Chris Pollard had stability, reputation, and a genuine belief that the best was yet to come. His team had just put together the most successful season in school history. Leaving that behind to take over a last-place program was not an easy decision, no matter the potential benefits- finances, prestige, facilities, talent pool- that the bigger stage could offer.
In some alternate universe, 2012, Pollard’s eighth year as head coach at Appalachian State University, kicks off a run of dominance. In this one, it was the peak, the Mountaineers’ lone moment to capture college baseball’s attention. What a season it was, though. They won two of three on the road against a top ten team from the SEC to kickstart a 12-game winning streak. They vaulted into Baseball America’s top 25 for the first time in school history, and won 41 games — a program record . Most importantly, they rolled to a regular-season Southern Conference title and were awarded their first NCAA tournament bid in 25 years. After upsetting two nationally ranked powerhouses, they moved within a single game of a super regional birth. The cinderella story was cut short, as the Mountaineers lost consecutive games to Oklahoma to close out their season. A heartbreaking moment for the team, but the future of the program seemed to be trending upwards.
“Not only was it a successful season, there were a whole lot of pieces in place to continue that success,” Pollard affirmed. “We had a whole lot of guys coming back off that 2012 squad who were going to be experienced players in 2013, so we felt that that program was set up to continue to be successful.”
These plans were changed when Duke came calling after that season. An ACC school with resources and an academic reputation that Appalachian State could not rival. Combining the commodities with a five-year contract offer proved too much to turn down. The only issue lied with the program trends. Appalachian State looked to be progressing, while Duke was, respectively, acting in the opposite fashion. The Blue Devils’ 9-21 record in ACC play in 2012 ranked last in the league, and they were 51 years removed from their most recent NCAA tournament appearance. After building one program from the ground up, it looked like Pollard was starting all over.
He pushes back on that idea somewhat, crediting predecessor Sean McNally for compiling talented pieces to form a competitive team. Even so, he acknowledges that the security he lost departing Appalachian State led to some second guessing. “100%, yes,” he replied when asked if making the jump to Durham was a difficult decision. “You’re leaving that comfortable environment for an environment where there hasn’t been much of a tradition of success, where there’s been some apathy around the program. You’re going to a great conference, but that’s a blessing and a curse. It’s awesome to play in the ACC, arguably the best league in the country, but if you’re not set up for success, it’s a really hard league to win in.”
That doubt only intensified as Pollard’s Blue Devils weathered a trying 2013 season, matching their 9-21 conference record from the prior year. “There were a lot of times in the first year that I was at Duke that I thought I had a made a mistake,” he admitted. “I did have some second guessing, I think that’s natural…If you really do a good job in self-reflection, you always have a little self-doubt about making such a huge decision and huge life change.”
So how does a new coaching staff attack such a rebuild? It starts with “changing the culture,” a common refrain uttered by leaders of an organization, but one which can run the risk of becoming abstract if the small details are ignored. “We talked about, and we still talk about, core principles that we’re going to hang our hat on,” Pollard said of his initial message to his players. “We’re trying to have a ‘win the day’ type of mentality. We’re going to focus on maximizing each day as it comes, and whatever the task is at hand on the day, we’re going to do our best to get the most out of it and use that as a building block for the next day. Put the interests and the goals and accomplishments of our team and our teammates over our own.”
It helps to have a veteran core. “We were fortunate that there were (already) some really good players in the program, and those guys had tremendous buy-in to the culture that we were trying to create,” Pollard stated. “Guys like Jordan Betts, Drew Van Orden, Andrew Istler, Robert Huber. There were some guys there that were certainly capable of being very good players in the ACC and beyond. Not just their (playing) ability, but their ability to buy into a new system, new philosophy, new culture. It really allowed us to hit the ground running.” Pollard is quick to note that these players who predated his arrival were more talented than they’re often given credit for, with Van Orden ending up a sixth-round draftee while Istler, and Betts, outperformed their modest draft stocks to reach Triple-A in their respective pro organizations.
Nevertheless, these players were upperclassmen upon Pollard’s arrival, and while their leadership may well have aided the regime transition, they would graduate long before Duke was ready to compete in a loaded ACC field. A field that sent a combined 15 teams to the NCAA tournament during Pollard’s first two years in Durham. Bringing in a new wave of young talent was an absolute must. “We did set out with a plan to recruit athletic guys, and if you look at the guys that we’ve had success with over the last few years, the guys who have moved on to professional baseball and the guys who are still with the program, you see a good athlete on the field,” he said of Duke’s recruiting strategy. “(Recruiting Coordinator) Josh Jordan has done a great job identifying guys who are really athletic and have a lot of room to grow and get better.”
Targeting athletic position players, Pollard and Jordan reeled in one of the most influential recruiting classes in school history in 2015-16. That year, Duke welcomed outfielders Jimmy Herron and Griffin Conine, shortstop Zack Kone, and catcher Chris Proctor, all of whom saw immediate playing time. Conine scuffled as a freshman, but Herron and Kone were All-ACC Freshmen en route to Duke’s first NCAA tournament berth in 55 years. Conine leapfrogged his classmates in the eyes of scouts the following year, punctuating his status as an eventual second-round draft prospect by hitting .329/.406/.537 in the renowned Cape Cod League. Proctor, by one measure, actually outperformed his more heralded teammates this year as Duke returned to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“I would be lying if I told you that we knew all these guys would turn out to be as good as they are,” Pollard said. “I’d be lying if I told you I knew that Griffin Conine was going to be a second-rounder and a two-time All American, that Jimmy Herron was going to be a career .300-plus hitter at the ACC level, and so on.” That group was that good, though, and the apathy that Pollard detected when he first arrived in Durham is a thing of the past. “We’ve had a really strong track record developing guys for the next level,” he noted. “We had 7 players drafted in this past year’s draft. (Incoming recruits) don’t have to compromise. They’re going to come here and get a great degree, but they’re also going to be able to play at the highest level.”
In college sports, past success has a way of propping up the future. Perennially successful schools attract top recruits, and Duke’s nationally-ranked 2016-2017 recruiting class will be front and center next year. This season will have to follow in the footsteps of the program’s best season in over half a century. The Blue Devils won a regional for the first time, advancing within a game of their first College World Series appearance since 1961, and finished in the top ten of Baseball America’s season-ending poll. They’ll do so with no uncertainty on the coaching staff, as the university rewarded Pollard’s unprecedented success with a new contract.
In hindsight, it would be easy to dismiss Pollard’s apprehension about leaving Appalachian State. The Mountaineers’ follow-up to their program-best 2012 was not as rosy as had been expected. They’ve yet to return to the NCAA Tournament, finishing last, or second to last, in the Sun Belt Conference during the past four seasons. Duke, on the other hand, has seen its best run of success since the early 1960’s. Pollard embraced the challenge, made the leap, and quickly guided a second program to success unparalleled in recent memory.
Appalachian’s descent from the heights of 2012 is a reminder of how quickly a rebuilt program can collapse. Yet the story at Duke feels different. The Blue Devils have recruiting advantages and an opportunity to face high-level talent in conference play weekly which Appalachian State, as a mid-major school, cannot rival. Both the Blue Devils and Mountaineers were able to accomplish some incredible things in the realm of college baseball. Anchoring both these programs was none other than Chris Pollard, who is now batting a thousand when it comes to life support programs that were in need of a revival.