Mercer University’s Craig Gibson has turned the baseball team into a powerhouse program and will make his fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament as the head coach of his alma mater on Friday night.
He has notched over 500 wins in his 15 seasons with the Bears and during that time has won multiple conference titles, had 22 players drafted in the MLB draft and many other accolades.
During his playing days, he led Mercer to a conference title in 1985 and was named player of the year in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He returned to Mercer in 1993 as an assistant coach before becoming the head coach in 2004.
The Telegraph sat down with Gibson this week as his team prepared to head to Athens for the NCAA Regionals.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
JB: Four NCAA tournament appearances, 35 wins in each of the last 10 seasons. What does it say about your program to have that much sustained success?
CG: “I think we’ve made some good decisions. I think we have selected the right guys… I feel we’ve done a good job of identifying guys that we think are Mercer-type caliber student athletes. So I think once we’ve gotten them here I think the structure is really good and the plan is good… I think that has been a part of that success the last 10 years.”
JB: How has this particular team been able to battle through the adversity this season to make it back to the NCAA tournament?
CG: “We were 15-20 at one point... I always preach to the guys about legacy and you know it’s not the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best... The expectations are to win a championship, win 35 games and the guys have done a good job of sticking to it.”
JB: What is it like to be able to go to the tournament so often as a relatively small school?
CG: “It is a special feeling, especially playing baseball here. 30 years of my life has been associated with Mercer University. Just to get back on this stage and be one of the remaining 64 teams in the country, it is a special feeling. I told the guys it is probably the best week of the year just in terms of every minute, every day is precious — to really embrace it. It is hard to get to this point. I am really proud the last 13, 14, 15 years of players to come through here have all tasted postseason experience. At some programs, LSU, Vandy and Florida state, that happens the last 30 years but here on this level it is very difficult. Producing Golden Spikes winners and having those kind of guys, I think we’ve done a good job here at Mercer.”
JB: What does it mean to have a Golden Spikes winner in Kyle Lewis and a slew of All-Americans come through Mercer while other big name schools aren’t able to claim that type of success?
CG: “That is certainly really, really gratifying. Really I am most proud of the academic record we have here, almost a 3.4 cumulative GPA... I think we’ve done a good job of developing husbands and fathers. I really do… I think producing good people and what they are able to achieve in life is really probably the most gratifying part of my job here.”
JB: What type of legacy are you building here at Mercer?
CG: “It is a legacy of greatness just in terms of the sport. I sort of had to pinch myself on this team here. I think we’ve had better teams here, I really have… I always tell the guys before we go up there you are going to face some adversity. There is going to come a time when you are down and you struggle, you just gotta hold it down and fight to come out on top. I think in that setting and what we have done here, I think our teams have had more fight than a lot of teams.”
JB: What is it like to see the success across the board at Mercer among all sports?
CG: “I think coaches are close knit here. The support is really very special amongst the coaches. We all pull for each other. I am as happy for Susie when she won and happy for Brad (Ruzzo) and Tony (Economopoulos) and Bob (Hoffman) and Bobby Lamb, I think we are all on the same team here. It is a little competitiveness. We all want to have the highest GPA to be honest with you. We can never beat the golf team and the cross country team but we are trying… I think it is a friendly rivalry. I think Jim Cole has done a good job of embracing that and taking us to the next level. It is a good time to be at the university.”
JB: You played FSU earlier in the year and they swept you. What has changed about the team since that FSU series?
CG: “I think the freshmen are no longer freshmen. They have sorta grown up a little bit. They have settled in their roles… We are a little different team. That is what I thought when we were playing Wofford, they beat us two out of three earlier in the year and everybody at the game on Sunday was like ‘man that pitcher is not as sharp.’ It wasn’t the pitcher. Our team wasn’t the same team though and we got to him early. It is a little different Mercer team right now. It is fun to watch us transform over the last 30 games.”
JB: What is it going to be like playing close to home for fans to be able to come out and support you at the regional?
CG: “I think it is going to be a great environment for us. I am excited for the guys. They deserve this stage. We have had a great product here for a long time. A lot of people haven’t seen it… It is special. I think we will see a lot of orange up there on Friday night.”