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David Pierce, Texas baseball quiet critics with trip to the College World Series

Replacing a legend isn’t easy, but David Pierce is now well on his way to doing just that.

David Pierce and his team sing the Eyes of Texas
via @TexasBaseball

Two years after resigning and less than three months after his passing, the legacy of legendary Texas Longhorns baseball coach Augie Garrido still looms large over the program.

Patches and decals honor his memory, as does a sign in left field of UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

New head coach David Pierce even tried to summon his spirit when the Indiana Hoosiers threatened to pull off a stunning come-from-behind victory in the final game of the Austin Regional.

“I had my head down and saying, ‘C’mon, Augie, pick us up,’” Pierce said after the game.

When Chase Shugart steamed a 95 mile-per-hour fastball by Matt Lloyd to send Texas to its first Super Regional since 2014, it seemed clear that Pierce’s plea was heard.

Pierce made a similar appeal to the heavens against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles on Monday when the bases were loaded and the upstart visitors looked poised to narrow the 5-2 deficit and perhaps even take the lead.

In the dugout, Pierce rubbed Garrido’s jersey and said after the game that he believed the legendary head coach was with the team.

Just as importantly, however, Pierce’s first trip to the College World Series as a head coach helped obliterate concerns that he wasn’t the right person to take over for Garrido. After all, he’d only been a head coach for five seasons and hadn’t even guided a high-profile college baseball program. Pierce was hardly the first choice in an extended search process that resulted in raises for a number of high-profile coaches around college baseball.

When Texas came out of the Arkansas series at 9-9 and at various other times during the 2018 season, following series road losses to mediocre Big 12 competition like Kansas State and West Virginia, for instance, Pierce came under intense fire from fans who believed that former interim athletics director Mike Perrin had made a mistake in luring Pierce away from Tulane.

The disappointment of losing two straight games in the Long Beach Regional to let a Super Regional bid slip away last season only compounded those beliefs.

But another gritty performance from Pierce and his team in the Austin Super Regional revealed a program that is once again a national contender in Pierce‘s second season. It certainly wasn‘t easy to earn that trip to Omaha — Texas played an extraordinarily difficult schedule and dealt with key injuries in the bullpen and inconsistency from the starters.

Still, the team battled all season on its way to numerous walk-off victories and a strong finish that earned a regional in Austin for the first time since 2011. The regular-season title was also the first since 2011.

“It feels awesome, it really does,” Pierce said after the super regional. ”It’s never been about me and it never will be, but the thing that I loved is I told these guys back in the fall I want this for you guys, but I also want it for those three coaches who have been with me for seven years. To watch all that happen today, was really, really special and I’m just so proud of our team. The things that we’ve had to do. I’ve said it before, we’re not always pretty a lot of times we’re ugly, but we just figure out how to keep playing and that’s what’s so special about this group.”

The loyalty Pierce showed to his assistants — Phillip Miller, Sean Allen, and Phil Haig — truly paid off this season, as the coaching staff made a clear difference with a number of players. Andy McGuire returned to the team to become the unexpected closer, Pierce’s suggestion to Parker Joe Robinson to lower his arm slot made him into a late-inning wizard, and adjustments in the swing of Kody Clemens turned him into a superstar.

Lineup changes after the first game against the Golden Eagles paid off, too.

Tennessee Tech head coach Matt Bragga was particularly complimentary of the new-look Robinson.

“He was electric in both games,” Bragga said. “He has the funky arm style but yet, the velocity stayed. A lot of times from those arm slots, even the good ones, are throwing around 82-83. This guy, my goodness, he was throwing low 90’s and upper 80’s from that arm slot; it’s just an elite pitcher.”

And those are just a few examples of how Pierce and his assistants took a group of players that reliever Josh Sawyer called a group of “misfits” and earned a trip to the most hallowed ground in college baseball.

Bragga certainly came away impressed with Pierce after Texas won two straight games against the power-hitting Golden Eagles.

“Coach Pierce knows his personnel, and he uses it to an elite level,” Bragga said. “Man, they know what they’re doing.”

In fact, Bragga called himself “honestly amazed” at what the Texas pitching staff did to the best offense in college baseball.

And yet, no one on a pitching staff full of draft-eligible players was selected higher than the 12th round of the MLB Draft. Robinson is giving up his final season of eligibility to go to law school on a prestigious scholarship.

Credit Pierce for creating a culture that empowers the players.

“He’s really good,” Robinson said of Pierce. “I think we have a really relaxing atmosphere, especially during practices. And that helps translates into games. He’s a player’s coach, kind of lets us play the game, do what we need to do to get ready. And I think it’s translated, obviously, the past two years.”

Pierce, for his part, is always quick to deflect attention, whether it’s to his staff or to his players.

“It goes back to our players,” he said on Sunday. “This is not a typical Texas team full of blue-chip players. We have some, but we have a lot of contributors and that’s what’s been really, really special about this group.”

With a talented incoming recruiting class that should lose only one player to the MLB Draft, the future looks bright, too.

For now, Pierce is starting to create his own legacy at Texas as the specter of Garrido’s success retreats just a little bit with every tournament win. The current coach is getting a little bit of help from the former coach in key moments, of course, but the respect afforded Pierce by other coaches like Bragga tells a key aspect of this story.

Meanwhile, one of Garrido’s greatest legacies continues to live on — the Longhorns only dogpile in Omaha.