Special: Part Three of Three Parts
O'Brien recently conducted a one-on-one interview with Keith
LeClair, East Carolina's extraordinarily successful head baseball
coach. Transcript appears below.
[ Keith LeClair
Photo: ECU SID ]
About Life, Religion and Omaha
Q & A With Keith LeClair:
Keith LeClair talks about life, religion, and Omaha in this
Q: What do you think the move to Conference USA does for this
A: It gives us a lot more exposure on a national level. We'll now
be playing in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. So,
we'll really be able to get our name out there in different parts of the
country. We'll have so much more recognition with this conference as a
whole. You have Tulane that is ranked anywhere from third to fifth in the
preseason polls. And you also have Houston that is a top 30 team. That
obviously helps us. Now, we're getting exposure with a conference as a
whole. Our program got exposure in the CAA, but not with the league as a
Q: Going into the season, pitching is obviously a strength. Even
though the pitching staff was solid last season, you have to expect
significant improvement with another year of experience.
A: Yeah, it's pretty much the same staff that we had last year. We
didn't lose any significant innings off that staff. And one thing that I
think is going to help our staff this year, is that we will be a lot better
defensively than we were a year ago. Last year we were offensive oriented,
and had an offensive lineup which hurt us defensively. This year, we will
have people back in their natural positions, which will help us defensively,
which in turn will help them as a staff.
Q: So, even though you lose three starters in the infield, you
think you'll be better defensively?
A: Yeah, because now we have Bryant Ward back at third. I think he
is one of the premier third basemen in the country defensively, and he even
led our team last year in hitting. He was never comfortable at second base.
He's back where he is a lot more comfortable, and a lot more confident. At
short stop, we will have Luke Cherry, who is an outstanding defensive
player. Jed Sorensen will play second, and he is a very good defensive
player. Darryl Lawhorn and Ryan Norwood will both play as freshmen at first
base. Then, we have Warren Gaspar in center; Ryan Jones in right; Ben
Sanderson in left; Clayton McCullough behind the plate. We can put eight
guys on the field that are all really good defensively. Defense will be an
important part of our success.
Q:Speaking of Warren Gaspar, he really came into his own toward
the end of the year. He seemed like the catalyst for that lineup during the
A: He was, and I expect that he will be more mature this year. He
is a lot more confident and has a better understanding of his game. The
thing that he has to be careful about, though, is trying to do too much in
Our offense has changed dramatically from last year to this year. Last
year, we were a power-hitting team, but this year we'll have a much
different type of offense.
Q: Will you take more of a National League approach on offense?
A: We'll have to be more of a situational hitting team. We're
going to have to hit-and-run, bunt. We're going to have to execute. I think
these guys know that that's going to be very important.
Q: Is there a particular area that has surprised you at this stage
in practice, an area in which you are much better than you thought you would
A: I would have to say offensively. I think we are better than I
thought we would be. Still, we've yet to prove ourselves in competition, so
I think we have to be very careful at this stage. There are questions that
we have offensively that will be answered in time.
Also, I think our pitching depth has improved since last year. We had
depth last year, but what I think has happened is the guys that didn't get
significant innings last year have improved, which makes our depth even
Q: Since you've been here, there has been a huge boost in fan
enthusiasm. It has to feel good that as the program has progressed, so has
A: When you look at the programs across the country that year in,
year out are successful, they all have great fan attendance. I think that
has been a big part of our success here. I really think that it has elevated
our program to the point where it helps our players on the field.
Q: Obviously that huge influx of enthusiasm has led to the
campaign to build the new stadium. What has that done for you when you go
out to recruit?
A: Well, that's something that really can't impact recruiting
until it is built. You know, we can talk about it all we want, but an
18-year old kid wants to actually see it. Though I think it has helped spark
interest within the program, I don't think any program has really been
helped until the facility is in place. When that happens, I think that's
when you'll see even more improvement in our program. We're halfway there in
our financial campaign, but we need to finish the deal.
Q: Because you were so close to reaching Omaha last year, do you
think there is an even greater focus to get there this year?
A: I think last year gave our guys an understanding of where
they're at, in that we are very, very close. Last year, we were one pitch,
one out from going. But, I don't think that has increased our focus. Since
I've been here, that has been our goal every year.
I don't think that there was a single guy on our team last year that was
satisfied with just competing in the Super Regional. They understand that
the ultimate goal from day one is to get to Omaha.
Q: So, what do you think is the missing link to getting to Omaha?
A: You know, I think you have to catch a break. It seems that we
haven't quite yet caught that break. On the same token, though, you have to
make your own breaks, and we haven't quite gotten over that hump of making
the big pitch, or getting the big hit, or making that big play when we have
to. It basically comes down to performing.
Playing at home is also an important part of it. It will be important
this year to host the Regionals, to host the Super Regionals. Seven of the
eight teams last year in the College World Series hosted the Super Regionals.
That is important year in, and year out.
Q: Now that you guys have gone a step further in the NCAA
tournament, do you think that will be a huge confidence booster in the NCAAs
A: Without question. Expectations breed expectations. This year,
we expect to get back there, and we expect to win. It certainly helps these
players to understand where they're at, what we're trying to do, and how
we're going to get there. Our program hasn't changed over the last three
years -- we've done the same thing. If these kids buy into what we are
doing, and I think they do, then we have a great chance of getting back to
the Regionals, and the Super Regionals.
Q: So, would it be safe to say that getting back to the Super
Regionals isn't a goal, it's an expectation with this program?
A: No question. Obviously, we've already demanded a lot, and
expected a lot. What has taken place here is that we expect to get to Omaha.
We expect to host a Super Regional. Last year we did that, but we just fell
a little bit short.
Q: Obviously, leadership will be important in the quest for Omaha.
Have you seen a leader emerge thus far in practice?
A: I think that that is generally defined as the season
progresses. The identity of a team is never known until you lose a couple of
games and face adversity. Bryant Ward, Clayton McCullough, and Warren Gaspar
are seniors that have been in the program. Hopefully, they will emerge when
that adversity comes. When you play 56 games, you're going to see some days
when you don't play well. It's in those games when a team defines itself.
Q: How does the mental approach differ in baseball than in other
A: Mentally, it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's a long,
methodical process. You can't get too high, or too low. Football is totally
different, because every week, your season is on the line. Football season
is a sprint. Our season is a marathon that lasts 25 weeks. You have to keep
your emotions on an even playing field. You have to be healthy, too. That's
where depth comes into play. If you aren't deep, and you have an injury or
two, you can play yourself into a hole really quick.
Q: When you look back over to your career to date, what do you
take pride in as your greatest accomplishment.
A: I take great pride in the fact that in the ten years that I've
been a head coach, I think I've had a consistent career. We've been to seven
regionals. I say we, because it's not about me. It's about the players and
coaches that have worked together with a common goal to be successful. I
take great pride that in ten years, we haven't had a lot of valleys. I feel
like we've always been pushing forward. I think that knowing that what we do
in our program works, and when teams win, a program builds consistency. I
think our program has worked over the years.
I take a lot of pride in the fact that I've gotten to work with so many
great kids, and I haven't had a lot of problems in ten years. Knowing day in
and day out that the kids have gone out and worked hard to make this program
work gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Q: What does your coaching staff bring to the program?
A: They have great knowledge for the game. They are guys that have
played at the collegiate level, as well as the professional level. They've
been there, and they understand the game. They bring that knowledge and how
to achieve greatness to the players.
Some head coaches can be control freaks, but I've never been like that. I
give coach McMullan control of the hitters. I give coach Eason control of
the pitchers. A great deal of the credit to our success goes to our
Q: You've been really open about your faith. Do you see this as
your opportunity to be a good witness?
A: Without a doubt. Sometimes we don't exercise our faith like we
should, until our backs are against the wall, and we have to surrender. I've
been through that the last seven months. I feel that the Lord has given me
this time to witness and to help others. I think people are more open, and
have open ears when somebody is going through trials and tribulations in
life, versus somebody that is experiencing great success.
Q: Do you think the Lord has you on a mission for him?
A: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. He's shown me how this is a
time to glorify him. And I believe that I will defeat this. I believe that I
will persevere. I believe one day that I will hit fungos and throw BP, and
coach like I did before this happened. I feel like, right now, he wants me
to show others how important he is in my life and how important the can be
to them if they will just be open to him and receive him. This has really
been a rewarding time. It hasn't been miserable seven months. I have more
peace than I've ever had in my life.
Q: As you talk to people, do you see them becoming more receptive
to what you're saying?
A: Without question. People always want to know what's behind a
man. People look to others sometimes to have that strength to hold on to. I
think sometimes that we need people to help nurture our relationships with
Christ. I think that's why Christ instructed us to be witnesses, both in
good times, and in times of trials and tribulations. I really believe that
he gives us a platform.
Q: Everybody goes through trials and tribulations in life. I know
you've got to be wondering how people make it through those times without
A: I don't know. I've often wondered how in the world my family
would make it through this without him. I always pray for people that don't
know him, that they'll receive him. That's a great point my wife and I
always talk about, because even if you don't win here on earth, you can have
Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.
Click here to dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville
02/23/2007 01:45:45 AM