ATHENS -- Scott Stricklin had just been hired as Georgia’s baseball head coach last year, and he was trying to reel in his first recruit: Fred Corral, a pitching coach highly respected at the college level. Corral agreed to come to Athens for an interview but asked what he should wear: A suit? Khahis?
“Well if you’re really interested, you can wear your baseball uniform,” Stricklin texted Corral.
He was kidding and quickly forgot it. But when Stricklin went to the Atlanta airport, waiting by an escalator at the terminal, there was Corral -- wearing a baseball uniform.
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“You can put a lot of stress on yourself, and outside factors can put a lot of stress on you,” Stricklin said, remembering it months later. “If you don’t take yourself too seriously, it helps a little bit to buffer that.”
Corral obviously took the job, and since last summer Stricklin and his new coaching staff have provided a much-needed fresh start to what had become a moribund program. That’s according to Georgia players, all of whom were recruited by previous head coach David Perno, who was fired after 12 seasons.
Perno’s tenure was mostly successful, including three College World Series appearances. But the program bottomed out last year, and the players were fully aware of the pressure on their coach.
“There’s a lot more excitement this year, I’ll say that,” senior pitcher Patrick Boling said. “Coach Perno came in, he did a lot of good things. But I think you kind of got the feeling ...“
Boling hesitated a second.
“It was just exhausted. Everybody was just so exhausted,” Boling said. “Then Coach Stricklin came in and re-energized the program. That was really fun. That was cool.”
Stricklin, whose 42nd birthday is Monday, will coach his first Georgia game this weekend, as the team opens at home against Georgia Southern. Friday's scheduled game has been postponed, and a doubleheader will take place Saturday.
Stricklin arrived at Georgia after nine years at Kent State, his alma mater. He led the Golden Flashes to a College World Series appearance in 2012 -- a huge accomplishment for a mid-major program -- and a total of five NCAA appearances.
Since taking over, Stricklin has attacked the job with a combination of energy and discipline. Boling said the new staff has created an air of competition, whether it be in practice, in the weight room or elsewhere.
“Almost everything we do involves competition of some sort,” Boling said. “There’s gonna be a winner or a loser in everything we do. And I think because of that you really get to know what everybody can do and what everybody can’t do. And that really helps you play together.”
“They’ve definitely brought new ideas to the program, and all that,” said Conor Welton, an outfielder who sat out last season after two shoulder surgeries. “I’m definitely learning new things every day. I guess the little things do add up. And I guess what we’re seeing is that.”
Not much is being predicted for this season from the Bulldogs. They were picked to finish sixth in the SEC East, ahead of only Missouri, in a vote of conference coaches. The team does not enter the season with a surefire high draft pick, clear pitching ace or star hitter.
But Perno’s final recruiting class included two players set to start as freshmen this year: shortstop Mike Bell (who is out for now with a broken hand) and center fielder Stephen Wrenn, who will bat in the leadoff spot.
“I think we have a shot to be pretty good,” Welton said. “We’ve had the good players, and we’ve had good players for a while as long as I’ve been here. It’s just about putting it together, aking the right plays all the time, doing the little things right. I think if we do that, we can be pretty successful and surprise some people.”
If anything, the program just needs stability and better luck. Near the end of Perno’s tenure he dismissed two potential starters -- first baseman J.T. Phillips and shortstop Kyle Carter, teammates on Columbus’ 2006 Little League World Series team.
And worse was the tragic injuries to Johnathan Taylor and Chance Veazey, who were both paralyzed. Players on last year’s team admitted the injuries still hung over the program.
Among national baseball experts there was clear respect for Perno, a Georgia alum who took the Bulldogs to the national championship series in 2008. But clearly the time for change arrived after last season.
“He definitely coaches differently than Coach Perno did. It’s definitely new and fresh,” Welton said. “They’re just two completely different coaches. I guess there’s a lot of things. Nothing in particular I could point out.”
“Everybody almost starts again as a freshman,” Boling said. “But Coach Stricklin’s so good at what he does, that it’s a lot of fun. It’s brought a lot of fun back to the program.”