Georgia Tech shortstop Austin Wilhite has seen one full season of coach Danny Hall, but he already knows that the 2018 version is a different model than the 2017 one.
“We had one day where he told one kid to just get out of practice because he was loafing around,” Wilhite said. “It’s really been more prominent this year – we’ve got to be going at it hard every single day.”
Motivated by the first sub-.500 season in his 30-year coaching career and a general downturn in his team’s play in recent seasons, Hall has adopted a harder line with the Yellow Jackets, a return to the management style when Tech was an NCAA Tournament fixture. Tech opens its season Friday against Minnesota, part of the three-game Atlanta Challenge over the weekend at Russ Chandler Stadium.
“I think he did a gut check to say, ‘What did we do to get here?’” said Steve Tamborra, Hall’s trusted strength-and-conditioning coach since the 2000 season. “’We need to get back to the way of how we used to do things.’”
In 2017, Tech missed the postseason for the second time in three seasons. While injuries played a significant part in the Jackets’ record of 27-28 (11-19 in the ACC, which was also the worst league record in Hall’s career, dating to his six seasons at Kent State), the season also fit part of a larger trend.
In Hall’s first 18 seasons at Tech (1994-2011), Tech won 40-plus games 14 times and had a winning record in ACC play 17 times. In the past six seasons, the Jackets have not won 40 games once and have been under .500 in ACC play five times. Tech has been to the College World Series three times in Hall’s tenure – 1994, 2002 and 2006 – but has not made it out of the regional round since 2006.
While injuries were a significant part of the downfall in 2017, the team’s response was problematic, too. When Hall and his staff conducted exit interviews for graduates last season, players said that they didn’t think they could compete in the ACC after the injuries hit, notably to starting pitcher Tristin English, who required Tommy John surgery.
“So to hear somebody said that, it just kind of wakes you up that we didn’t do a very good job of handling that part of the adversity,” said Hall, in the second year of a five-year contract. “And when I say ‘we,’ I’m looking at myself from a coaching perspective and convincing your players that we’ve still got a chance we can go compete.”
Hence, Hall’s holding the team to a higher degree of accountability and attempting to instill a degree of toughness. (Tamborra used the phrase “verbally aggressive.”)
“There hasn’t been a lot of messing around,” said catcher Joey Bart, a preseason All-American who was also named the best defensive catcher in Division I by Baseball America. “Not to say in the past we have, but it’s just been more intense, and it’s been better overall.”
Second baseman Wade Bailey gave the example that Hall has been more insistent on players using batting practice efficiently, not just getting in the cage to take swings and get into a groove but to practice situational hitting and focus on hitting line drives.
“Coach Hall’s been really good this year,” said Bailey, an All-ACC first-team selection last season. “It’s been good to see him kind of get into guys a little more. I think it’ll help us in the long run.”
The team’s long-term success and players who were unaccustomed to hard coaching softened Hall’s edge, as Tamborra saw it. While Wilhite knew only that Hall didn’t throw anyone out of practice in 2017, Tamborra said that it had been four or five years.
“You kind of go with the flow with some of the stuff and I think you find yourself a couple years down the road thinking, Man, how did I get here?” Tamborra said.
Tamborra likes what he has seen from his boss.
“Kids, they like discipline, they like accountability,” he said. “They may not like it in the moment because it’s not fun, but they see the benefit of what that produces.”
Now starting his 25th season at Tech, Hall said he took the job because of his belief that the Jackets could compete on a national level annually.
“And we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” he said. “Could we be better? Absolutely. But in my opinion, we’ve lost some of that the last few years, whether it’s been injuries or our lack of playing the way we need to be playing. So, for me, that’s always kind of the standard and the goal. So you’ve got to look internally, not only at your players but your recruiting and everything to see how do we re-establish that we are going to be a force in the ACC.”