June 15, 2016
By Adam Van Brimmer –
The secret to keeping the same coaching job at the same major college sports program for more than two decades is simple: Win, and win often.
Much more complicated is the secret to winning and winning often. Sure, recruiting prowess is a major factor, as is the ability to develop players’ skills and foster strong team chemistry.
Yet home visits, ball drills and team-building activities typically aren’t enough to ensure long-term staying power. Coaching longevity, according to Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall, is a product of evolution.
His personal evolution.
“I’ve changed some with the times,” says Hall, now in his third decade leading the Yellow Jackets’ baseball program. “I’m much more patient and more relational now than I was 15 years ago, and I also realize I need people around me who can bring something to the program that I can’t.”
For Hall this season, that translates to a staff of young coaches who understand the Yellow Jacket way. Three of Hall’s staffers, assistant coach Bryan Prince, volunteer coach Mike Nickeas and director of baseball operations Nick Scherer, played for Hall at Georgia Tech.
All three have unique perspectives on the coach, the program, the school and big-time college baseball. And given the Yellow Jackets’ young yet talented roster, the trio’s insights are proving invaluable.
“Communication is key with a group that is this talented and has this much grit,” Nickeas says. “They have that hunger, that drive to succeed right away, but they are facing the usual obstacles young teams face: a long season full of streaks and slumps, veterans who are still growing as leaders, and then there’s Georgia Tech’s rigorous academics. We act as sounding boards quite often.”
The staff has been vital to forging a “family atmosphere” within the program this season, says Connor Justus, a junior infielder. The influx of 14 newcomers, many of who competed for or won starting jobs, could have created significant friction within the clubhouse.
But the presence of Prince, Scherer and Nickeas and their willingness to share their experiences–Nickeas, for example, was one of 17 freshmen on the 2002 Yellow Jacket team that advanced to the College World Series–keeps the team grounded and focused.
“We are college students, so by definition, we are high maintenance,” Justus says. “Whether one of us or the whole bunch of us are struggling or on our high horse, they are there for us.”
For all their collective knowledge, each of the Hall disciples has his own approach. Prince is the classic players’ coach, “everybody’s best friend,” Hall says. Nickeas is more cerebral, but also notoriously upbeat. Scherer, known universally by his nickname, Flea, is part Army drill sergeant and, by the nature of his role as the clubhouse warden and logistical expert, part big brother.
“Every player is different and responds to his environment in a different way, so it’s a big advantage to have a staff of coaches with a range of personalities,” Scherer says. “Coach Hall is not an overbearing guy, and he’s pretty easy to adjust to, but this is not a one-size-fits-all world.”
Even the staff’s baseball knowledge is multifaceted. All were catchers, what Hall calls the “quarterbacks of the diamond,” so they understand the complexities of pitching and fielding.
Prince and Nickeas played professionally–Nickeas spent parts of three seasons in Major League Baseball even–and are savants when it comes to hitting mechanics, with Nickeas incorporating the video review popular in the big leagues into the Yellow Jackets’ routine.
Scherer, meanwhile, made his mark as a youth coach–he’s still one of the leaders of the East Cobb Yankees program–and his familiarity with many on the Georgia Tech roster stretches back to their early teens.
“There’s no question my big league experience and everything the three of us accomplished here as players gives us instant credibility with the younger players,” Nickeas says. “When they hear something from one of us, they know its coming from a place of proven success, and it resonates as something they need to improve on.”
The trio also helps the 61-year-old Hall bridge the generation gap, something that “helps me as much as the players,” Hall says. Even as he approaches legend status, with more than 1,100 career wins and three College World Series appearances, Hall knows relating to players in the information age requires constant effort.
“Baseball is such a negative game, you have to keep things on a positive edge,” Hall says. “You don’t want them worrying about your feelings or what you said because it will have an impact on them. To have guys on my staff who played for me and had success here … they help me tremendously.”
The trio’s influence goes well beyond the field. Hall places a high value on education, and Prince, Nickeas and Scherer still display the commitment to academics as staffers that they did as students and players at Georgia Tech.
And Georgia Tech’s challenging environment keeps them busy.
The academic rigor is an issue for many, even before they come to The Flats. Prince, whose duties include coordinating the Jackets’ recruiting, constantly battles the misconception that balancing baseball and school is next to impossible at Georgia Tech.
When recruits or parents bring up the subject, he need only point to himself for evidence that Georgia Tech classes are not insurmountable obstacles.
“If he could get through it, anybody can,” teases Hall.
Scherer is the cheerleader for those struggling once at Georgia Tech. He admits he posted a 0.85 grade point average his first semester.
“It wasn’t that it was hard, it was that I wasn’t taking care of my business,” Scherer says. “When the coaches and the staff have been in that situation and can talk to players about communicating with teachers and improving their study habits, that can lead to a quick turnaround.”
With success ingrained in Georgia Tech’s baseball program under Hall, why would anyone expect anything less?