Things were not going well for the Blue Devils, trailing 10-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning April 13 against N.C. State. Head coach Chris Pollard didn’t like the way his team looked in the dugout and lit into them, trying to spur the squad to life.
Seven unanswered runs and a walk-off single later, Duke was celebrating an improbable victory, one that proved to be season-defining. It could also be program-changing.
“When we got in the dugout, I blasted them pretty good because I felt like they were feeling sorry for themselves,” said Pollard, who was hired following the 2012 season. “And they responded by going out and putting up seven runs over the last two innings and ended up coming back and winning that ballgame. We really kind of took that momentum and ran with it…. We faced adversity and didn’t back down and got tougher. That’s been a big part of the growth of this program over the last two years is developing a toughness and an expectation for success.”
Coming off a 33-win season and the program’s first winning conference record in 20 years, Pollard is looking to build baseball into a perennial contender in the loaded ACC. Should he need any guidance as the team continues to try to turn the corner, he need only look toward Wallace Wade Stadium and the revival of Blue Devil football under head coach David Cutcliffe.
“I’ve told Coach Cutcliffe that the football program has provided a great blueprint for our baseball program, because they do it the right way. They’ve built for the long haul,” Pollard said. “I try to pick his brain every chance I get. I talk a lot with our guys, especially this past fall, we would see things happen on the football field this past fall. We’d come out on Sundays and talk about it. The football program has rolled out a blueprint for success that we can glean a lot from.”
The football team might have given Pollard a master plan for growing success at Duke, but he is no stranger to rebuilding struggling programs. Hired in 2004, Pollard inherited an Appalachian State team that had won just 10 games the season before; in 2012, the Mountaineers went 41-18 and advanced to the championship game of the Charlottesville Regional after beating top-seeded host Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. Before that, he revived the baseball program at Pfeiffer University, turning a team that had had three losing seasons in the four years before he arrived into a 41-win conference champion in his final year at the helm.
A big part of the turnaround at each university has been the attitude adjustment and growth in confidence that come with incremental success.
“Each of the schools that I’ve coached at—Pfeiffer University, Appalachian State and now at Duke—when you go through a prolonged period where you struggle…it’s natural that if you struggle for a long time, you start to expect that you’re going to struggle,” Pollard said. “That’s human nature. It takes a lot to overcome that and get to a place in your mind where instead of expecting negative things to happen you expect good things. That doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re still a work in progress with that, still have a long ways to go with that. That’s something that you get better at over time. I think we took a big step with regards to that this season.”
Pollard came to Duke following a break in traditional hiring practices, according to director of athletics Kevin White. Rather than browse the athletic department’s connections, Duke partnered with an executive search firm—a growing trend in college athletics—to conduct a national search. Pollard, a local candidate enjoying his postseason run at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., was one of 10 finalists named by the agency, and blew White away during his interview.
“[He’s a] scary bright guy with a big motor that’s aspirational as heck and I think his passion for his craft is infectious. The student-athletes kind of pick up the virus from Chris and the staff,” White said. “I think baseball—I don’t see, I’m convinced—baseball is on precisely the same trajectory as football. They’re about two years, if not maybe three, apart in terms of where we’re heading and how quick we’re going to get there. I look for us at some point to become an every year NCAA tournament baseball program with the leadership of Chris Pollard.”
The 2014 campaign’s success was highlighted by a dominant pitching staff, which held opponents to a .234 batting average and posted a 3.14 ERA—the best Blue Devil mark since 1971 and just more than half of what it was four years ago. Scouts took notice, as senior right-hander Drew Van Orden was selected by the Washington Nationals in the fifth round of the MLB Draft in early June, and closer Robert Huber was tabbed by the Oakland Athletics in the 26th round. The selection of third baseman Jordan Betts by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round gave the Blue Devils multiple draft picks for the first time since 2010.
The 11-10 comeback victory against the Wolfpack in mid-April provided an instant jolt of confidence, as the Blue Devils rattled off 10 straight wins to vault themselves into the thick of the ACC standings. Duke ultimately earned the fourth seed in the ACC tournament, its first appearance in the event since 2009.
The parallels between the dramatic turnarounds of the football and baseball programs run deep; both are enjoying success not seen in 20 years. Still, one advantage Cutcliffe has over Pollard in accelerating the rebuilding phase is the large national TV audience commanded by college football. Cutcliffe noted that Duke’s postseason appearances in the last two years—the 2012 Belk Bowl and 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl—were the only games aired in their timeslots, allowing the Blue Devils to tap into a wider recruit base and grow awareness nationally.
“[The recent success] opens up more doors, more people. I think people understand who we are, what we’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re not in a business where we can go seek people that aren’t talented. But then after that, they’ve got to be fits. They’ve got to be our kind of people, not just in the classroom but also off the field.”
The lack of national exposure doesn’t hinder Pollard from making a strong recruiting pitch:
“You have an opportunity to get a Duke education, one of the best educations in the entire world, and while you do it, you get to play baseball in the ACC, and the ACC is the best college baseball conference in the country. The ACC led all conferences in college baseball with 65 players selected in the draft. We had the most first-rounders of any conference in the country, we had the most guys drafted in the top 10 rounds, and we had the most guys drafted overall. Guys can look at Duke and say ‘I’m going to get a world-class education, I’m going to play in the best conference in the country, and I’m going to put myself in a better position, in a few years, for the major league draft.’”
That message, coupled with this season’s success, seems to be resonating. Two recruits, Justin Bellinger and Chris McGrath, were drafted in the 11th and 35th rounds of the MLB Draft, respectively. Pollard said he communicated with the players regularly in the days that followed, and received indications “with 100 percent certainty” that both will be in Durham come August.
Pollard will have a much younger group in 2015, losing 10 seniors from last year’s team, and is hoping last year’s taste of success will motivate the Blue Devils to make larger strides next spring. But he noted that there is more work to be done before Duke reaches its end goal.
“When you’re building something for the long haul versus the quick fix, you’re looking for incremental progress, not necessarily a quick fix,” Pollard said “[Youth] has its challenges, but it’s also a lot of fun coaching a young team…. There’s a level of excellence associated with our university, and our guys have to accept that as a challenge to uphold that standard of excellence. We’ve talked a lot about living up to the standard of excellence that Duke represents. It’s a daunting challenge but it’s also a very fun challenge as well.”