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Pirate Notebook No. 63
Monday, April 15, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Coaching Genealogy: And Leggett Begat LeClair...


LeClair Learned from Best,
Teaching the Brightest

For Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.  It just fell in many directions.

Now in his 23rd season as a head coach, Leggett is widely considered one of college baseball's premier skippers, evident by a handful of Omaha appearances.  Very much a part of his legacy is the lineage of head coaches he has taught along the way, starting with Keith LeClair, who took over at Western Carolina when Leggett moved to Clemson as an assistant in '91.

"I knew when I left Western Carolina to go to Clemson, it was very important to me that the program be left in good hands," Leggett said.  "It was a very tough decision for me to leave Western Carolina because I liked it there, and I had always been a head coach.  To go to Clemson as an assistant coach, that was a very, very tough decision."

In retrospect, now that he's solidified the Tigers' baseball program since moving up to head coach in 1994, Leggett can see that not only did he make the right move, he left WCU baseball in fine shape indeed.

"The thing that made it worthwhile in my eyes was the fact that I knew the program was going to be left in great hands with Keith.  We put a lot of time into that program — I had been there for nine years.  It was very important to me that the program not go downhill, and Keith did a great job."

Did he ever.

In his first season, LeClair guided the Catamounts to 44 wins and the Southern Conference championship, falling one game shy of a College World Series berth.  Before he left Cullowhee for East Carolina, LeClair went on to collect four conference titles and four regional appearances.

Ready for a new challenge, LeClair turned the reigns over to Rodney Hennon, a former Catamounts player and assistant.  Hennon picked up where LeClair left off, and attributes much of his success to his predecessor, who maintained Western's burgeoning image as a national baseball power.

"He (LeClair) is a great guy to play for," said Hennon, now head coach at Georgia Southern.  "He was following some pretty big footsteps when he took over the program.

"I think the thing that he did best is that he was himself.  He didn't try to be Coach Leggett, and our team responded well to him.  Personally, I think where he helped me more than anything else is he believed in me.  He had confidence in me and the other guys on our team."

Though LeClair doesn't mimic Leggett in all aspects of the game, he embodies many of the basic principles preached by his former boss.  Hard work and determination are demanded of his players, and his obsession with the game has been the spark plug for success.

"It's his passion," Leggett said.  "That's what set him apart as a player, and that's what sets him apart now. His passion for being a competitor, his passion for never giving up, and his passion for being persistent.

"He's one of those kids that never gave up during his time at Western.  Nothing was ever guaranteed to him, and I just had the utmost respect for him."

Lightly recruited out of high school, LeClair walked on at Western in the mid-80s.  Unimposing in stature, he was the classic overachiever, the true definition of a self-made player.

LeClair took his blue collar ways into the weight room, where he trained relentlessly throughout his college career.  Outworked by no one, the Walpole, NH, native transformed himself from a Punch-and-Judy hitter into an intimidating slugger by his senior year.

Those same qualities were embraced by Hennon, whose Georgia Southern program has enjoyed two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and is well on its way to making it three in a row.

"We believe in a lot of the same things, as far as what it takes to be successful," Hennon said.  "Especially at this level.

"The biggest thing I've learned from him, though, is hard work.  You've got to work for what you get in this profession.  We both took that from Coach Leggett."

But that's not all. 

"It was a family," Hennon explained.  "It was a family-type atmosphere.  I think that was really important. "We were always a close-knit group as a team.

"It's not always like that everywhere, and that's something that he's taken with him over to East Carolina.  Coach Leggett took that same type atmosphere to Clemson.  That's one thing that I've tried to take to Georgia Southern, and I've always tried to promote that.

"Some of the best friends that I have to this day are the guys that were my teammates there (Western), and my coaches."

That's just the type of camaraderie Hennon is passing along to his players in Statesboro, hoping to add new limbs to the family tree of one of college baseball's most successful coaching clans.

Eason's Insurance Policy Was LeClair

One of the sprouting branches of the LeClair coaching tree is ECU assistant coach Tommy Eason.  In his fifth season, the former Pirates catcher and current pitching coach has molded one of the finest staffs in the nation, spearheaded by starters Sam Narron, Davey Penny, and Will Brinson.

But the road to coaching success took many turns along the way.

"I've really thought about it many times," said Eason, who played professionally from '91-'96.  "I could have been out of the game. I had an opportunity to sell insurance after I got my undergraduate in '97.

"Five years ago, he (LeClair) gave me the opportunity as a graduate assistant, and I was real thankful for that.  But I was never treated like a graduate assistant because he gave me full range.  I wouldn't be in coaching if it weren't for him."

Gaspar Maintains Hitting Approach

Assistant coach Kevin McMullan stated earlier this season that ECU wouldn't match last year's power totals, but would be versatile on offense. So far he's been right.

While the Pirates haven't been launching balls into the jungle with regularity, they have been productive. Much of that is due to a deep dugout of disciplined hitters, including senior centerfielder Warren Gaspar, who has batted from just about every spot in the Pirates' batting order this season.

According to Gaspar, the constant tweaking hasn't changed his mentality at the plate.

"You really can't change your approach, regardless of if you hit fourth or leadoff," Gaspar said.  "You may get pitched a little bit different, though. You may see a few more fastballs if you're hitting leadoff, but once scouting reports get out on you, pitchers will pitch to you according to what those reports say, regardless of where you bat in the order.

"But the approach to hitting has really got to be the same.  You're timing has to be right.  You need to see the ball and hit the ball."

That philosophy has made Gaspar one of the Pirates' toughest outs over the past two seasons, regardless of his spot in the batting order.

Second Guessing

This time last year, NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked David Garrard among the top three junior quarterbacks following his season-ending performance against Texas Tech.  Some observers even termed the ECU quarterback NFL-ready, and said he would be an early-round pick if he chose to forego his senior year.

My how things have changed.

After a somewhat disappointing senior campaign, his stock has dropped significantly.  On Saturday, Kiper said Garrard would likely be a sixth or seventh round pick, due largely to several question marks that make him a high-risk early-round selection.

The two major concerns listed by experts are inconsistencies in the intermediate passing game and tendencies to balloon at times.  Last fall, Garrard was listed at 249 pounds, which isn't exactly ideal for a six-foot-two QB.

In a day and age where athletes are encouraged to return for their senior seasons, it would have paid for Garrard to enter the draft last year.  Perhaps, even millions.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

Click here to dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 01:45:16 AM

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