UCF Baseball head coach Greg Lovelady will tell you that much of his coaching philosophy, from how he handles his bullpen and manages his everyday lineup to how he structures practices, can be attributed to his college coach, the Miami Hurricanes' Jim Morris. On Wednesday, Lovelady will try to use what he has learned to defeat his mentor when the Knights face the four-time national champions in Coral Gables.
The student-versus-pupil narrative adds a bit more spice to a game that is critical for both programs -- the Knights are looking to strengthen their case for an NCAA Tournament bid while the Hurricanes, who are just one game over .500, need to do everything they can to avoid missing the tourney for the first time since 1972.
Lovelady doesn't much care for the homecoming storyline. For one thing, this won't be his first time facing his alma mater as a head coach; he did so in 2015, his second season calling the shots at Wright State, and lost two out of three in Miami. Plus, you can't be surprised that a man who has harped that each day's game is the most important one of the year is more focused on the real motivation for this in-state trip: victory.
"I'll get to see some people that I haven't seen in a while, some big supporters of me in my career and some of my best friends will be there. That will be cool," Lovelady said. "But other than that, it's just another game against another opponent and another chance for us to get better."
Again, what do you expect him to say? But for the rest of us, it is worth noting that this story is deeper than just another former player facing their university. Lovelady grew up in Miami and said Tuesday "it was a dream of mine" to wear the orange and green. He recollected his recruiting process, which began when he attended a baseball camp during the fall of his senior year at Palmetto High. He impressed coaches with his catching ability and attempted to walk on with the Hurricanes.
There was just one problem. Well, eight problems. That's how many other catchers were trying to make Miami's roster.
"I just worked my tail off," Lovelady said. "Showed up every day. Got there early and stayed late. Tried to kiss as many pitchers' butts as I could and make them like me."
The number of catchers dwindled and by the end of the fall, Lovelady was summoned to Morris' office, admitting that he entered that meeting "scared out of my mind." Lovelady just wanted to know if he had officially made it, nothing else. So as Morris kept talking, Lovelady interjected, desperately wanting to cut to the chase.
"I stopped him and said, 'OK, am I going to get a uniform and be on the team?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I don't even remember what he said after that. I was as happy as could be."
Lovelady's climb at catcher didn't stop there. He moved from the third string to the second string by the end of his 1998 freshman campaign. In 1999, he spent most of his time filling the role of immediate backup until he caught a break around the season's halfway point. It was a literal break as starting catcher Russ Johnson's wrist was shattered by a wayward 97 mph fastball. The player known as "Love" went on to start the final 36 games that season, including all of Miami's College World Series matchups as the Hurricanes claimed their first national title in 14 years.
Lovelady was named co-captain as a senior in 2001, a year that saw the Hurricanes win their final 17 contests and sweep through the College World Series. It also saw Lovelady win an individual award voted upon by Miami fans: most popular player. He jumped into an assistant coaching gig at The U in 2002 and spent the next three seasons by Morris' side in the dugout, sopping up a lot of the knowledge he passes along to his players today.
So, yes, this is more than an alumnus' return to his old stomping ground. This is about a kid who overcame the odds to play for his dream school. This is about a player who made the most of his opportunities and was an integral part of two national championship teams at said school. This is about a man who was beloved (no pun intended) by that school's faithful and who stuck around to help his successors once his own playing days had ended.
And now he is back, in the opposing dugout, for a game that means a lot to both sides. These circumstances haven't been completely overlooked by the Knights.
"For him to go back there and see his old coaches and see the old facilities he used to play at, I'm sure he's going to be filled with emotion and happiness," outfielder Luke Hamblin said of his head coach. "To go down there and get a win for him would be awesome."
As for the man of the hour?
"When it comes down to the game, all that stuff is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with [Wednesday]," Lovelady said. "... Once the game starts, it'll all be about business."