interview by Douglas S. Malan
Everybody loves the underdog story – the overlooked, undervalued guy who proves everyone wrong. In college baseball, the best underdog stories often come from walk-ons who enter a program unheralded and develop into a significant contributor through attitude and perseverance.
Middle Tennessee’s baseball program has grown in the past 20 years from the Ohio Valley Conference to the Sun Belt Conference and now Conference USA. One constant has been the role that walk-ons have played each year when the Blue Raiders roster is developed.
Jim McGuire, who has spent three years as the Blue Raiders head coach and 23 years overall with the program, has been instrumental in finding and developing players who first joined the program without a scholarship and, in many cases, became team leaders through on-field production or by setting an example through work ethic.
He spent some time before fall camp opened in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to talk about walk-ons with Inside Pitch magazine.
What role do walk-ons play at Middle Tennessee?
This may sound like a bold statement, but our walk-ons have really been the lifeblood of the program. We have developed some guys over the years who turned down opportunities to go other places, sometimes even turned down scholarship money, to come here. It always seems like those guys find a way to work their way into the lineup and eventually be put on scholarship and end up being some of our better players. We actually had one, Wayne Kendrick, who ended up playing pro ball and he was not on scholarship his first two years.
With the restrictions on the rosters, it’s limited what you can do with those recruited walk-on spots or for somebody who just walks on. It has changed the dynamic of it. But they have played a huge role in the success we have had.
How has the landscape changed when it comes to opportunities for walk-ons?
About five years ago the NCAA limited your total roster to 35 guys. You can work out as many players as you’d like in the fall, even leading into the spring. But by the first game, your roster has to be cut down to 35, and 27 of those can be on scholarship while the other eight cannot receive any type of athletic aid. Before that change, if you had 15 guys who wanted to walk on, you could redshirt them. Before the rules change, our rosters used to be around 40 and we’d redshirt, but now you have eight spots open for walk-ons and a majority of those are going to be recruited spots, recruiting with no money.
Is there still room in the game for the unrecruited walk-on to make an impact?
I definitely think there is. I know some Division I programs have eliminated the open tryout where you find walk-ons, but that’s something we’ve continued here and there are still many schools at every level that offer an open tryout. You see a guy you like and you find a way to get him into the program. I still value those guys. We kept a guy last year, a left-handed pitcher, who walked on from the open tryout. He didn’t throw a lot of innings for us but he made the club and I think he appeared in four or five games in relief. I think there’s always room for those guys to get opportunities and get those looks. Sometimes if they get in and you give them a chance, they can excel and move their game up a level just by being around all the talent you have and the team’s work ethic. They are hungry and want to really get after it, and they don’t know if they’re going to be there the next day. That motivates them and pushes them.
The reason I stress the walk-on’s importance to us is we know those guys really, really want to be here. That’s true of recruited guys, too, but with a walk-on, they’ve chosen you maybe more than you’ve chosen them. That mindset always tends to work out, whatever capacity you end up putting them in. It’s a good feeling as a coach knowing he’s true to your program.
What characteristics do you look for in a walk-on?
You look for this in all players but for someone who’s walking on, they have to be an extremely hard worker, good in the classroom, have to have all those intangibles before they walk on the field. Let’s face it, I think every coach would be lying if they didn’t tell you that with some of their scholarship guys they have to put up with a little bit more. For the talented guy who has scholarship money, they’re trying to help that guy along to try to get something out of him whereas the walk-on really doesn’t get that benefit of the doubt. They’ve got to be ready to go and prepared. They have to have a good track record coming in. Then when they get out on the field, they just have to really, really, really work. We have a couple guys on the club who are like that, and they motivate other guys on the team. They bring more to the team, sometimes, than just what the performance is on a game day.
You end up finding some really good leadership guys. Some of those guys want to coach and their motivation is to get as much experience as they can, find a way to be in the game at this level, and then carry it on from here.
What do you tell a player who is trying to walk on?
I do not paint a very good picture. I start out by telling them how difficult it’s going to be, how many guys are on the roster, how the roster situation works, that the spots are going to be very limited and very competitive to make the team. I try to stress to them their main objective is to do whatever they can to impress the coaching staff, including me, to where they show some value for us to keep them.
Their main responsibility is to find a way to make the team and be out there every day. Then they can start worrying about playing time and moving positions or doing something different, but some guys tend to want to get ahead of themselves. The first thing to do is make the team. I want you to come out and I’m going to encourage you to come out, but I’m not going to promise you anything. Most of the time it doesn’t bother guys because if they want to do it, it doesn’t matter what you tell them.
Sometimes they’re not going to fit into your plans that particular year. We’ve had guys we cut one year who came back the next year and ended up making the team because they were that motivated and continued to work and got better. Our needs changed a little bit and they made the team. I give examples of all those things that can happen.
Douglas S. Malan is a writer and avid college baseball fan living in Connecticut. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.