Coaching search: Where are the Long Beach State Dirtbags going?

The penultimate episode of the television show “Sports Night” is titled “Quo Vadimus” and includes this poignant speech from the character Calvin Trager: “I’m what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful businessman, and I’ve failed much more than I’ve succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together and I say, ‘Where are we going?’ And it starts to get better.”

The Long Beach State Dirtbags baseball program and athletic director Andy Fee are in the midst of their own Quo Vadimus moment, after a historically forgettable season at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field. The Dirtbags (14-41, 8-16) finished with their worst overall record since 1988 while losing head coach Troy Buckley under jarring circumstances. Now, Fee has to hire the right head coach to get one of the most successful programs at the school—one with its own nickname—back on track.

“We need someone who understands the culture here,” Fee said. “It would be great to find someone with head coaching experience. That’s always a plus. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hire an assistant coach.”

Fee and his staff will be choosing a handful of finalists this week after receiving applications from across the nation. Current Sacramento State head coach Reggie Christiansen looks like he could be an early front runner. Christiansen won his 400th game while leading the Hornets to a Western Conference Athletic Conference title and NCAA postseason appearance this year.

Fee said he that he won’t contact any potential hire until after their current season is over, but that he hopes to announce the new coach by mid-June.

“I don’t think this is going to take forever and a day to turn this around,” Fee said. “It’s going to require a lot of hard work, but we have so many positives. We have a great campus, great community, great facility and we fund the program to a good level. I feel very comfortable about where we are.”

LBSU Athletics Director Andy Fee. Photo courtesy of Long Beach State University.

The program has produced a record 51 Major League Baseball players in its 30 years of existence and, in eight of the last nine seasons, more players from Long Beach State have played in the majors than from any other college or university.

If history holds, this valley may just be the beginning of a new peak for the Dirtbags. The 1988 season was the last time the program lost more than 40 games, but legendary coach Dave Snow turned the program around in 1989 with a scrappy bunch of overachievers called Dirtbags because they practiced on the all-dirt Whaley Park field near campus, eventually reaching the College World Series for the first time in school history.

Ever since then, the use of the name Dirtbag has turned into a badge of honor for LBSU baseball players, which include the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Jason Giambi and Jered Weaver. The team has been defined by a patient offensive approach with good pitching and defense and a hard-working, blue-collar attitude. Alumni, fans and even Fee know that tradition is paramount to the program returning to the College World Series.

“We need someone who understands the culture here,” Fee said. “If they’re a Dirtbag, that would be great. That’s always nice to have a connection with the school. But even if they’re not, they have to understand what the program has been built upon. We talk about terms like grit, determination and resiliency. They need to understand that there is a proud tradition here. Whoever it is will create the program as they see fit, but they also need to understand how it fits into the community and university.”

Troy Buckley filled that role since 2011 when he returned to take over for Mike Weathers as the seventh coach in Dirtbags history. Buckley and LBSU hosted the 2017 NCAA Super Regionals, and were one hit away from going back to the College World Series, but it’s been all downhill from there. A bevy of injuries to key players sucked the depth out of the LBSU dugout, and the results have reflected that struggle.

Former Long Beach State baseball head coach Troy Buckley. Photo by Stephen Dachman.

Everything came to a head on April 11 when Buckley was unexpectedly fired following an altercation in the clubhouse. Multiple sources familiar with a university investigation confirmed that Buckley was terminated after a reported incident of workplace violence. Buckley had signed a four-year contract extension in August 2017 that would’ve kept him at LBSU until 2022.

That news reached the Dirtbags players when Fee showed up after practice less than 24 hours before LBSU was scheduled to host Cal State Northridge in the Big West Conference home opener.

“No one was expecting it,” LBSU junior Jacob Hughey said. “The first move was digesting it and letting it register in my head. Andy Fee was clear in letting us know it was his decision, and the record had nothing to do with it, and they couldn’t give us more details than that.”

Assistant coaches turned to interim co-head coaches Greg Bergeron (offense) and Dan Ricabal (pitching) to help the players deal with their own emotions before a meeting on Friday.

“There are guys like myself who have played for the guy for four years,” Hughey said. “You have to sit there and let the feelings out. If you need to talk to someone, the whole team is here to back you up. We can’t let outside noise from social media or naysayers get in our heads.”

Redshirt junior Jacob Hughey had a breakout season at first base, leading the Dirtbags with a .324 batting average, 23 runs scored and 26 RBIs. The Millikan High alum had a pair of three-hit games in the final weekend series of the year with five runs scored and four RBIs. Photo by Stephen Dachman.

On Friday night against CSUN, the Dirtbags delivered one of their most memorable wins since 2017. LBSU fell behind CSUN early, retook the lead in the fifth inning, lost it again in the top of the ninth inning and then came back to score twice in the bottom of the ninth for a 6-5, walk-off victory. A two-out RBI single from Dominic Campeau brought in Brooks Stotler for the game-winning run and set off a cathartic celebration around Campeau that bounced all the way into left field.

“There was so much emotion going on after the game,” Campeau said. “It felt like a breath of fresh air. We needed this one.”

“We kinda just closed the book on that chapter, and started a new chapter today,” Bergeron said. “They’re a resilient group. They showed that tonight.”

Fee knows this coach hire will go a long way in defining his legacy at LBSU. His only head coaching hires have been women’s volleyball coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer and women’s basketball coach Jeff Cammon. Those two programs have gone a combined 43-77 in four combined seasons.

Fee would also love to put the recent mascot news at LBSU behind him and the university, something a splashy baseball hire would effectively accomplish. However, Fee is looking for a coach willing to grind on the recruiting trail, and not get players because of a name or pedigree.

“Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, so you want to make sure you get someone who understands they’re going to have to bring in someone who will live on the road,” Fee said. “I don’t want to commit to anything, but I’d say I’m leaning towards a long term deal. In terms of recruiting, you’re going to be looking at kids who are younger and you have to build that relationship.”

Fee added that it’s not fair to assume that the new Dirtbags coach will be the highest paid coach on campus.

“I see this as something that will take a lot of hard work and a good plan to turn it around quickly,” Fee said. “I hope within two or three years we see a significant improvement.”

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.
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