When Duke takes the field against Coastal Carolina Saturday afternoon, it will have been 3,173 days since Chris Pollard was hired as the Blue Devils' next head baseball coach.
Since that day, Duke has broken a 55-year NCAA tournament dry spell, been to two super regionals and transformed into a team on the cusp of the College World Series.
The Blue Devils' full-circle turnaround may have come as a shock to outsiders, but it wasn’t a surprise for those close to the program.
“I don’t think anyone was [surprised] inside the program,” first-round draft pick Bryce Jarvis, who played at Duke from 2018 to 2020, told the Chronicle. “You talk to a lot of guys outside, I think they would tell you how shocking our rise through the ranks was. But it really wasn’t a surprise to anyone on the team or on the coaching staff.”
The timeframe of the complete 180 of Duke baseball is even more remarkable when you look at the state of the program when Pollard inherited it.
From 2006 to 2012 under head coach Sean McNally, the Blue Devils made it to only one ACC tournament. And that’s not even the worst part of the decade before Pollard took over.
The Blue Devils’ 2005 steroid controversy was an embarrassment for the program and university, and put the exclamation mark on Bill Hillier’s disastrous time as head coach, a six-year tenure that included a 34-114 record in conference play.
But Duke finally got it right with Pollard. Athletic director Kevin White’s leap of faith in going after a guy who had never coached in a major conference paid dividends almost immediately, and now Duke is reaping the full benefits of the hire.
“We’re very fortunate as a university to have that man leading our program,” Kenny Koplove, who played for Pollard from 2013 to 2015, told the Chronicle.
Although Pollard’s time manning the helm at Duke has been an undisputed success, there were moments in which he doubted his decision to come to Durham.
“I spent the first six months here in Durham really kind of second-guessing myself, wondering if I had made a good decision or not, because there was so much work to be done and [I] had left a place where we had already kind of had things in order,” Pollard told the Chronicle. “Now I look back on it nine years later and I’m like, ‘Boy [not taking the Duke job] would have been a huge mistake.’”
However, none of this would've happened if it weren’t for the tough love of a friend of Pollard’s way back during his playing days at Davidson.
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‘I still had the itch to be a player'
It was the fall of 1996. Pollard had just graduated after four years of pitching at Davidson, and his plan was to work out in the offseason at his alma mater and go to spring training with a big league ball club the following year. But there was a problem—he had not been drafted nor had he received any big league invitations.
“I really kind of backed my way into coaching…. I always saw myself as a player during my time at Davidson and wanted to play professionally,” Pollard said.
While it already seemed like the baseball gods were politely telling Pollard that his playing days were coming to an end, it took the harsher words of close friend and now Columbia baseball head coach Brett Boretti for him to finally realize that major league baseball was not in his future.
The tough conversation took place after Pollard initially turned down his first coaching offer to be a pitching coach in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league.
“I felt like I still had the itch to be a player,” Pollard said.
Boretti had an honest talk with him, however, and helped him realize that his best baseball move at that moment was to accept the coaching position.
“It took 24-48 hours for that to sink in, but [I] wound up calling back and accepting that position,” Pollard said.
There was still a long ways to go before Pollard would don Duke blue, but that summer as a pitching coach in the Coastal Plain League eventually led to him becoming a head coach of another one of the league's teams, the Durham Braves, the following year.
“That summer was when I kind of found a passion for coaching. All those same feelings—the adrenaline, the intensity, the passion for the game that I felt as a player,” Pollard said. “All of a sudden you really have those feelings as a coach and it was at that point I realized maybe this is what I want to do.”
His first NCAA coaching job came the next year at Davidson as a pitching and recruiting coach. And after a short tenure there, he took over his own program for the first time in 1999 when he was named head coach at Pfeiffer University, a Division II school with no history of baseball success.
Pollard eventually led the Falcons to a 41-14 record and a second-straight conference championship in 2004 before being offered the head coaching job at Appalachian State.
It was his time with the Mountaineers that really earned Pollard name recognition in the college baseball world, largely due to the team's Cinderella run to the 2012 NCAA regionals.
On the bus ride back from losing in the regionals, Pollard’s phone lit up with a Durham area code. And one week later, he became the 25th head coach in Duke baseball history.
‘He had a vision’
Pollard officially took over as the Duke head coach in June 2012, and one of his first tasks was a challenge that every new head coach faces—convincing recruits who had committed to your predecessor that they were still in good hands.
“He kind of just reassured me that I was going to the right place…. In my mind I think I was going there no matter what, but he kind of gave me peace of mind,” said Koplove, one of the Blue Devils’ incoming recruits at the time.
While Pollard had already injected life into the program during the 2013 season, the on-field results from that year didn’t necessarily hint that the program was on the cusp of an NCAA tournament bid, with Duke finishing just 9-21 in conference play. Even so, players were eager to be a part of what was happening in Durham.
“There was just something about the way Coach carried himself and just the way he—you could just tell he had a vision,” James Ziemba, who was part of Pollard’s first Duke recruiting class in 2013, told The Chronicle. “You could just tell he was a little bit different.”
Before Duke was going to make any super regional appearances, though, it first had to figure out how to get back into the conference tournament, something that’s no small feat in the ACC. Not every team gets an automatic bid to play in the tournament, so having a successful regular season becomes even more important if you have any hopes of making a postseason run.
But by 2014, Pollard and the Blue Devils finished with a 33-24 record, including a spot in the ACC tournament.
“We knew all along that we could compete on a national level, but I think [after the 2014 ACC tournament is] when there became an awareness with our administration, with the university, with some other top recruits that were out there, that, ‘Hey wait a minute, this Duke program, they’re going to compete,’” Pollard said.
That 2014 run gained the program some notoriety, but making the ACC tournament still didn’t snap the half-century streak without an NCAA tournament appearance.
Fortunately for Duke, Pollard has made a career for himself out of taking programs to new heights. And in 2016, he did it once again, leading the Blue Devils to their first NCAA tournament since 1961.
Duke was swiftly knocked out thanks to a solid beating from UNC-Wilmington and a loss to South Carolina, but it’s a whole lot easier to attract the eyes of high school prospects when you can point to your recent NCAA tournament appearance in the recruiting pitch.
However, any hopes of back-to-back tournament appearances were quickly dashed after a 30-28 2017 campaign, raising the question of what the future identity of the program would be.
College sports rely heavily on recruiting, and in order to get top recruits, you typically need to be an elite program. In order to be an elite program, though, you need top recruits. It’s a true catch-22 situation, and even after you’re able to somehow wedge your foot in the door of this cycle like Duke had managed to do after 2016, you have to scratch and claw your way into maintaining the course.
And Duke did exactly that in 2018. For the few out there who were still doubting the Pollard hire, that season firmly put any argument they could muster to rest.
Not only did the Blue Devils return to the NCAA tournament, but they rattled off four consecutive elimination-game victories in the regional round, including back-to-back wins against Georgia, before going on to face Texas Tech in the super regionals. Duke then went toe-to-toe with the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas but eventually fell in a do-or-die Game 3, just one win away from the College World Series.
If the ending to that 2018 run wasn’t enough of a heartbreaker, 2019 seemed to say, “Hold my beer.”
After rolling through both Texas A&M and host West Virginia in the Morgantown, W. Va., regional, Duke visited Nashville, Tenn., to take on powerhouse Vanderbilt in a super regional series the Blue Devils had no business competing in.
But that three-game series portrayed everything that makes college baseball special.
Friday night was all Duke all game, as the Blue Devils managed to score 18 runs in a shocking blowout. But just as all the momentum seemed to be on Duke’s side, Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker threw a no-hitter in Game 2 the following night.
As the teams sat at one win each heading into Sunday, it was anyone’s guess who would be punching their ticket to the College World Series.
But that Sunday was not the day Duke would end its Omaha drought, as Vanderbilt went on to beat the Blue Devils and eventually win the College World Series.
Neither Duke’s 2018 nor 2019 run may have finished with a storybook ending, but the Blue Devils’ back-to-back super regional appearances told the rest of the nation that they were finally a contender.
In 2020, Duke exploded out to a 12-4 record and a top-10 ranking, but COVID-19 helped ensure that 1961 would remain the last time the Blue Devils made it to Omaha for at least one more year.
And that brings us to today, with Duke checking in at No. 16 in the preseason polls, awaiting its opportunity to prevent the program’s College World Series dry spell from stretching to 60 years after this season.
Clearly, the program’s expectations have shifted.
“I think clearly good baseball is viewed in a little different sense here in 2021 than maybe it was going into that 2016 or into that 2018 season,” Pollard said.
‘Be where your feet are’
Given Duke’s rise, it’s natural to wonder just what exactly is going on within the program that has allowed for the newfound success.
While all roads lead back to Pollard, that doesn’t mean he’s done it alone.
Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Jordan also deserves a great deal of credit in making Duke’s recruiting as successful as it currently is. Jordan has coached alongside Pollard dating back to his days at Appalachian State, and all the current Blue Devils who were drawn to Duke because of the program’s social media presence have Jordan to thank.
In terms of Pollard’s coaching philosophy, it all boils down to your daily routine and doing the small tasks the right way.
“The pre-practice meeting when he goes over the notes from the day before—I mean [Pollard] doesn’t miss anything, and no detail is too small for him,” Koplove said. “He really practices what he preaches. And that’s like attention to detail, 100% effort at all times, that you gotta be present in the moment, and then he likes to talk about process.”
But the challenge now that the Blue Devils are on the doorstep of the College World Series is that it’s really easy for coaches and players alike to get caught with their eyes on Omaha instead of the present.
“If you spend too much time in the trap of thinking about [the future] and daydreaming about [the future], you’re really not focused on what you’re doing that day and that moment to get better,” Pollard said. “And that’s really the hallmark of this program, is living in the moment. We say it all the time: ‘Be where your feet are,’ because we want our guys to really focus on being present.”
In fact, being present in the moment is such a pivotal piece to Pollard’s coaching philosophy that he’s even got his own term for letting your focus drift too far into the future: destination-itis.
Avoiding 'destination-itis' is something Duke will especially have to do this year.
The ACC is as deep and talented as it’s ever been, partially due to the large number of “COVID super seniors” returning, and the Blue Devils have very few scheduled games they can circle as easy wins. If Pollard and his squad want this to be the year the College World Series drought ends, they’re going to need to bring their so-called ‘blue-collar’ mentality every game.
“Coach is the same person everyday…. That’s what makes him great. That’s why he’s born for baseball, because it’s not the ups and downs,” Ziemba said. “He’s great at just keeping that level head, and that’s how you get good at this.”