It’s been no secret that Penn hasn’t had a great baseball team for while. The Quakers haven’t won the Ivy League since 1995 and have played .500 baseball or worse for most of the last two decades. That’s why, after eight years at the helm, John Cole was let go as the program’s head coach and his longtime assistant John Yurkow was hired to replace him last month. Recently, I sat down with Yurkow in his office to discuss what needs to happen for the Quakers to start winning championships again, his style as a coach, and what it means for him to have his first head coaching job.
What was your first order of business after taking over as head coach?
The first thing I did is I reached out to everybody on our team. The second thing was to get in touch immediately with the incoming class. I talked to some of the key alumni and have been trying to get the staff finalized. Then, I’m really just trying to keep all of the recruiting going. Coach [Mike] Santello and I, for two months, were in a holding pattern. We were out watching players and evaluating but there was only so much we could do. And then finally when we got the word, it was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’
What was the reaction from the players on the team?
They were generally excited. Unless they were just lying to my face, they seemed pretty excited about it. I’m pretty close with all of those guys. I recruited them all. So I think maybe they’re a little relieved to know they know who’s going to be taking the program over.
It was a national coaching search, so what was your mentality throughout the whole process? Did you think you had a pretty good chance throughout?
Early on, I was unsure. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I stayed on, I kept recruiting and I kept trying to run the normal day-to-day operations that a head coach would run. It was definitely something that was hanging over your head because you’re just not sure. The longer it went, the better I felt about it. I went through the interview process just like everyone else did, even though I was internal. And things just worked out. It’s kind of interesting how it all fell into place.
Is it an easier transition because you know the team so well?
Absolutely. I’m internal and I know everything about this place, so I know how to navigate through everything, which is a huge advantage. I know the players. I know what we have coming back. I can’t even imagine when you go and get a job at another school, you’ve got to move your family and your life gets turned upside down. It’s interesting here because last year we finished a game above .500 and we had three seniors. And we have an excellent freshman class coming in. Usually when you take over a program, it could be a mess. That’s not the case here. Things are set up, so I’m fortunate. It’s a unique situation.
What was your reaction when John Cole was let go?
I was surprised. I didn’t really see it coming. I was actually on the road in Chicago when it happened, so it was tough to deal with.
How do you think you’ll be different than him as a head coach?
I don’t know if I’ll be different than him but I think I have my own style. My personality is not going to be the same. I’ve got some ideas. As an assistant coach for 13, 14 years, you start making all these little lists of things you’d like to do when you have the chance to become a head coach. So I’ve got some things I want to implement. There definitely will be a lot of changes, without a doubt.
What kind of changes? What kind of style will you preach?
We’re going to be very aggressive in all phases of the game. That’s what I believe in. That’s how I was coached when I was younger. I don’t want to complicate the game for our guys. I want to keep it simple, so they can play free and easy and aggressive. You can’t overthink baseball. We have to create a mindset where if you do have a bad at bat or you do have a bad inning, you move past it and you’re on to the next thing. That’s what successful baseball players do.
What kind of head coach do you think you’ll be in terms of your personality in the dugout?
I don’t think I’ll be ultra laid back and at the same time I don’t think I’ll be screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m definitely intense. Winning’s important and that’s why I thought this was a great situation. I want to win Ivy League championships. That’s what I’m here to do.
You mentioned winning championships. What are your big goals, both for this season and long term?
I expect us to compete for the Ivy championship this year. I want to make this a place that great student-athletes see and they want to come and matriculate here – because they know when they come here they’re going to great a baseball experience and obviously they’re going to receive a great education. Success, as that happens, I’m hoping will enable us to bring in higher-caliber players that maybe three, four years ago we would have had trouble bringing in. And I think the facilities are starting to help with that. Our field is a solid facility but in the past three years they put in a $27 million weight room, they put in Penn Park – which is our indoor facility when they put in the bubble – and we spent $80,000 just to renovate our locker room five months ago. So for an 18-year told to come in and see all of that, it shows the administration is really making an attempt to bring our facilities to a national level. It’s great.
From what you’ve seen, what’s prevented Penn from being a dominant program in the Ivy League?
That’s a good question because if you look at the breakdown of our schedule from last year we played better against scholarship programs than we did against teams in our league. That’s kind of a head-scratcher. I have some theories as to why and I’m already starting to think how I’m going to change those things, without getting too far into it. But yeah, that’s interesting. And our road record was better than our home record. We need to go in and switch some things and change that mindset a little bit. But that’s why I think we’re not very far away. That’s one of the nice things about this. You can get excited when you think you’ve got all these guys got back, you’ve got a real good incoming class, and the facilities are great. And I just put together a really good coaching staff.
Can Penn become a national power?
I don’t see why not. If you’re going to shoot for the stars, let’s go for it. I think things are really moving in the right direction. I think timing is everything and the timing is right here. I’m very, very fortunate to come into this situation with the players that we have here and where everything is starting to fall with the University.
So this is a pretty good job for you right now?
It’s awesome. I’m still floating right now. This is a great place to work. It’s a great University, a great administration and great kids. You always think about where is your first head coaching job going to be – and I don’t think I could have picked a better spot.