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After long search, Duke picks alum as new coach

Duke hired one of its own to fill the coaching void left after Bill Hillier resigned from his position as head baseball coach May 25.

Sean McNally, a four-year letterman for the Blue Devils in the early 1990s, will take the helm of a struggling program, Director of Athletics Joe Alleva announced July 15 at a press conference.

“Sean represents things that we were looking for in a coach,” Alleva said. “He’s passionate about baseball. He’s very intelligent.... He knows the game of baseball. He’ll be able to teach it, communicate what it’s like to be a Duke baseball player and most importantly sell young kids on the experience at Duke, the benefits of coming here and their development not only as a student-athlete but their development as a potential professional baseball player.”

McNally has no collegiate coaching experience and has spent the past three seasons in various coaching capacities at the minor league level, most recently as manager of the Cleveland Indians’ Single A affiliate. After the Blue Devils ended the year with a 14-39 record, their seventh-straight losing season, it is rather apparent that the task at hand for the young coach will not be an easy one.

“It’s certainly going to be a process,” McNally, 32, said. “You measure winning in a lot of different ways, and I think everyday we’re going to work to get better. I don’t have a definite time-frame of how long that will take. My eyes are wide open, and I know it’s a very competitive league having played in it, watched it and followed it.”

Both Alleva and McNally admitted that turning the program around will begin with recruiting better players—an area in which McNally has no experience. But the Rye, N.Y., native said he has a network of connections, which he developed during his nine years playing professional baseball for six different minor league organizations. Alleva said the athletic department will provide the program with the financial resources to recruit nationally, and although McNally has yet to choose his staff of assistants, he expects they will bring recruiting experience.

“Duke is a unique place,” McNally said. “It’s a place that I care a lot for, and I feel like when I talk to recruits and when I talk to perspective student-athletes, I’ll be talking about a life experience that I’ve had and not something that I’ve heard about. That’s very special to me.”

The position became available when Hillier resigned after six disappointing seasons in which the Blue Devils finished last in the ACC four times. Alleva and Hillier had agreed that if the team’s performance this past year did not show significant progress that it would be his last in Durham.

In addition to the team’s poor performance, allegations of coaching misconduct and steroid abuse by former Duke baseball players were published in a story in The Chronicle, April 15.

The announcement of McNally’s hiring ended a lengthy, but diligent search for a replacement, Alleva said. A field of more than 100 applicants, including a number of top assistant coaches and recruiting coordinators from some major programs across the country, was narrowed to six for the interview process. The selection of such a young and inexperienced coach, therefore, came as a surprise to some.

“I knew there were a lot of people very interested in this job all year long and then once the job became available even more so,” said Will Kimmey, who covers college baseball for Baseball America. “A guy that played at Duke was more important than a guy that had a good wealth of experience. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Maybe he’ll be great, but you have no track record to look at. But there were a lot of candidates that did have a track record. ”

Kimmey added that learning the ropes of recruiting while also learning how to manage in the highly competitive ACC would be daunting for any new coach but said that it would be a few years before both McNally’s success and his hiring could be evaluated.

McNally’s time as a player at Duke was one of the most prosperous periods for the baseball program, as it went 134-82 in his four seasons from 1991-1994. His .408 batting average during his senior year is the highest single-season mark in Duke’s history. He has also worked within the athletic administration as an academic advisor in 2003-2004.

Chris Kennedy, Duke’s senior associate athletics director who chaired the search committee, had emphasized throughout the process that the Blue Devils were looking for someone who understood what the student-athlete experience was like at an elite academic institution and would be able to convey that to his players.

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