McDonnell motivates Cards to new level
Louisville coach uses constant inspiration to improve baseball team
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Well after midnight, several hours after the Louisville baseball team had beaten Vanderbilt on Monday to advance to the NCAA super regionals, Josh Richmond got a text message from coach Dan McDonnell.
The text, which McDonnell sent to every player, began with Tuesday's schedule of meetings and workouts. Down further and past some ellipses came an addition: "Get ready to win a championship."
This was nothing new for Richmond, who's grown accustomed to his phone vibrating with motivational texts from his coach at all hours of the day and night.
"I'm not so sure the man sleeps, honestly," the sophomore outfielder said.
Whether it's McDonnell's nonstop energy, his endless pep talks or what Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich calls "the magic he brings," there's no denying the effect he's had on the Cardinals and college baseball.
This is a program that had never won an NCAA tournament game and had gone to only one regional before McDonnell took over in 2007. In his three years, Louisville has made a College World Series and is back in the super regionals this week against No. 2 overall seed Cal State Fullerton.
"I don't think anybody could have ever predicted that," Jurich said. "Louisville has never really been a hotbed of college baseball. But he's turned this program into one of the best in America."
McDonnell had served as a highly regarded top assistant at both his alma mater, The Citadel, and Mississippi before Jurich gave him his first head coaching job. McDonnell arrived at the right time, as the school was pumping more money than ever into its baseball program.
Through the 2004 season, Louisville played its home games at the state fairgrounds in old Cardinal Stadium, which had fallen into disrepair and neglect after the city's Triple-A team moved to new downtown digs. The Cardinals would be lucky to draw 100 people for a weekday game.
In 2005, the Cardinals moved into Jim Patterson Stadium, part of a $20 million complex next to the football stadium that includes a state of the art locker room, a weights area and batting cages.
"I was just arrogant and confident enough to think I could win anywhere," McDonnell said. "Much less at a place that had these resources."
Yet the program had never gotten over the hump under Lelo Prado, who left to take the South Florida job after the '06 season. In many ways, McDonnell inherited a perfect situation, as his first Louisville team was stuffed with seniors who had started for three or four years for Prado and talented freshmen such as Chris Dominguez. Still, the Cardinals shocked everyone by going all the way to Omaha and winning a school-record 47 games in 2007.
In 2008, having replaced six positional starters, the Cardinals still managed to win the Big East tournament and make the NCAA regionals. This season, they won the Big East again, notched 47 wins and earned the right to host a regional for the first time, thanks mostly to players McDonnell and his staff recruited. True freshmen such as pitcher Tony Zych and outfielder Ryan Wright played key roles in Monday's regional final win over Vanderbilt.
"This is how we're going to play from now on out," junior pitcher Justin Marks said. "We're becoming a dynasty, one of those programs where everyone looks at us and wants to come here."
McDonnell is the main reason why. His style of play fits his kinetic personality.
He instructs his players to attack fastballs and swing for the fences instead of working deep counts. They are ultra-opportunistic on the base paths, always looking to steal or take an extra bag. McDonnell lets assistant Roger Williams handle most of the pitching duties, but the Louisville hurlers go after hitters with fastballs and don't hand out many walks. In the postseason, McDonnell wants his team to be even more aggressive.
"We play more of a free style of baseball," said Dominguez, the team's star slugging third baseman. "With control, of course, but it's relaxed baseball."
McDonnell is always trying to find ways to get his players fired up. In the fall, they participate in the "Omaha Challenge," a series of workout drills designed to instill a competitive drive. For every regular-season victory, he gives out a T-shirt with the number of the win on it to the player he deems the most valuable in that game. The player who makes the best defensive plays in practice or a game gets to wear a yellow shirt called "The Tour de Defense" for the next day.
"He's always got something up his sleeve," Marks said. "You're always like, 'What's he got in store today?'"
McDonnell hands out a quote of the day, usually from a famous player or coach but sometimes from himself. He gives fiery speeches in the locker room before the game, in the outfield 10 minutes before first pitch and after the game. And then there are those constant text messages, which can range from asking about a player's classes or mentioning a great play that just happened in Major League Baseball.
"I've always been captured by the highlight video, by the music, by the stories," McDonnell said. "I get motivated by hearing how other people have succeeded. I, myself, watch motivational videos and books, and that gets me going. I figure if it gets me going, why not educate the guys and teach them the stories about how people do special things?"
Louisville baseball has accomplished special things the past three years, and there's little question who's most responsible for that. It's the guy sending all the text messages.
"The way he goes about things forms and shapes the way we play the game," Richmond said. "That's definitely our trigger to success."
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com. Check out his Big East football blog.