In his fifth year at Campbell, baseball skipper Greg Goff led the Camels to their best season in school history. But it was the rocky third year that made him a better coach
Story by Billy Liggett
The 2012 Campbell University baseball season was a record-breaking campaign in many aspects. The Fighting Camels broke 10 single season team records, including a program-best 41 overall wins. The banner season came following a disappointing 17-37 campaign in 2011, one marred by injuries.
In July, head coach Greg Goff — who guided Montevallo to the Division II College World Series before coming to Buies Creek — sat down with Campbell Magazine to talk about the squad’s success in 2012, why 2011 made him a better coach and what’s in store for the program’s future.
Q: After a pretty good start for you at Campbell (the team’s 27 wins in 2009 were the most in eight years), the bottom sort of fell out when you went 17-37 in 2011. What were the expectations heading into 2012? Did you have any inkling you were in for this kind of season?
Goff: I didn’t have any idea we’d win 41 games, that’s for sure.
The year before was a turning point for this program and in my life, really. Definitely in my coaching career. I was in my fourth year, and we had a lot of things going in the right direction.
But then we lost our top three arms, and that really put us in a terrible bind. We could score, but we couldn’t hold people down.
It was a very tough year, and it brought me down to reality a little bit. More importantly, it brought me closer to God … it strengthened my relationship in that regard. And I’m just very thankful, after having gone through it, because now I see it made me stronger and made me appreciate everything a lot more.
I grew as a person, coach, husband and a father.
This year, we had a lot of new guys, but I could see on paper, our talent was better. All three of those pitchers we lost last year were back and healthy. We knew we had a chance.
It helped that, for the first time, all 27 scholarship players were my guys, kids I recruited. The combination of being healthy and having the loyalty and everything else made for a smooth fall. I could tell there was something different about this team.
We ended up getting off to a great start against some really tough teams.
Q: At what point in the season did you step back and say to yourself, “You know, I think I’ve got something special here …” ?
Goff: I knew when we started we had guys who were great players and great leaders. Guys were vocal in our dugout and overall, just motivated to win. I saw before games the excitement in this team, the energy and focus. It was just different. A lot of times, you’ll have a player or two who does that. But this was the whole team.
Early in the season, a scout from the Atlanta Braves told me I had something special here. I said he was watching one of my guys in the stands working the radar gun.
“You won the game, and this guy is pumping his fist in the stands, as excited as if he was wearing the uniform,” the guy told me.
I could see them grow as a team throughout the year. They had just a huge will to win. Fifty-six games is a long season, yet the focus was always there. It was really something to see.
Q: You had big wins over nationally ranked N.C. State (8-6 on April 17), and you beat Duke on the road in February. What do wins like this do for your program?
Goff: Any time you can beat some ACC guys, it’s a tremendous asset for a mid-major school.
Beating N.C. State in front of the largest crowd of year, about 2,000 folks, was amazing to see. After getting behind and coming back to beat the best N.C. State team I’ve seen since I’ve been here — a team that made it to Super Regionals and almost to Omaha (the College World Series) — the opportunity to do that was a big boost for this program. It certainly helps with recruiting.
I also point to some of our conference wins. One game against Liberty … we came back and won the third game in extra innings after two tough losses on the road. It was a big turning point for us in conference this year. Liberty’s a great program … they won 40-something games this year, too.
Liberty and Coastal Carolina, those are the teams we have to beat to be successful in the Big South. We did the same thing against Coastal … lost two games on the road and came back to win the third, 2-1. These are games that stick in my mind … games where we really stepped up and competed against quality competition.
Q: The season didn’t end the way you wanted (losing two of three to High Point in the first round of the Big South Tournament). What can you take away from that ending to use for next year’s squad?
Goff: A lot of folks don’t remember we started Game 1 and got to play only two innings because of rain. Serge [senior ace Matt Sergey] threw more than 50 pitches, so we couldn’t bring him back the next day. So we had to start our No. 2 for the rest of Game 1 … our No. 3 in Game 2, and so on. It was tough to deal with, but there was nothing we could do about it.
But what did we take from it? We saw how difficult this conference can be. The exposure was a learning experience for the guys returning next year. We saw what we need to do to win. We’ll grow from it … we’ve got everybody returning except six seniors in 2013. We’re going to be ready.
Q: You do have a lot of guys coming back next year. Players such as Michael Felton (who led the nation in hits with 103 through conference and was fourth in batting average with a .424 mark), slugger Jake Kirkland and pitcher Andrew Jacobsen lead a talented group of Camels with at least a year under their belt here. What are the expectations looking ahead to 2013?
Goff: We have some really good recruits coming in, and we’re thankful for that. They’ll join a great group of seniors … guys who’ve changed the complexion of this program. We’re excited about that leadership returning.
On paper, yes, we’re already anxious for next year to start. Our goal is to knock off Coastal Carolina and win the league. We’re talented enough, and the pieces are here if we stay healthy.
Q: Speaking of the recruiting class … you’ve got players coming in from California and Florida, among other states. How do you get these guys to come to Buies Creek?
Goff: [laughing] Ha, it’s not easy. But Coach [Justin] Haire and Coach [Rick] McCarty have built great relationships with these players, and that’s where it starts. If you can build that strong relationship, and if they have confidence that coming to Campbell will mean they can get what they want academically and athletically, then they’ll come. Most of these kids never grew up wanting to come to Campbell … most had never heard of Campbell.
But we bring them on campus and show them all the wonderful things this administration is building and renovating. They’re seeing the growth at Campbell … it’s much different than it looked here 10 or 15 years ago. We show them that this University places a huge emphasis on student athletes and getting them a great degree. That’s just how we do it, and it works.
They’re also excited about the stadium… Phase I of the renovations are done, and we hope to begin Phase II in the next few months. That will include 600 or so chair-backed seats and more.
Q: That’s how you get athletes to come here … how did you get to Campbell?
Goff: I had a friend who called me and said there was a good job available on the East Coast. I was at Montevallo (in Alabama), and we’d been to the Div. II World Series and regionals the following year.
So I interviewed and was fortunate they offered me the job. My wife and I prayed about it, and we saw it was a door opening for us. We were led to come here and do something special.
We can do some great things here at Campbell. Baseball is different from other college sports in that you can really step up and compete against big programs. The Stony Brooks [which beat LSU to earn a trip to the College World Series in 2012] of the world are proof of that.
When Stony Brook beat LSU, I was texting my guys and saying, “See? This can be us next year. It can happen.”
I had a good friend who coached at Kent State who did the same thing. And Samford … it’s a small Christian school like us that was one inning away from beating Florida State and getting to Omaha. With a couple of good arms and good defense, mid-majors can knock off the big guys.
In the past two years, the bats have been scaled down, and offense has gone down because of it. You have to manufacture runs and play small ball more … that’s our style.
Q: Campbell was nationally ranked in batting average this year. Why didn’t the “dead ball” era have the same effect on this team?
Goff: Our offensive system stresses the little things like HBP (hit by pitch) and stolen bases. We don’t preach home runs here … we like doubles and being aggressive on the base paths. We don’t rely on the three-run home run. We’ll take it, but we don’t need it.
Q: Hit by pitch? You stress that?
Goff: We just teach our hitters to hold their ground. A lot of guys will move when a 90 mph fast ball is coming their way. We don’t step into it or anything, but we don’t move either.
It takes practice. It takes hundreds of Incredi-balls (softer batting practice balls) before they get the hang of it. Our philosophy is if you can’t get on base, you can’t score.
The HBP helps in other ways. Pitchers don’t want to hit us, so they’ll pitch away. We’ll answer by hitting the ball (to the opposite field). Once we’re on base, they’re concerned about stolen bases, so the ball gets elevated, which is easier to hit.
We have a pack mentality on offense. It’s all about working together. If you can get nine guys to buy into that philosophy, you’re successful.