MOBILE, AL (Mobile Press-Register) - With South Alabama's loss to Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Conference baseball tournament, Steve Kittrell's 28-year reign as head coach ended and Mark Calvi took charge of the program.
Calvi spent the 2011 season as USA's associate head coach and pitching coach, becoming more familiar with the program. He inherits a team that finished 30-28 and lost three of its top position players and its top three starting pitchers.
The Jaguars' new boss has to figure out how to bring back the program's swagger. USA made 18 NCAA tournament appearances in Kittrell's 28 years, but has missed the last five.
After one season in Mobile, much of it spent recruiting, Calvi sat down with Press-Register sports reporter Kim Shugart to outline his vision for how to return USA to prominence.
Q: What was it like working with coach Kittrell in his final year, and were you able to accomplish much in your position as a coach in waiting?
A: It was wonderful working with coach Kittrell. He has a wealth of baseball knowledge. It was a pleasure being around him and being able to see his style day-to-day, the way he coached. I was fortunate to be a part of his last year. It was a good learning experience for me. I had a chance to take this year to evaluate everything. From that standpoint, I think it was very productive. We would have loved to have won a few more games.
Q: Recruiting is a huge factor in any athletic program. USA loses nine seniors and you have already signed 17 new players. How will the numbers shake out next fall?
A: We have some meetings this week (with current players). Every year, teams change as far as personnel goes. Some younger guys may want to go to a junior college where they can play and then come back. Some older guys that didn't play quite as much may want to go a division down and play a little more. And there might be some people where this is not the best fit for them. I wouldn't say there's going to be wholesale changes, but there will be changes. Necessary changes, I believe, will be made.
Q: Can you elaborate on the recruiting class and the specific weaknesses you've tried to address with this recruiting class?
A: We were happy with the signing class this fall. We added some more in the spring. There are a couple of guys we hope we get through the draft. If we can get all of them here in the summer, then I think we'll be in pretty good shape for next year. There will be some good talent on the field. We added some depth to the pitching staff and signed a few more infielders. We went heavy on the junior college route.
From a depth standpoint, we needed to address a bench strength issue, not just the guys that are playing. If a team brings in a lefty (pitcher) you can bring in a right-handed (hitter), or if they bring in a righty, you can go with a left-handed hitter. That's one of the areas where we were lacking this year. We had to go with the nine (players) that we had in there. I felt in some games we were hamstrung by our lack of depth, and hopefully we'll be able to counter some moves teams try to make both offensively and defensively.
Q: There were several games you missed this season while recruiting. How much extra recruiting did you have to do?
A: We had some talented players on this year's team, but the nucleus was seniors. I felt we needed to bring in a fair amount of players for this upcoming year, and we also needed to get started on the 2012 recruiting class as well. Recruiting isn't done year to year, it is done two years in advance. We were done for 2011 (signing class), and I had to go start looking at high school juniors and junior college freshmen for the following year.
We'll have some junior college kids in this summer, and we'll offer them early. Hopefully, some of the guys we've targeted will commit and they will go back to their junior colleges as sophomores knowing that they're coming to South Alabama. We'll get on them early before everyone else does. That was my plan when I was out all spring. Our goal at South Alabama is to bring in the best players that we can.
Q: You spent 11 years coaching in the Sun Belt at Florida International and six years in the SEC with South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks win the national championship last year. You know what kind of team it takes to be successful in both leagues, so what kind of South Alabama club do you envision taking the field in the future?
A: In any league you've got to be good on the mound. The talent is very good in the Sun Belt, and it can be unforgiving if you're not good. The Sun Belt is similar to the SEC. You don't quite have the high-profile Friday night guy (pitcher) the SEC does, and you might not have the closer, but everybody has a guy or two and everybody has a heart of the lineup.
If you're hitting .320, fielding .970 and have a 5.80 earned-run average, then you're not going to get it done. I'd rather hit .285 or .290 as a team, field .970 and have the ERA close to 3.00. Now you're a balanced team. We're trying to be good at every position, and have some depth at every position, and we want to be a balanced team.
Q: In what (geographical) areas do you expect to do most of South Alabama's recruiting?
A: Alabama is a great state for recruiting. There's high school talent and junior college talent in the state. We're fortunate that we're in an area -- Pensacola to Gulfport -- that basically for us is considered in-state. Obviously at times you will get a kid from south Florida or a kid from Indiana like Nolan Earley or Brad Hook. But the majority of our players will come from what we consider the in-state areas.
Q: When you accepted the USA position last July, you said you might hire a pitching coach so you could devote more time to all aspects of the program. Have you decided to add a pitching coach to your staff?
A: I haven't made my decision. I mull over it every day three or four times. If I do hire a pitching coach, rest assured that it will be somebody that I know and who has the same philosophies that I do. He won't be the same person as me, but will have some of the same beliefs on strength and conditioning. It will be someone that I'm very confident in and know as a person. If I can't get the guy I really want, then I will continue to do it myself.