A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis...
Swing Away: Grambling, Alabama A&M Coaches Bring New Attitudes
PIKESVILLE, Md. — Both programs are coming off poor years. Both programs are under first-year head coaches. And both programs are quickly turning their fortunes around.
Grambling State and Alabama A&M combined for only 14 wins last season; Grambling was 6-38, AAMU was 8-27-1. The more disturbing stat was that the 2006 win totals were the climax of a period that saw the schools’ number of victories decline steadily.
Grambling went from 22 wins in 2003 to 11 in ’04, 12 in ’05 to last year’s six. Alabama A&M went from 15 in 2003 to 13, to 10 to last year’s eight. The numbers are looking decidedly better for the two SWAC schools so far in 2007.
Grambling had exceeded its 2006 win total by the end of February, and thanks to a 10-9 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Sunday, Grambling is 10-13 overall and 3-3 in the SWAC. Alabama A&M took two of three from Alabama State over the weekend to push its 2007 win total to eight to match last year.
On Feb. 13, both teams cracked the BlackCollegeBaseball.com poll after being picked by the poll voters to finish last in their respective divisions. They’ve been in the poll ever since, with Grambling checking in at No. 8 and AAMU at 10 in this week’s voting.
“Attitude,” said AAMU coach Jay Martin about what has changed for his team. “I went straight for the attitude adjustment. I am a winner. We all lose, but I have to win. And we have to have the attitude, whether it’s win or lose, that it means something.”
Barret Rey, Grambling’s first-year coach, concurs. “I knew the talent was good enough to compete, but I didn’t know how hungry they were,” said Rey. “But it’s stronger at this point. They were hungry for someone to be in their corner.”
Rey came to Grambling after serving nine years as an assistant – and four years as a player — at Southern under Roger Cador, one of the most successful coaches in HBCU baseball. Martin took a slightly different path.
While Martin grew up around baseball — he was an assistant under his father Jim Martin at Tuskegee — his path to college athletics was in football. He played football at Tuskegee and was serving as the linebackers coach at AAMU when he was selected to take over the baseball team.
Before helping the baseball players overcome their shortcomings on the field, he had to gain their trust. After all, he was a football guy.
Martin said he could tell that some of the players were apprehensive during his initial meeting with the team. But acceptance came quickly, and Martin said that, even though spring football is at hand, he’s been spending 99 percent of his time with the baseball team.
Martin’s quick acceptance by the players was no doubt helped by the team’s quick start. The Bulldogs won their first four games, including victories over Savannah State and Norfolk State, both of which are ranked in the BlackCollegeBaseball.com poll. (Savannah State is this week’s new No. 1 team).
Their subsequent inclusion in that same poll did not go unnoticed by the AAMU players. “I had never seen them so excited,” said Martin. “When they broke into that poll, they printed it out and showed everyone.”
AAMU hit a rough spot after that, losing its next six and 12 of its next 14. But a pair of impressive wins over Alabama State Sunday got the Bulldogs back on the right track and enabled them to reach last year’s win total less than halfway through the 2007 season.
Leading the Bulldog offense are junior infielder Tyron Childress, who is hitting .356 with 14 runs scored, junior catcher Turner Washington, hitting .344 with 14 runs scored and seven extra-base hits, and sophomore outfielder LaDale Hayes, a .333 hitter who leads the team in doubles, triples, RBIs, runs and hits.
“That’s just a taste of what we’re trying to do,” said Martin. The same can be said for Rey’s work at Grambling. He is trying to instill the same dedication to hard work that he said Cador poured into his players at Southern.
“He (Cador) has a relentless attitude toward work,” said Rey. “He leaves no stone unturned. I really knew they needed a system in place. You need to practice to get better. And I had to instill a belief in these kids that they could get it done.”
Like AAMU, Grambling started the season on an unbeaten streak, winning its first five games. And, like the Bulldogs, the Tigers hit a skid following the streak; they lost 13 of their next 15 before sweeping Arkansas-Pine Bluff over the weekend.
The sweep of UAPB gave the Tigers 10 wins, and Rey added that one of his senior players informed him that it was Grambling’s first home sweep in at least four years.
Leading the way for Grambling are junior catcher Darsayle Pearson, who is hitting a team-leading .367 and has 17 RBIs, and sophomore infielder Justin Kelly, who is hitting .344 with team-leading totals of 16 stolen bases, 18 RBIs and 18 runs scored. Junior pitcher Mario Jefferson is 3-2 with a 4.06 ERA.
“I knew we could get it done, but the time level, I didn’t know,” said Rey. “I was hoping for late March and April. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. I’m really afraid of them getting complacent and just laying back and thinking it’s just going to happen. I need to keep them hungry until the end of the year.”
The Tigers still have a long road ahead. They have three more SWAC contests with Prairie View A&M, which swept Grambling during the first week in March, and six games against Rey’s mentor Cador and Southern.
Grambling’s first meeting with Southern will be at home this weekend. Rey chuckles at the question of meeting his long-time friend and teacher.
“I knew the questions about that were going to start. I don’t want to – and I know Coach feels the same way – take away from the kids. That’s what it’s all about first and foremost. We just have to come out and play good baseball.”
Without question, both Grambling and Alabama A&M are seeing a lot more good baseball this season.