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PREMIUM: More on conversation with Serrano
Dave Serrano has always had an infatuation with the Southeastern Conference.
That mere fact may come as a surprise to most. Serrano was born in Torrance, Calif., and played college baseball at Cerritos Junior College and Cal State Fullerton. But throughout his coaching career, he’s always had one dream that few knew about – to be a head coach in the SEC.
His dream came true earlier this summer when Tennessee tabbed him its new head coach.
“When I took the job, I heard a lot about how I was a West Coast guy because that’s where I was raised and spent most of my life, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an appreciation for other parts of the country, especially the Southeastern part,” Serrano said. “While at Fullerton, I always appreciated going to places like LSU. What tremendous atmospheres.”
“As great of a place that Fullerton was, you don’t have those atmospheres out west. I appreciated a different part of the country early in my career, but never thought moving over here would happen this early in my career. I’ve always had kind of a jealously when it comes to some of the SEC atmospheres,” he said. “I’ve always had my eye somewhere in the SEC. It’s nice to experience this.”
In each step of his coaching road, Serrano has experienced something different. He earned valuable experience in the 1990’s as an assistant at Tennessee, helping lead the Volunteers to one of their four College World Series appearances in 1995. But most recently, Serrano surprisingly put UC Irvine on the map for good and carried the program to its first CWS appearance. Then, at Cal State Fullerton, he inherited a good situation and had four successful campaigns.
Unlike his previous two stints at UC Irvine and Fullerton, Serrano isn’t inheriting an atmosphere or team accustomed to winning, yet expectations won’t be much different. Serrano, after all, is earning much more than he did with the Titans. His total package with the Volunteers is just under $600,000, while his total package with the Titans was just under $300,000.
Tennessee, which made its last CWS appearance in 2005, is coming off a dismal campaign that led to the dismissal of previous coach Todd Raleigh. The Volunteers finished 2011 with a 25-29 overall record, and a most disappointing 7-23 mark in the SEC, good for last place in the league.
Most startling about Tennessee’s recent history is the fact it hasn’t won more than 30 games since 2007, and only has won 30 games once during the four-year stretch. Of course, those campaigns have included no postseason appearances. The Vols haven’t reached an NCAA Regional in six years.
Tennessee has made the necessary facility improvements to compete at a high level in the SEC, and even has two additional phases to complete on Lindsey Nelson Stadium, including the addition of 16 luxury suites and 1,000 seats. However, the Volunteers still are playing catch-up with most of the league.
That makes Serrano’s job of quickly turning the Vols into a big winner ultra difficult.
“My staff has always had success and we don’t expect that to change now. Still, I’m not sure we can expect to be better than South Carolina or someone like that from Day 1. Sure, that will be our goal, but it starts with a reality process,” he said. “Right now, we know we finished 12th in the SEC last season. We must pass three teams to get into the SEC tournament. Once you get to the league tournament, who knows what can happen.”
Serrano feels the latest facility renovations have put the Volunteers back in very good standing against the rest of the SEC. However, the true test for Serrano and his staff is conveying that message to prospective recruits.
With Serrano and his coaching staff’s ties to the West Coast, one would assume the Volunteers would hit the State of California hard when it comes to recruiting. That certainly will be the case in some instances; it makes sense. But don’t look for California to be the primary recruiting ground for his coaching staff.
The Volunteers plan to hit the State of Tennessee hard, believing they can get many of the top players that choose to go to Vanderbilt or border states to stay put and attend the state’s flagship public institution. They also believe there are greater recruiting opportunities in other regions.
“First and foremost, it’s important to recruit this state pretty hard. There are enough talented players for us and Vandy to get some,” he said. “We’re going to try to recruit some of the SEC border states, but we’re also going to go to the Upper Midwest (particularly Ohio), the Northeast, the rest of the Southeast, and also places like Colorado.”
“For now, though, we’re focused on Tennessee. We need to get our names out there and meet as many coaches and players as possible. This thing is about building and establishing strong relationships.”
Time will tell if Serrano turns out to be the gold mine and savior the Volunteers expected him to be when they hired him earlier this summer. But as he watched Virginia compete in the College World Series in June, Serrano couldn’t help but to compare the Vols to the Cavaliers in terms of challenges they face.
“I sat there wondering if Virginia can do it, why can’t Tennessee?”, he said. “I’m not sure what the time table is for us becoming a national program again, but there’s no reason we can’t get where Virginia is right now.”
The Volunteers may have weather and other challenges, but they’re in the SEC, have a premier facility, and most importantly, they have a proven head coach that always has tabbed the position as his dream job.
The perfect match just might be in place.
“I’ll never look back on this decision,” Serrano said. “My ultimate goal is to routinely get this program to Omaha. I just hope I’m successful enough to make this my last coaching stop.”
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org