Three years ago IU baseball coach Tracy Smith had the perfect job.
The Hoosiers’ skipper was at Miami University of Ohio in a position fixed with all the trimmings head coaches covet – a new stadium, great players, squash courts and a secretary in his office. He elevated the RedHawks from 12-40 to being a perennial power in the Mid-American Conference. Smith had it rolling at Miami.
“I felt like I could put my feet up on my desk over there,” he said, pointing his Adidas tennis shoes toward the ceiling. “But it was like, ‘Is that where I want to be at 39, 40 years old? To now just kick back and put my feet up on my desk?’”
Smith instead dropped his feet to the ground and decided to coach a stagnant IU team that went 26-30 in the 2005 season and 10th in the Big Ten.
This transition was anything but seamless. Smith had to uproot his family and face a host of puzzled looks that begged one question: “Are you nuts?”
“All of my coaching buddies were like, ‘What are you doing?’” Smith said. “Personally, I said, ‘Tracy Smith, if you are that good, then go do it again.’ And that was one of the big reasons I wanted to come here.”
The questions have since ceased, and Smith’s Hoosiers are near a breakthrough season.
Although heavily touted, IU (3-2) has gotten off to an up-and-down start it will attempt to rewrite when it travels to Terre Haute.
Indiana State’s Sycamore Field will play host to IU’s first in-state contest, which will begin at 3 p.m. The game provides an IU team, which has had multiple games canceled, an opportunity to head into a game-heavy March with a win.
A strong finish to 2008, which saw IU win 11 of its last 15 conference games, has the Hoosiers projected as Big Ten champions.
Smith has not shied away from expectations. Instead, he ingrained this notion in his players’ heads: “The College World Series comes through Bloomington.”
“At the core, I don’t care what people say about us,” Smith said. “But I think there’s value in it for these kids at this point, if you’ve got magazines saying ‘first place.’ It’s been a long time since publications, or something in print, has had ‘Indiana’ and ‘first place’ in the same sentence.”
It hasn’t happened by coincidence.
Nameless freshmen and career-long losers highlighted the 2006 roster. Smith’s first two seasons produced career lows as IU posted 22-34 and 19-35 records. Well-versed in restoring programs, Smith continued to approach baseball with an unmatched fervor for the game, resulting in improvement on Sembower Field.
In three seasons, a major transformation ensued within IU’s players, especially in everyone’s All-American junior catcher Josh Phegley.
“My entire freshman year, he knew the potential that I had,” Phegley said. “I just wasn’t living up to the expectations. He was there, on me constantly. It just showed that he knew what I was capable of, and he cares.”
Assistant IU baseball coach Ty Neal played and coached under Smith at Miami and said he was in awe of Smith’s accomplishments.
“He’s a master at turning programs around,” he said. “He’s done it once before, and he’s in the process of doing it again here at Indiana.”
While reflecting on the past three years, Smith assessed his tenure at IU thus far.
“I just find a lot of satisfaction in building,” he said. “If I were to leave, I’d feel that I left IU in better shape than I found it. I’m proud to say I think we’ve made some progress here.”