Webb’s Words: At Home, Mercer Brings Home the Title

And then I thought to myself “Where at this complex can I buy some bourbon and be alone? I need to contemplate my existence.”

Ok, first, some background.

It was August 6, 2016. I was staring down a 30th birthday in exactly 45 days, but that wasn’t the root of a momentary life crisis.

I was at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., for Prep Baseball Report’s Future Games. Every August, the Future Games brings together the top uncommitted rising juniors in Prep Baseball Report’s coverage area. As the contingent of players from Ohio were battling Prep Baseball Report’s Michigan squad, I found enough space among the more than three dozen college coaches camped out on this game and squatted along a brick pillar to take in the action. Making small talk with the surrounding coaches, a coach to my left departed and afford me enough space to stand up and take an unobstructed view of the game.

Whoever did what, whether the green-clad Michigan team beat the scarlet-dressed Ohio State outfit or vice-versa, what player could be a middle-of-the-order bat for whomever in five years, I couldn’t tell you. My lasting impression from the evening was what I projected for a coach.

With more space to stand up and take in the game, I ended up standing next to Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer. Mercer had recently been named head coach of his alma mater, taking over for Greg Lovelady, whom Central Florida named head coach. After congratulating Mercer on his first head coach position, and reliving a bit of the 2016 Louisville Regional, where Wright State knocked out Ohio State en route to finishing runners-up to the Cardinals, Mercer and I started talking recruiting.

What made Wright State successful under Loverlady, and before that Penn State’s Rob Cooper, was Wright State’s uncanny ability to find gems in the recruiting trail. Whether they trusted the bat to provide enough value to overcome defensive deficiencies other recruiters saw, took a chance on the undersized kid, or just had a better scouting eye, for going on a decade, Wright State did more than any other Midwest program given resources, brand name, facilities, location. To be candid, it shouldn’t be possible that a commuter school outside of Dayton, Ohio could on multiple occasions beat the top team in the nation (Georgia in 2009 and Virginia in 2010) be a consistent regional presence, rack up 40-win seasons and knockout the state’s flagship school with at least five times as much resources. But Wright State did all of the above.

At an event where coaches are ask to project players just coming off of their sophomore, if not freshman, high school seasons, I asked Mercer how the recruiting landscape had changed since he played, and if the Wright State model was sustainable with the recruiting cycles continued acceleration. For the next 30 minutes, Mercer not only explained what made Wright State successful on the recruiting trail, but identified trends and inefficiencies in recruiting, how to recruit a football player versus a one-sport baseball specialist, what type of nutrition plan is demanded of different body types and he will provide a player once on campus to maximize their physical being.

As the class of 2018 and 2019 graduates from Ohio and Michigan shook hands at the end of their game, Mercer and I vowed to keep in touch, exchanged pleasantries and asked for the inning and who’s on the mound of the other games.

It’s not uncommon to lost track of time when talking to coaches as events on the recruiting trails. Especially by August, most of the players have been seen too many times to count. Conversations drift and can span the range of ranking fast food burgers to desired careers as amateur storm chasers to debating the merits of Marriott versus Hilton hotels. What made the conversation with Mercer stand out was the articulation, thoroughness and precision of plans. There was no wavering from one thought to the next. Mercer wasn’t just a new head coach learning as he went, he was prepared for this day from the time he entered the coaching ranks.

And then there’s me, the to-be-30-year-old, who had trouble on a daily basis figuring out what to eat for lunch and how to cook it. This level of detail, articulation of a vision, and purposeful intention behind every action was beyond me and my 29 3/4 years. I needed that bourbon.

I first knew of Mercer when he a first baseman at Wright State. During the 2009 season, I ran a blog called Buckeye State Baseball that covered all of Ohio college baseball. Under the direction of Cooper, Mercer was on a 2009 Wright State team I followedthat participated in the Forth Worth Regional. It was also a year that saw Mercer named Horizon League Player of the Year.

Following Mercer’s decorated career between Dayton and Wright State, he spent a year as a Graduate Assistant at Ohio Northern, and then coached on Rich Maloney’s staff at Michigan for the 2011 season. I had been around college baseball enough to know a coach doesn’t land at a place like Michigan, less than two years removed from his playing days, especially when one year is spent at ONU, no disrespect to the Polar Bears. I assumed Mercer had a bright future and kept track of what appeared to be an up-and-comer and the next big thing.

At the same time, you could say the same for the Indiana baseball program. While Mercer’s collegiate career was coming to an end in the Lone Star State, the Bluegrass State bore witness to a revived Hoosier program.

The 2009 season ended with Indiana in the Louisville Regional, its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years, as the Hoosiers won the Big Ten Tournament. A team decorated with three first-round picks, Eric Arnett, Matt Bashore and Josh Phegley, and three eventual Major League Baseball players, Alex Dickerson, Jake Dunning and Phegley, the third-seeded Hoosiers ran bullied the tournament field and showed there was a new kid on the block in Big Ten baseball.

While we fast forward a little, here is where we also show how timing is a funny thing and everything.

It’s June 2013. Indiana, now with Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, built upon the foundation laid by Dickerson and Phegley. The Hoosier appeared in the College World Series, finishing sixth in the country. Indiana became the first Big Ten team to reach Omaha since Michigan in 1984, as Tracy Smith was named National Coach of the Year.

At the other end of the Big Ten standings, Penn State relived Robbie Wine of his duties at Penn State.¬†With coaches around the country seeing what is possible at a Big Ten program, the Penn State head coach vacancy received interest from all parts of the country. Three candidates emerged as finalists: Wright State’s Rob Cooper, Saint Louis’ Darin Hendrickson and Louisville assistant coach Chris Lemonis. Ultimately Lemonis decided to stay at Louisville and Penn State tabbed Cooper. With Cooper leaving Wright State, the Raider program was turned over to assistant Greg Lovelady, who then added Mercer to his staff.

The following year, Indiana wouldn’t quite reach their 2013 highs, but they did earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted a second consecutive regional. Hired by Indiana in 2006, Smith recruited the players that saw Indiana break their postseason drought in 2009 and over the next five years established himself as one of college baseball’s top coaches, spearheaded Indiana going from Sembower Field, a place that was on-par with a mid-tier high school program, as well as made Indiana the standard-bearer in the Big Ten. Arguably the most recognizable school in college baseball, Arizona State plucked Smith from Bloomington. And now, after being of interest for Ohio State’s vacancy in 2010, Michigan’s in 2012 and Penn State the prior summer, Indiana made Lemonis their head coach and put him in charge of keeping the Hoosier program at it’s peak.

For the most part, Lemonis did just that. In four years, Indiana went to three regionals. They continued to recruit at an elite level, contend for Big Ten championships, and saw college baseball become something you schedule to do in Bloomington.

Meanwhile, less than two hours across the border in Ohio, the Wright State machine continued to churn out conference crowns and regional appearances. Wright State set a program record with 43 wins in 2015, then reset the record book in 2016 with 45 wins. In the two years that Mercer led the Raiders, Wright State went 77-38, received their first national ranking in 2017 and appeared in the 2018 Stanford Regional.

While it was almost two years since I had that what-is-my-life moment, the moment came for Mercer to do what he had sought out to do all along.

A native of Bargersville, Ind., Mercer is the junior of Jeff Mercer Sr. When junior was a toddler, senior was an assistant baseball coach at Indiana from 1988-1989. As he would grow up and play for Franklin Community High School, he was only an hour away from the program he dreamed of leading. College baseball did land him in Bloomington, but Dayton and Wright State kept him in the region, as did coaching stops at ONU, Michigan, Western Kentucky and Wright State.

But now it was time to come home.

The success Indiana had from 2009-2018 was a bit bittersweet. Indiana was indeed one of the top 30 programs in the country. Their success in Bloomington made Smith and Lemonis top targets. Targets by athletic departments that pour seemingly unlimited funds and resources into their baseball programs. Just as multiple Big Ten schools were interested in Lemonis while he was an assistant at Louisville, it wasn’t long in his tenure that it became an annual eventual for Lemonis’ name was tied to a vacancy at a college baseball blueblood. Ultimately, Mississippi State was able to pluck Lemonis away from Bloomington following the 2018.

What was Indiana to do to not continue this cycle of hiring a good coach, see have success, step forward as one of college baseball’s best, then leave?

Hire a guy who sees Indiana as the final destination, one who planned for the opportunity from day one. Hire Jeff Mercer.

Throughout Indiana’s search to fill the surprise vacancy created by Lemonis’ departure, I spoke with those close to Indiana’s search. They did not want to become the Xavier basketball of college baseball: a very good to great program potentially losing a coach every handful of years. Where media threw out names like Nate Yeskie of Oregon State or Wes Johnson at Arkansas, Indiana had no such interest. They wanted a guy who knew what it meant to be a Hoosier, a guy who would want to retire in Bloomington. They weren’t interested in the hot name, let alone coaches who couldn’t tell you Bargersville from Brownsville, Indiana. If it meant sacrificing a ranking here or there, so be it, who wants to don the Crimson and Cream and not look elsewhere?

This time, it didn’t take a 30-minute talk with Mercer to contemplate what’s to come. It took all of 30 seconds.

When I called Mercer to ask if he would have interest in the Indiana vacancy, he said absolutely, that he wouldn’t leave Indiana even if the New York Yankees called offering their manager job. Mercer shared some family insight, like how his parents have a barn 15 minutes from campus, how at his grandparents thee first thing you saw when you opened the door was Christ on the crucifix and a picture of Bobby Knight. Mercer grew up only knowing Indiana and in his heart the possibility of leading Indiana is what everything he worked for in coaching was for.

And so it came to pass. Hundreds of resumes and well-qualified coaches applied, but it didn’t take long for Indiana to find their guy. On July 2, 2018, less than nine days after Lemonis left, Indiana Director of Athletics Fred Glass named Mercer the 25th head coach in Indiana’s baseball history. I’ll guess Glass will be long retired before Indiana needs their 26th head coach.

It was two and a half years after we chatted in Westfield, but one week out from the start of the 2019 season, Mercer and I had another conversation that saw time fly by. Speaking to culture and buy-in, nutrition plans, how he wants to build the IU program to his liking, every belief and principle had a purpose behind it. Every decision had a reason. Every action a why. While I was looking to the 2019 season, Mercer was operating just as he normally does. Everything he worked for led him to this moment, it was just another day in February, all actions prior led up to it, all actions to come to lead Indiana to a title.

On Saturday, Mercer led Indiana to their seventh Big Ten championship. In winning the conference crown in his first season, Mercer became the first Big Ten coach to win the conference championship in his first season at the school since Minnesota’s John Anderson did it in 1982. There were 32 hires in the Big Ten since Minnesota tabbed Anderson, if you were wondering.

The more I dug through record books and checked coaching records against who won the Big Ten, there were some pretty impressive coaches who were unable to do what Mercer did. Some hall of fame coaches in fact. Ohio State’s Bob Todd didn’t win a title in his first year, he needed two seasons to bring a title to Columbus. Maloney restored past promise and glory in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten until his fourth season. Darin Erstad and Dan Hartleb have opportunities to go down as the best coaches in the respective histories of Nebraska and Illinois baseball, but their first Big Ten crown didn’t come until their sixth season.

And so it was Anderson who last accomplished what Mercer did this weekend, fittingly. A coach back in his home state, a coach who has no desire to leave. A coach who’s planned it out for as long as he can remember. If there’s ever going to be a coach who matches Anderson with 11 Big Ten championships over a 38-year career, it’s the 33-year-old Mercer.

Rest easy, and celebrate Indiana, you have your coach, he’s home and not going anywhere. Bourbon’s on me.

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