoever is hired will deal with the premier obstacle for baseball at WVU: Hawley Field.
As other programs improved through the years, Hawley Field became arguably the worst facility in the Big East. It will be the worst in the Big 12, where baseball is a popular and lucrative sport that demands resources.
"Last fall we had a recruit in and we showed him everything on campus and he loved it. He loved everything about West Virginia," Van Zant said. "Then we showed him the ballpark."
"It's obvious," Van Zant recalled the player's father saying, "the school doesn't care about baseball."
That player signed elsewhere, and Hawley Field's reputation took another bite out of the Mountaineers.
"All these kids play on summer travel teams, and their coaches are experienced and have been around, and they know what schools put money into baseball and the facilities, and they steer their kids to those schools," Van Zant said.
"From a facilities standpoint, it's made it really hard to recruit here, which makes it really hard to compete, especially when everyone around us is building and upgrading their facilities."
Small facility improvements have been made through the years. There are lights now that weren't there 20 years ago. There is a batter's eye in the outfield and a batting cage beyond the right field fence. The university made all of that possible.
Then there are those pine trees outside the outfield fence. Those were donated, and WVU players dug the holes and planted the trees themselves. The foul poles were loaded in the back of pickup trucks and put in place by the team.
A few years ago, Van Zant said players complained about a flagpole beyond the center field fence and how it distracted hitters. That was moved, though again by the players and coaches.
Luck, who was Van Zant's boss for two of his 18 years and just granted the baseball team its first full allotment of 11.7 scholarships, knows Hawley Field isn't an acceptable venue for the Big 12.
He would rather play Big 12 home games next season around the state instead of on campus. He wants a new ballpark by the 2014 season and Wednesday saw the Monongalia County Commission unanimously approve plans for a tax-increment financing district to fund a new ballpark in Granville.
Van Zant said he was never asked about the idea.
"I have a hundred stories like that," he said.
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AN ALARMING story involves a player from Van Zant's last team, whose family requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The player had been something of a recruiting coup for the Mountaineers, who worked tirelessly to get him to Morgantown because they believed he was an all-conference player.
Late in March, he complained of pain and numbness in his right (throwing) arm and couldn't play. The player met with the team's trainer, who is a graduate assistant because the baseball program doesn't have a full-time trainer at WVU.
The trainer found no problem, though the player still couldn't throw or play. After a few more days the player was allowed to meet with an orthopedist at WVU. The player had an X-ray that showed nothing, which prompted him to ask for an MRI. He was denied.
The player's parents said Van Zant informed the player he wouldn't be traveling with the team the rest of the season.
The player then went home to get an MRI. He ended up quitting the team because he was so frustrated by the pace of the post-injury process as well as the treatment he received from the training staff and Van Zant. The parents said that Van Zant thought their son was faking the injury and that the coach was "verbally abusive."
The player eventually underwent an MRI back home and learned he had a herniated disc in his neck and either a bone tumor or a bone bruise in his shoulder. He's scheduled for a second MRI in July to determine if it's a bruise or a tumor. He's been prohibited from throwing.
Van Zant wouldn't confirm or comment on the story, though he shared another he felt illustrated his frustrations.
In the mid 1990s, the baseball team started selling season tickets, and by the fourth year Van Zant said the school had sold about 200 with an eventual goal of 1,000.
That year, an administrator called Van Zant to say WVU was ending the campaign.
He asked why.
"There's not enough interest in the baseball program," he said he was told.
"Isn't that what we're trying to generate?" he asked.
Van Zant had other problems building interest.
During the fall, travel baseball teams play weekend tournaments all across the map. Many schools play host to those events and spin that into a recruiting advantage.
Van Zant said he couldn't because of the proximity of his baseball field to the soccer field.
"It's right on top of us, so we were told we can't do anything there because they don't want balls going on the (soccer) field and things like that," he said.
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WHEN VAN ZANT started, he came up with a three-phase plan for development of Hawley Field. The first phase was to improve the playing surface and the backstop and put up a net screening behind home plate.
The second phase was to enhance the dugouts and build a clubhouse. It's still pending.
"We're the only Division I program that I know of that doesn't have a clubhouse or locker room with heat and lights and a bathroom," Van Zant said. "Our players' locker room is the trunk of their cars.
"It's just like summer ball. The guys who live on campus get dressed in their dorm rooms. The guys who live off campus drive over to the field and literally get dressed out of the trunk of their cars."
Van Zant said when Luck arrived in June 2010, WVU had about $70,000 to put toward the second phase. That was money the team had raised and saved over the years, either through donations or fundraisers, like its annual marathon game. One year that game made about $45,000, Van Zant said.
The money was spent on maintenance and improvements at Hawley Field. Every year at the end of the fall season, the team would have a work party. They would re-sod and edge the field, manicure the infield and outfield and make other aesthetic enhancements.
"We've done that ourselves for 18 years," Van Zant said. "We never once had someone come in and take care of that for us."
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VAN ZANT WAS mostly quiet about what he needed and wanted. He said he didn't need to go to the media or the public to make demands.
"The people involved in this, they know what's going on," he said. "They have to know what's going on and if they want the team to win, they have to give it what it needs."
That involves a lot of money, and it's never been more necessary than as the Mountaineers enter the Big 12.
It begins with the coach's salary.
Van Zant never campaigned about his salary, which was $59,054 his final season, and said he never asked for raises even though "there are assistant coaches who make more."
Luck told the Daily Mail in March that the lowest Big 12 salary is $200,000 - more than three times Van Zant's. That's a big chunk of the new commitment Luck will have to make to baseball and its budget.
Van Zant said his budget was usually around $600,000. University equity reports from the 2006-07 fiscal year to the 2010-11 fiscal year show baseball expenses ranging from $522,085 to $720,098. In 2010-11, the $720,098 was behind the sums spent on rowing, men's and women's soccer, volleyball and cross country and track and field.
Van Zant said he went out of his way to stay within the budget. He would have the team stop at buffets on road trips and ask for a special rate in exchange for the business he was providing.
"I bet you I personally saved the athletic department a half-million dollars on food throughout my career because I looked for bargains and tried to save money when other sports don't have to do that," he said.
"I've been the most frugal coach I could be because I tried to stretch a buck, and I did not mind doing it because I was told, 'Don't go over the budget or else.' "
That was one of three annual goals Van Zant was issued when he met with his supervisors. He was reminded not to break any NCAA rules, to keep the APR and GPA where they needed to be and, no matter what, stay within the budget.
"And then it was to do the best you can with the limited resources, which we did," he said.
In the end, it wasn't enough for Van Zant, who's been ousted in favor of a replacement who must deal with new expectations and old exasperations.
"Here's my whole thing: All of a sudden the rules have changed, and I guess you've got to be conference champions every year now, which is fine. Believe me, the players and coaches want to win championships," Van Zant said. "But you have to have all the parts in place to make it happen."