When Greg Lovelady was hired last July to be UCF Baseball’s head coach, the program wasn’t aiming to bring in just a new voice in the dugout. It clearly wanted a different personality for the clubhouse. It wanted a different culture for the program. And these differences become quite obvious within minutes of meeting the 38-year-old Miami grad.
Lovelady, simply, comes off as a very cool customer. As our Jeff Sharon found out when he talked with him last week prior to the Knights’ season-opening series versus Siena, Lovelady spent the duration of the interview laid back in his chair, Nike sneakers up on his desk, trying to fight off the occasional yawn. If he was feeling anxious about the start of a new season — and a new era for both he and his team — you wouldn’t have guessed it.
Listen to Jeff Sharon’s interview with Greg Lovelady above (37:00 mark)
Lovelady’s outwardly relaxed demeanor is antithetical to how his predecessor, Terry Rooney, carried himself. The Knights’ previous head man was all about unbridled energy. He was in-your-face, excitable, extremely optimistic. When things are going well — like when the Knights made it to an NCAA Regional in 2011 and 2012 — that attitude can be positively infectious. When adversity and disappointment win the day, however, the excitement can be tuned out. Last week, senior infielder Kam Gellinger said the team was bestowed a lot of “fake energy” in 2016 as the Knights finished up an underachieving campaign at 26-34.
Rooney left the program July 5. Lovelady was hired less than a week later.
The No. 1 initiative for the new head coach was to stress the importance of good nutrition. According to him, 18 of the team’s 35 players possessed greater than 20 percent body fat when he arrived. Now, that count is down to four. He highlighted that opening-day starter Robby Howell lost 35 pounds during the offseason and now his velocity is up. The macro impact of this has been fewer soft-tissue ailments during the Knights’ preseason training. And the long-term result, Lovelady hopes, is a squad that doesn’t fade down the stretch in long games, something that had become known to UCF’s opponents in previous years.
“In the eighth and ninth innings, when the game’s on the line, I need your bat speed to be there,” Lovelady said. “I need your speed to be there. I need your velo [velocity] to be there. … They’ve done a phenomenal job.”
As critical as it was to overhaul the team physically, Lovelady also set out to change the team emotionally. Namely, helping the players relax, become more comfortable and simply have more fun, something that was lacking last year.
The video above, produced by UCF Athletics, gives insight into Lovelady’s laid-back style.
Not long after his UCF naissance, Lovelady was passing through the baseball offices one day and could hear loud noises coming from the clubhouse. He sensed his players were having fun and wanted to be a part of it. Yet as he opened the clubhouse doors, Lovelady said his players “scurried like cockroaches” to their lockers.
“I sat down and there were a couple minutes of just silent awkwardness,” he said. “The way the room felt, the energy was just weird, and that’s what I don’t want. I don’t want that type of atmosphere, that culture. [The players] have had to learn that I’m going to make fun of them. I expect them to make fun of me. I want this to be an enjoyable experience.”
And one with a lot of player ownership. Lovelady wants his Knights to know that this is a democracy, not a dictatorship. He wants his players to lead each other. They have written up their own mission statement laying out exactly what they want to accomplish. This statement, according to Lovelady, has less to do with win-loss goals and is centered more around how the team wants to play and how they want to be remembered.
“Because it’s their career, it’s their time here,” Lovelady said. “I’ll be here next year. Some of them won’t be, so I want to make sure that they’re involved.”
“I’m like the president, I guess, but they’re like the Senate or the House. They get a lot of power.”
Lovelady said that he will be happy, win or lose, as long as the team plays up to that self-imposed standard every day. But ultimately, it is indeed the wins and losses that largely determine how outside parties judge a team’s level of success. Prior to coming to Orlando, Lovelady experienced plenty of success as the head coach at Wright State University for three seasons, compiling a 124-56 record to go with a couple of NCAA tourney appearances. He isn’t ready to call for some sort of magical turnaround for UCF right away. But can the Knights make it to the College World Series in Omaha in the years to come?
“I wouldn’t leave [Wright State] unless I felt like it was a school that I could go to the College World Series at and compete for a national championship,” Lovelady said. “With this state, with the town, with the weather, with the facilities, with (Athletic Director) Danny White’s vision of the athletic department, and then the things that I feel like, as a staff, we can bring to the table, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Therein lies a commonality between Lovelady and Rooney, whose “On the Road To Omaha” motto — ORTO — was ubiquitous from Day 1 of his eight-year tenure.
That may be the only approach toward the game that UCF’s past and present share, and that’s totally fine for the Knights.