by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Twenty five years is a long time to be doing anything.
It's almost unheard of in the always unpredictable and often volatile world of coaching.
Getting to his 25th year as head coach for Georgia Tech baseball is not surprising to Danny Hall, who hits his silver anniversary in Russ Chandler Stadium's home dugout this year. Actually, it's not really that important. Getting through the season in the manner to which he and Yellow Jackets fans have become accustomed is.
That standard was reinforced by his boss, then-athletic director Homer Rice, who'd hired Hall in November of 1993, following Tech's final game of his first season in 1994, which also happened to be the championship game of the College World Series, a 13-5 loss to Oklahoma.
"Anybody who knows Homer knows how humble and soft-spoken he can be at times. He leaned in and goes, `You screwed up,'" Hall recalled. "I looked at him and was like, `What do you mean?' He [Homer Rice] said, `You've set the bar so high, I don't know if you can ever overcome this. You played for the National Championship in your first year.' So, that's kind of where I started.
"There are a lot of good teams, a lot of good coaches and everybody has kind of the same goals, trying to get to Omaha and win a national championship," he added. "So I think it's just another year but kind of the same story -- a lot of great competition within our league. As a lot of people say, `It's not what you've done for me in the past. It's what have you done for me lately?' So that's kind of where I'm at. I'm focused on this team."
But surely it means SOMETHING to have made it 25 years.
"I've been here a long time, I guess," said Hall, with his easy laugh. "My big thing is I want the program to be a top-25 program. I want us to host regionals and super regionals and have a great shot to go to Omaha. That's kind of where my passion is."
That passion is burning as brightly as ever in Hall, who begins his 41st year as a coach in college baseball.
Ironically, it's looking back, specifically to last season that is the catalyst for that extra-high flame.
In 2017, Hall, who thought he'd seen it all, saw something he never did and wished he hadn't - only his fourth season that his Jackets did not reach the NCAA Tournament. Even more bitter, `17 was the first time he'd ever been on a staff, ANYWHERE, as head coach or assistant, that he finished below .500 (27-28), and the first time one of his Georgia Tech teams finished with fewer than 30 wins.
Needless to say, that's unacceptable.
"The expectations are high, you have a tremendous history, you have a great school and a commitment from the administration of the school that they want to have a good baseball program and have a chance to compete nationally every year," said Hall. "That is what really attracted me to Georgia Tech. It still attracts me to Georgia Tech.
"Honestly, we have work to do. Honestly, I kind of feel like we've slipped a little, in my opinion," he added. "But, in my opinion, we have also taken some steps to get back to our culture of getting better, working hard, giving it our best shot to get to that `Promised Land' of Omaha, Nebraska. So that's kind of the driving force for me."
While the trail of coming back from a sub-.500 season is new for Hall, the winning road is one he knows well. He begins 2018 having won a school-record 988 games -- nearly double that of second-place Jim Morris, his predecessor -- and his .662 winning percentage is second in program history behind only Morris and that's only due to `17's slip.
The Hall Era has seen Georgia Tech participate in 20 NCAA Regionals, six Super Regionals and three College World Series -- the program's only appearances. Tech also has won five ACC Tournament Championships and five regular season titles. Hall is determined to add to those numbers this season.
He'll start the 2018 season in similar fashion to how he began his first in 1994...eerily similar.
It starts with the opponent, the University of Minnesota. That's the same the team Tech faced on Feb. 11, 1994, in its season opener. The deja vu doesn't end there. It goes much deeper and adds a "What Might Have Been" aspect.
"John Anderson, who's the head coach of Minnesota, was the other guy that Homer Rice interviewed for the (Georgia Tech) job opening," Hall said. "I was an assistant at Michigan, John Anderson was the assistant at Minnesota. He and I are really, really good friends."
Hall hasn't forgotten that first three-game series of 1994.
"So we're ranked No. 1 in the country preseason, we have (Nomar) Garciaparra, we have (Jason) Varitek, we have Jay Payton and Brad Rigby was our No. 1 pitcher on that team," he said. "Their pitcher was Kerry Ligtenberg, who ended up being a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, and we win the game (3-1). So, obviously we're excited, you start out 1-0. I think we ended up sweeping them.
"It was a GREAT way to start. As I tell everybody, `Those guys made me look REALLY smart' because they could all play,'" he added. "It was a fun team to coach that first year at Georgia Tech."
The Jackets would sweep the Golden Gophers, taking the next two games, 10-5 and 8-2 -- the teams have not met since then -- on the way to a 21-4 non-conference record. They'd finish 16-8 in ACC play, tied for second with Duke behind only 20-4 Clemson but would fall in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. They'd turn it on in the NCAA's routing Connecticut -- which, coincidentally, Tech will see this Feb. 18, to conclude opening weekend -- and Wichita State by a combined 20-1 total, then won the Midwest Regional by taking a winner-take-all third game against Washington to get to Omaha.
In the College World Series, Tech would twice knock off Cal State Fullerton before falling to Oklahoma, 13-5, in the championship game.
There has been a lot of winning, plenty of ACC regular season and tournament championships and two other trips to Omaha, the most recent in 2006.
But Hall believes it's been too long for all of the above and is ready for another ascension.
"I don't know who said it but when you get close to the top of that mountain it gets pretty slick up there and it's hard to stay up there," he said. "We've been close. We've kind of slipped down that mountain a little bit and now we want to work hard to climb our way back up there."
Hall believes the Jackets, who were ranked No. 29 preseason by Collegiate Baseball, can develop that pedigree and have the lead horses to pull the sled in senior second baseman Wade Bailey and junior catcher Joey Bart, both named third-team preseason all-Americans by Collegiate Baseball.
"To have two guys that have played a lot, have experience and they're really good players and they're really good workers just makes everybody else on our team better," he said. "We're going to count on both those guys to be leaders and not necessarily in a vocal way but lead by the way they prepare, lead by the way they work, lead by the way they compete. If they do that and keep that as their main focus they'll have great years for us and they'll pull other guys along that will also have some great years."
Hall expects Bart and Bailey to continue Tech's fast-track to the majors, a track that has seen 117 players drafted, 13 of them in the first round, since Hall's inaugural season on The Flats in 1994.
It's one trend Hall sees continuing, even though the landscape has changed significantly over time.
"When I first got here there were probably teams in our league that if we just showed up and played okay we were going to win. It's not the case anymore," he said. "You have to play at a high, high competitive level every weekend to win series and keep moving up those ACC standings. The same thing in our state. Kennesaw State was I-AA or Division II at the time, now they're Division I. Georgia Southern's always been good. Mercer has really elevated its program, Georgia State has a really good program now. So a lot of those, call them mid-majors or whatever -- Coastal Carolina won a National Championship -- those teams are all good today. So that's changed."
Something else that has changed, for the better, is something that makes him especially proud to put on the number 17 in White and Gold.
"The value of a Georgia Tech degree is probably GREATER today than it was when I first got here," he said. "That's saying a lot because it was a high-value degree when I got here but I think it's even valued more today."
One thing that will never change is the opportunity for him and his players to compete.
"For me, it's certainly one of the great challenges and things that you look forward to, trying to prepare your team to compete against the very best year in and year out," he said. "To me it's exciting. It's why guys come to Georgia Tech, knowing that we're going to play a really good schedule, we're going to play some great teams, play in some great stadiums and just face some great competition."