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Celebrity Interview: Pat Casey — How We Build a Winning Team

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It is now 2014 and Pat Casey has brought the Oregon State Beavers back to the Regionals of the NCAA playoffs for the 7th time in the last 8 years. This time, they are also the undisputed Pac 12 Champions and are ranked #1 in the Nation! In that same period, they have won the National Championship twice. Based on how comebacks that won those championships were made, the Beavers appear to be a team that only knows how to succeed when it can come from behind so it is never safe to assume they are beat.  Does this mean they will become National Champions again? Stay tuned. Incidentally, Pat Casey was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year for 2013. That was his 3rd time in the last 7 years.

I interviewed Pat Casey back in September, 2007. Why are they still the team to beat? When you read the below interview, conducted 7 years ago, the phrase “Déjà vu” comes roaring to mind…)

How you deal with life certainly affects how you win on the field.  So what is the lowest emotional point in your life that you have had to deal with?

Dealing with my son Jonathan’s disabilities has always been difficult.  His brain was damaged at birth.  There has never been a prognosis that is definite, but what one doctor told me is that the oxygen might have been shut off during labor, thereby creating brain damage, but I don’t think there’s ever been any clear-cut diagnosis.

It’s hard because sometimes you think about how fortunate you are just have someone like John to love and then you think about the hard times and the difficulties he goes through in his life trying to deal with his disability.  That’s something that obviously always seems to be a concern of mine.  How is he going to function, how is he going to get through life. Those kinds of questions.

At the same time, I have been, you know, fairly fortunate and I try hard not to allow myself to become consumed by the fact that he is disabled to where I wind up feeling sorry for him, or myself, or my family.  That part of it’s been a challenge and a struggle.  But it has also has given me an opportunity to see other people that are much more handicapped than John and, thus, to look at his outcome as a blessing.  So that’s where that thing goes for me.

What helps you to deal, as a father, with what is actually a very difficult situation?

I think you got to have faith, believe in the Lord.  It’s something that you deal with everyday.  So that’s the One Guy you got to go to.  He’s going to consistently be there for you.  Without question I think that if you don’t have God in your life these things are even more devastating.

You have a track record of succeeding over adversity.  For a previous two years, 2006 and 2007, the team has demonstrated to the world its belief that it can and will win by coming from behind as it has, both times, to win the College World Series two years in a row.  When you look at each of these last two years, it’s amazing.  The first time you won the championship you had to make an amazing comeback and nobody expected it.  Then, the last time, you had a young team, you did not dominate in your league, and nobody expected you to even make the World Series.  But they invited you because you were the previous year’s champion and, again, for the second year in a row, you won The College World Series.

Now, this year everyone is wondering if you will pull it off again.  How do you create this amazing will to win?

Well, if I had a blueprint for it, I would certainly share it with you.  But I don’t.  I think it comes from a culmination of a lot of things.  First, of course, you have to have confidence in what you doing — that you can get there.  The players must believe in what you’re doing.  And of course I have to believe in it too.

One of the very first steps we have to take is to make sure that we are all on the same page, that we all have confidence that we can get it done.  Then, of course, comes faith in what we are doing.  Once we all are on the same page, it creates an aura of what we’ve got to do.  It changes the players’ approach to the game.

I am quite confident that the majority of the stuff that happened we won it was due to the guys’ confidence in one another, in their trust in what we’re doing as a team, and how that was going to translate onto the field.

Like I have always said, you can talk about it and then you can do it.  I really believe that last year we had to get to that point where we flat needed to do it.  We needed to quit thinking about how we can do it and what was keeping us from doing it and just flat do it.  And we did.

The number one thing is that we should worry only about the things we can control.  When we start focusing on the things we can do and the things we can control, we quit worrying about the things we can’t control.  This philosophy is something that our guys respond to very, very well.

There are two dynamics at work here.  One comes from you of course which is that mantra: Focus on the things you can control.  The other dynamic is the team and how they embrace your philosophies.  What are some of the things you do to get your message across and to make it such a cohesive force?

I think you do a lot of things by example.  I think you’ve got to be the guy that works harder than any other guy on the team.  You’ve got to have them trust that you believe in what they are doing.  You build that relationship.  That relationship is precious.

We try to make sure there are things that we make important and we try to make them important everyday.  Consistency.  It’s a system that we are building and our guys believe in that system, and they trust that system, and they realize that they are the system.  It is their persistence in what they do that makes our success happen.  As coaches, we  really have to provide them with the opportunity and the form to be successful.  But the players are the guys that make it happen.  They are the ones that have got to put in the work, have got to do their thing.  They have got to trust and believe in what we are doing

What this suggests to me is that there are things you do in practice, working with them, that produce this result.  What would some of those things be as part of the system?

Well, you know, what we are doing is creating a practice for them that stretches them, that’s competitive, that creates cohesiveness, teamwork, things like that.  I think practices have to be extremely competitive in nature.  This not only pushes the guys but it allows them to set some standards for themselves.  I think if we as coaches continue to be the ones that are making them do it or guiding them to do it, it could all lose a little bit of its luster.  I do believe that our players have to be a huge part of what we are doing.  Making it happen has to come from them.

I am extremely pleased with the fact our guys have bought into this system which, like I said, we believe works.  They take that into practice.  They make it happen in practice.  I can’t.  My job is to make it exciting. I have to make it competitive, I have to make it something that inspires them. But, in addition to what me and my staff are doing, they have to be a very integral part of the spirit of practice.  What are they going to get out of practice, what makes practice important to them?  Once they are extremely vested in what we’re doing, it makes a huge difference.

Well, you know the idea that you create that competitiveness, even in practice, shows a little bit of what’s going on because, if you look at the first year that you won the College World Series, you were on the brink of extinction/elimination and then that “competitive spirit” kicks in and “Boom!”  The team goes all the way to win the World Series. 

Last year, when the stakes weren’t as high, they didn’t win their Division, but they went to Omaha, where it is a “must win” situation and they won it all.  So, maybe your emphasis on developing the competitive spirit in practice creates the result that the challenge has to be great enough before they can actually respond.  Is that possibly a dynamic here?

Yeah, I think so.  I just think that if you do things together, and you go to practice together, and do these things consistently, when things break down in the game or when things go bad in the game, you have been through this before.  You know how to compete with your teammate, you know how to help get us through it.  So I just don’t think that we come apart.  You know sometimes you just are not flat out as talented as the other people.  That’s frustrating, too.  We’ve been in situations where I felt that we have done everything we can do — we have prepared, we have practiced hard, our guys have done everything that we have asked them to do, and yet they get on the field and there are times that they are just not as good.

Now you have the interesting situation that in both of the previous two years you had to build their confidence.  This year you have got 10 recognized major league quality players — eight of them players who have turned down major league contracts to play for OSU — what can happen now is just the opposite of the previous two years.  Now you can have players that are overconfident, especially the six in this group who are freshmen and you need to break them down and build them back up.  What are you facing?  This is a very different year than you’ve ever had before.

You’re right. All of a sudden you’ve got to make sure that the guys we have and that the things that are important to us as a club are just as important when we may be more talented.  That’s the nice thing about it.  I think that as far as everybody else is concerned we are starting at a different place.  For us, we are starting just like we always do.

Do the basics and you’re going to win.  We have things that we’ve got to accomplish as far as fundamentals of the game.  I know one thing, I don’t care how talented you are, if you are not fundamentally very good, it does not make any difference.  We have the same practice regimen as we always have, we feel like we have some more talent in certain areas and less talent in some other areas.

Offensively, one thing that we were not able to accomplish in preparing for this year was to get some of the offensive people that we wanted.  That’s the part that is scary for us.  We have lost some tremendous offensive players.  It’s going to be interesting to find out how we deal with that problem, how we rebound from that deficiency.  We’ll see.  I am excited about the opportunities that lie before us and also concerned about them

What is the greatest success story of any of the players you have coached?

There’s been a bunch of them. I hate to single anyone of them out.  I think Jacoby Ellsberg certainly is one.  Here’s a kid who didn’t have very much money, came from a background where he was on the reservation for a while, yet he turned down a professional contract to play for us.  I have always thought that what he did was a huge part of our success.  I mean here is a guy that has nothing and he turns down a relatively large amount of money and decides instead to come to college and trusts in what we were telling him: “that he’s going to be a first-round draft pick, possibly.”  And he was.

And it was awesome to see him have that kind of success.  But there has been numerous situations like that, instances where I feel like a player was really responding to what we were trying to do here.

What about perfection?  Is perfection a reasonable goal?

Well, I think it is a reasonable goal because you know you are never going to attain it.  That’s what goals are for, something you have to strive to reach.  Nobody is ever going to be perfect in this game.

I got to laugh a little bit when I read some of the things the guys say.  I’ve read where some of the players say that I’m a perfectionist.

But they are right — I am looking for perfection.  And my guess is that they want us to look for it.  I think it is inspiring to players to know that their coaches think enough of them that we want perfection out of them.

Do you ask them to do something that is unattainable or do you simply ask them to be perfect?

Like I said, perfection is an unattainable goal.  But if that is what goals are for, then you try to set goals that they can reach. But that’s why I think that sometimes you got to be careful with goals because you set a goal to hit 400 and you hit 380 — have you failed?  Absolutely not.  On the other hand, if you hit 410 are you satisfied?

There are so many variables that go into everything that… well, like I said before, I don’t have a clear-cut answer as to what makes the thing click.  All I know is, as a coach, every year, you have to find that out.  Got to find out what makes someone click, what makes them go.  Whether it’s a team or the individual, it is the coach’s job to find that out each and every time.  Sometimes you must have individual goals in order to have a shot at being successful as a team.  If our players aren’t motivated then we have to find a way to motivate them, to make things work for them.

Osich tosses no-hitter against UCLA

Do you have any favorite ways of motivating people, something that works really well for you?

I like to inspire guys with different methods.  Certainly we like to talk about success stories, what other people have done.  We look at some of the stuff that others have accomplished against greater challenges than we can imagine.  There are people who go off the charts all the time in terms of expectations.  We look for stories that are motivating and we try to relate them to our athletes.  For example, I was talking one time to a crippled golfer and his goal was to play 18 holes and be a scratch golfer, to beat his handicap.  And he did it.  And then I try to tie that story in athletically — I mean here’s a guy who can’t walk and his goal is to have a zero handicap and he pulls it off.  That’s pretty impressive.  So you start looking at that and you start feeling like anything and everything is attainable.

Do you ever expect not to win a game?

No.  You never expect not to win a game.  But there are games where you feel like the challenge is pretty great, that you are outmanned, you don’t have great matchups. Sure, that happens.  I don’t think in the sport of baseball that that is something anybody is immune to.  You can look at an opposing team and say, “I don’t think we match up very well.  We have a left-handed pitcher going and they have a bunch of right-handed hitters with power and we’ re playing in a ballpark with a short left field poke.”

But I don’t ever go into those games not expecting to win.  That is for sure.  That is the one thing that players can read, too. Players are very, very adept at figuring out what the coach is thinking, how he’s thinking, how he is feeling.

Well, take us back to the World Series in each of the last two years.  How did you conduct yourself in a way that helped the team to make those amazing comebacks happen?

Like I said, that stuff starts in practice.  That stuff starts with your attitude and how you conduct yourself.  I mean, we were talking last year that if you want to be a champion, you got eat like a champion, you got to walk like a champion, you got to talk like a champion, and you better drive your car like a champion.  I mean, those things start long before you get to the point of the World Series.

Also, I have been fortunate that our coaches are this way.  This is invaluable.  We have had some tremendous people — not only players, but tremendous coaches for the players to work with.

Who are some of the people that have inspired you personally?

The players inspire me.  Aaron Mathews always inspired me, how hard he played the game.  Some guys inspire me because they’re not maybe as talented as another guy but they play an extremely tough brand of baseball.  These are the kind of guys that really inspire me.  The person or team that inspires me is not always the best one.  There is a lot of times when I feel like a guy has done just an absolutely fantastic job with a lot less talent and those guys to me are extremely inspiring, as individuals and as athletes.

One thing I have learned over the course of coaching is that not everybody is in the same basket.  Some people say, “I treat every kid the same”.  Well, I’m not that good of a coach.  There are some guys that need to be treated different for one reason or another.  Maybe they didn’t have the same opportunities at home that some of the other kids had; maybe they are not as gifted, whatever it is — I just know that it’s just impossible to treat every kid the same because not every kid is the same.  It’s really difficult for me to think that it is accurate that all kids should be treated the same.

What about losing itself.  When is losing acceptable?

You know, that is one of my biggest downfalls.  I have never been able to find a time when losing is acceptable.  I have learned how to handle it much better as time goes on.  Not accept it, just handle it.  There is a big difference between the two.  So anybody that starts accepting losing ought to get out of the game.

Anybody that doesn’t get better at handling losses and in using them to benefit the club and themselves is making a mistake.  This has always been one my biggest deals: how do I handle a loss?  Is there a possibility that we can take something out of this loss and learn from it and the answer to that is always, “Yes.”  I work on that religiously because it is a difficult thing for me.

It is important to understand why or how we got beat.  Is it something we’re doing as the staff, or is it something like a lack of talent, effort? What are the issues?  It is soul-searching time.  It is always a tough time for a coach.

Losing goes against the point of athletics.

So that brings us full circle back to your main mantra: Focus on the things you can control.

No doubt about it.  No doubt about it.

What is the most painful loss you have ever suffered as coach?

I think it is when we lost one time at home to USC 1-0.  It was 2001 or 2002.  If we had won that game we would have gone to the Regionals.  Up to that point we had given up only one run in the last 18 innings.  Then we lost in extra innings on Friday, we beat them on Saturday 6-0, and we got beat 1-0  on Sunday.  If we had won Sunday’s game we would have gone to Regionals.  This one I did not particularly care for. But there are many more examples.

I am probably one of the worst losers I know.  One thing I have done, I think a little better, is handle how I conduct myself after a loss. I mean sometimes you can be miserable because you lost, and that’s fine, but you don’t want to make people around you miserable.  And I always used to think, you know, if somebody isn’t feeling as lousy as I’m feeling, then they don’t care as much.  But that’s really not the case.

I feel it’s important that I just shake it off and get on to the next time.  For me, that was something I just wasn’t very good at doing.  But I just had to find ways to not have that rub off on other guys.  You don’t want your players feeling like we are going to carry this feeling through to tomorrow, we’re not doing well, and so on.  That’s a really, really bad situation.  I need to make the guys feel positive about what they’re doing, not miserable.  So I’ve worked on that.

Knowing what you know now, imagine that you have just suffered one of these devastating losses. Use the third person and talk about Pat Casey — How do you see him handling it in front of his team?  What do you see, what is he doing and how is he acting?

I see a guy that’s telling his team that we don’t like losing but we played hard and we are going to find a way to come out tomorrow and play better, we are going to come out tomorrow and win, and we’re not going to let this thing eat at us. We are going to get rid of it.  He is telling them that they’ve done a great job all year in practice situations and they need to come out and have a good week of practice, because next week they’re going to come out and win a great series against a great club. He is inspiring them to prepare themselves to come out and practice in this next week so they can be even better.  He is also leading by reminding them that you don’t have to win them all, and he is proud of them as a club and for what they have accomplished and what they are going to accomplish.  He talks about how they’re going to accomplish it.

There is a famous quote, “All you can do is all you can do.”  How do you react to that?

There is no question about that.  The quote is what it is.  It goes back to what we were talking about: you can control the things you can control.  The one thing that we want you to do is to be the best player that you can be.  We do not expect you to be something that you’re not.  One guy might throw a 95 mph ball and you might throw 85, but your 85 might be more effective than the 95.  So, I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about there.  Control the things you can control but be as good at what you do as you can possibly be.

One day you’re going to retire and when it happens there are two ways you can be remembered: One is as a successful coach; the other is as a significant coach.  How do you want to be remembered?

Well I think that, selfishly, I hope to be both.  I want to be significant based on how I impacted the program, how I impacted the kids’ lives, how they responded to the challenges I put forth to them, and how they go on to lead their lives in a manner that they’re proud of, so they can say they learned a lot from being in our program.  But the other part of it is, they wouldn’t be keeping score and they wouldn’t be handing out trophies if there were not significance to winning.

The bottom line is you can relate all of this into what people are doing in everyday life.  I think that there are winners in life and I think that the athletic fields may be just one of the greatest forums to teach what it takes to win in everyday life.  I would like to feel that those two things go hand-in-hand — significant and successful.  And I want to be remembered as both.

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8 Comments - (Leave a comment! »)

  • Jennifer – Massachusetts said:

    What I liked about this article was that it was very uplifting and positive. I also liked the pictures throughout the story. What I didn’t like about the article is that I think it could have been a two part story rather than a large one part feature. One part of the story could have been about Pat and how he copes with his son’s disabilities and what influence that has on him as a person and coach. The other story could have been about his coaching history what makes him tick as a coach, etc.

    I love what you are trying to do here.

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  • Jennifer J -- Canada said:

    I loved that you really planned for the interview and posed some excellent questions. My only issue would be making it accessible to those not following the sport directly.

  • glenn -- Canada said:

    I had a couple of issues with your Q-and-A with Pat Casey. It’s less a matter of the writing (and I am cognizant of who I am talking to) than the foreword, for it assumes a general audience that does not follow college baseball nor knows who this fellow and his team are. I had to do research to learn who the Beavers are (Oregon State) and what sport they play. But, in all, those are minor quibbles. I enjoyed reading it.

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