TEMPE, Ariz. — Meeting the local media for the first time on Thursday, new Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith repeatedly called his decision to accept the position after nine seasons at Indiana a difficult one.
The difficulty, though, was in what he left behind in Bloomington, not what he inherits with the Sun Devils.
Despite building Indiana’s program into a Big Ten power and reaching a College World Series, the opportunity ASU offered proved too great for Smith to pass up.
"I would be the biggest fool in the country if I didn’t take this job," Smith said. "If you’re a baseball coach, this has everything you’re looking for."
ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson called Smith the "absolute best person" to lead the Sun Devils storied program. At Indiana, Smith was a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and the 2013 National Coach of the Year after leading the Hoosiers to their first CWS.
Smith, 48, was lauded for building Indiana’s program in spite of the Big Ten’s difficult atmosphere for baseball programs and for recruiting well to a cold-weather destination. But it is Smith’s leadership, Anderson said, that makes him the best fit for ASU.
If we’re recruiting 20 kids at Indiana, we’re going to get in on maybe three or four of the top ones. You say ‘Arizona State’ to those kids, you’re going to be in on 21.
Tracy Smith, new ASU baseball coach
"When we talk about head coaches at ASU, we talk about strong leaders and we talk about passion," Anderson said. "We talk about strategic planning and execution, and we talk about teachers and developers of our student athletes, and we talk about dedicated ambassador of our university and community, and we talk about thirst for championships.
"We have all of that and much more with Tracy Smith. Simply put, we have the best out there."
Before answering questions Thursday, Smith took time to explain his decision making process. He emphasized the difficulty of leaving a community and a university into which he and his family had invested so much time and energy.
It was difficult, too, to leave the institution that gave him the keys to a big time Division I program and the freedom to build it within his vision.
"I don’t think that I’m sitting in this chair now without the opportunity to do what we did at a place that I truly love," Smith said.
Still, ASU presented the opportunity to have it all, and Smith had to take it. In Tempe, Smith has the resources of one of college baseball traditionally elite programs. He no longer faces the inherent challenges of coaching baseball in the Big Ten.
ASU also arms Smith with instant credibility in recruiting. Between the wealth of current and former Major League Baseball players to come through ASU and the school’s robust postseason history, ASU has a more tangible track record of success to sell to recruits.
Smith hopes to bring his coaching staff from Indiana with him to ASU and says together they would get in many more recruiting doors than they did at Indiana.
"We’ve had to search for the diamond in the rough," Smith said. "I’m still going to do that. I’m going to trust my eyes because I think my eyes are pretty good, but there’s also that instant credibility of getting in on kids.
"If we’re recruiting 20 kids at Indiana, we’re going to get in on maybe three or four of the top ones. You say ‘Arizona State’ to those kids, you’re going to be in on 21."
The Arizona weather, Smith said, doesn’t hurt either. Nor does moving into Phoenix Municipal Stadium next season.
Smith, who started his Division I coaching career at Miami (Ohio) and owns a 604-457-1 record at that level, also welcomes the challenge of coaching in the Pac-12, which features powerhouse programs like UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford. In his move to the Pac-12, Smith is no longer the only big fish in the pond.
"If you’re a competitor, you want the challenge," Smith said. "This sis the next step. This is the logical step. I’m thrilled about the challenge. I realize the challenge, but if you’re a confident person and you feel like you know what you’re doing it should be fun."
With all the opportunity at ASU, Smith understands, also come great expectations. ASU’s passionate fan base got accustomed to College World Series appearances under Bobby Winkles, Jim Brock and Pat Murphy, but the Sun Devils haven’t been to Omaha now since 2010.
Smith said knows what’s expected at ASU — national championships, Pac-12 championships, beating Arizona — and plans to deliver, but emphasized more his plan to reestablish the program on a foundation of relationships.
Many of those relationships are already starting to form less than 48 hours after ASU made its offer. Smith said he has heard from numerous ASU alumni and former players offering to help in his transition any way they can. He even heard from one of the Valley’s most high profile sports figures, Larry Fitzgerald, who expressed how excited he is to have Smith in Arizona.
Smith will undoubtedly meet his share of challenges at ASU, though presumably fewer than he did at Indiana, and there’s never a guarantee a coach’s success at one place will translate to another. But with so much on the table in Tempe, Smith had to take the risk and find out.
"Everything that’s available here … it’s unbelievable," Smith said. "This is a baseball school, and I’m thrilled to be directing it."