BLOOMINGTON – Fort Wayne is Chris Lemonis's kind of town. The city's baseball tradition runs deep and the new Indiana baseball coach plans to tap into it hard.
“Fort Wayne is a big baseball area,” he says. “We'll have a strong presence there.”
A presence is a must given the quality of the area's players. Current Hoosier pitcher Will Coursen-Carr was a huge factor in IU's 2013 College World Series run. Major League players such as Oakland pitcher Jarrod Parker and Tampa Bay outfielder Kevin Kiermaier reflect a talent pool Lemonis won't ignore.
“I've recruited Fort Wayne before,” he says, a reference to his successful time as a Louisville assistant coach before taking the Indiana job last month. “I've had some great players from the area. You'll see the Hoosiers logo up there a lot with my assistant coaches and myself. That's true of all over the state.”
Lemonis hopes to build on former coach Tracy Smith's momentum that turned IU from national relevance into a power. It was the No. 4 overall seed in this season's NCAA tourney. It reached the College World Series in 2013 for the first time in school history. It was 93-31 in the last two seasons with consecutive Big Ten titles, by far the best stretch in school history.
Smith did that with national recruiting that included California and Florida. Lemonis won't ignore such baseball hotbeds, but he plans on more of a Midwest emphasis.
"We feel like we can recruit anywhere, but we're really going to make a concentrated effort in Indiana, Illinois. Chicago has been a big area for me in the past and we have a lot of contacts there. There's a lot of kids there and we feel like that's a big basis.
“We're really trying to attack the state of Indiana. This state has great players everywhere and we'd like to get a couple more guys to play here."
Smith preferred a power approach and recruited with long-ball potential. Lemonis will continue that, with a twist.
“We're looking for an athletic powerful guy. I know that sounds a little crazy. Last year (Louisville) led the country in stolen bases, so we had a lot of athletes that played because it helped so much on defense. A couple years prior to that, one of our first teams, we had 80 home runs and over 100-something stolen bases. We like to have to ability to do it all.
“I like bigger athletes -- guys who can run and move. We want to try and get some guys that can do a little bit of everything. We have to be able to win on Friday night, 3-2, and maybe on Sunday we have to win 10-7. I'd like to be able to do it a little bit of both ways and try to be blended.
“Our system has worked out from an offensive side. Pitching wise, we like the big bodies. It's not that we won't have some different type of guys, but (new pitching coach Kyle Bunn) has had a lot of success with some big-bodied Midwestern kids.”
Lemonis was named the ABCA/Baseball America coach of the year in 2013, in part because of his prowess as a hitting coach. During his eight years in Louisville, the Cardinals appeared in three College World Series (2008, '13 and '14) and compiled a 359-159 record, including consecutive 50-win seasons the last two years. He and head coach Dan McDonnell helped produce 15 All-Americas.
That background attracted the attention of IU athletic director Fred Glass, who used former major league baseball player Scott Rolen (the Jasper native is a major contributor to the program) as a resource during the coaching season.
“I wouldn't say there was an eureka moment when we knew Chris was the guy,” Glass says, “but everything kept building for making a case on why he was the guy. It almost seemed too good to be true.
“We really dug in behind the scenes. Scott Rolen with his contacts was really helpful to get guys with no dog in the hunt to tell us what they really felt. They said we'd be lucky to get him. At that point, it was more of a recruiting process for him than a selection process for us.”
When did Lemonis realize this was the job for him?
“Probably a year or two ago. I didn't know it was mine, but I felt it was a great opportunity. I had a great job, but if you ever get a chance to do something different, this was a great place. When I drove up that day to meet with (IU depute director of athletics) Scott Dolson and Fred, there wasn't a negative on the day. Everything felt perfect.”
Perfection means sustaining, and then building on, the program's recent success. That's part of the reason Glass gave Lemonis a five-year contract at $250,000 a year.
“We're a national power now,” Glass says. “As far as elite status, we don't talk about that until we make multiple college World Series.
“I think the market place really spoke that people felt this was a destination job, a national job. We've demonstrated we are a national player in baseball.”
Added Lemonis: “It's about recruiting and having great players. And then it's pitching and defense. We're going to pitch and play defense, and recruit the best kids in this part of the country.”