By Thomas Lenneberg, SDA Media Relations
Tracy Smith was on the road when he first got the call from Arizona State University Senior Associate Athletic Director Don Bocchi. He was driving from Nashville to West Lafayette, Ind., and then up to East Lansing, Mich. Jack Smith, the youngest of Tracy’s three sons, is a touted quarterback at Bloomington High School North and Tracy and his wife, Jaime, were spending the week chauffeuring him to Div. I football camps.
Two weeks later, Tracy, Jaime and Jack walk into the Dutson Theater on the third floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center at 1:30 p.m. on June 26, their whirlwind journey simultaneously ending and beginning. Tracy takes a seat at the front of the room next to Ray Anderson, Vice President for University Athletics, and after a short introduction from Anderson, opens his introductory press conference with a long list of acknowledgements and appreciations for those who helped him get to this moment.
The search to find the fifth head baseball coach in the nearly six decades of the ASU baseball program began in Orlando, Fla., at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Convention. Anderson asked Bocchi, who along with Anderson oversees the baseball program, and Steve Webb, Executive Director of Athletics Compliance, to join him on the three-person hiring committee.
Anderson, who came to ASU after more than seven years as executive vice president of football operations for the NFL, was a two-year baseball letterwinner at Stanford and earned his Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. Bocchi owns a master’s degree in education and 40 years of experience as a football coach and athletic administrator, including 29 at ASU, and his son, Joel, was a three-year baseball letterwinner for the Sun Devils. Webb, a former collegiate baseball player at Northern Illinois and graduate of The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, spent six years at the NCAA national office and was the eligibility center liaison to MLB and ABCA.
Anderson held a conference call with Bocchi, Webb and Senior Associate Athletics Director Amy Schramm, and the foursome worked together to compile a list of potential candidates and develop a strategic approach to the process. They needed to create a skill profile for the ideal head coach and narrow their targets, and then gauge interest and ensure they used proper protocol when they contacted current coaches and schools.
The fifth head baseball coach at ASU had to be committed to the comprehensive development of a student-athlete and possess a specific blend of knowledge, characteristics and pedigree in order to fit the committee’s skill profile. The next skipper needed to be skilled in talent evaluation and development, and be a proficient collegiate recruiter with ties to the West Coast. His career had to be defined by class, dignity, integrity, humility and sincerity, as well as academic excellence, adherence to NCAA rules and collegial relationships.
The search opened. Phone calls went out and advice came in. The committee split up their list of prospects and Bocchi was assigned to reach out to Smith, unsure if the 2013 National Coach of the Year and reigning two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year would even be interested.
“I’d be a fool not to listen,” Smith responded to Bocchi over the phone, confirming the Sun Devil brand is still royalty in the collegiate baseball world.
One quick introductory conversation and Bocchi was already intrigued. There was a different aura to him, he recalls, and described Smith as “measured” and “a consummate professional” to Anderson and Webb.
The search tightened. Anderson and Bocchi were still out of the office, so Webb worked with Marsha Frank, assistant to the vice president, to schedule the in-person interviews.
Smith flew to Arizona in the morning and took a redeye back that night. It didn’t take very long for him to make an impression on the hiring committee. By the time Bocchi picked Smith up at the airport and gave him a tour of Phoenix Muni, Bocchi had made his decision.
“After I was with Tracy for 20 or 30 minutes, I felt like I knew him all my life,” Bocchi said. “I knew that I wanted this guy. I wanted him to be a part of my life and I wanted to be a part of his life. I knew I wanted him to be the next head coach of the Sun Devils.”
The hour-long interview turned into four and dinner stretched into the late hours of the evening. The day felt different from the beginning, Webb said. All of the candidates fit the committee’s skill profile, but Smith had a demeanor and background that created an immediate familial bond with all three of them.
“You knew within the first hour that this guy was just a tremendous coach and if he was able to be doing what he was doing at Indiana, then his potential at ASU would be limitless,” Webb said. “He was the entire package and beyond that.”
Smith and Webb exchanged a few texts later that night, and the following day Smith texted Webb with a compliance question. He was concerned about his current student-athletes at Indiana University and didn’t want his ambitions to have a negative impact on their welfare. Webb said Smith’s apprehensions illustrated that he was not only a great coach, but he was just a genuine and honest person.
“He’s the type of guy I want to have working for our athletics department, teaching life skills to our student-athletes and representing the university both in our local community and across the country,” Webb said.
Anderson, Bocchi, Schramm and Webb sat down together the morning of June 23 after spending the weekend at the annual White Mountain Steak Fry in Pinetop, Ariz., and shared their first choice for the job.
“Tracy, Tracy, Tracy,” each of them said as they went around the room.
The search ended. Their work, however, did not, as the committee was now tasked to convince a 48-year-old life-long Midwesterner to leave Bloomington, Ind., for Tempe, Ariz. There were nerves, goose bumps and chills. Quick swings of emotion, from optimism to uncertainty, despair to elation. Bocchi said there were times he was convinced Smith was coming, followed by moments where he thought ASU lost him.
Each member of the committee had a passionate phone conversation with Smith that day, including Webb, whom Bocchi said was capable, enthusiastic and an incredible force throughout the entire process.
“Steve believed that Tracy was the right guy, and when your words are sincere, they come out of your mouth and out of your heart,” Bocchi said. “He made sure Tracy understood that he was wanted. And people feel that.”
Then the phone rang at 11:44 a.m. on June 24.
“Don, this is Tracy. Some people might think I’m crazy, but we’re coming.”
Tracy, Jaime and Jack had another football camp to be at, this time at UCLA’s campus in Los Angeles, so the trio arrives at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on a flight from Southern California at 9:35 a.m. on June 26. Their first official day as Sun Devils has begun.
Tracy’s swift introduction to ASU begins to wind down at 5:30 pm. Relieved, excited and exhausted, he sits in his new office on the third floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center. Mike Kelly’s 1991 Golden Spikes Award is on a shelf in the back, just in front of a team photo of the 1981 National Championship team. Not-so-subtle nods to past greatness, pressure materialized. But Tracy only sees opportunity. As the possibilities begin to sink in, he leans back in his chair, puts his hands behind his head and gazes out the window at downtown Tempe.
“We’re going to do something special here.”