For roughly two months, Texas Longhorns head coach David Pierce had pondered the state of his program after the worst season of his career — a 27-27 finish overall and a 7-16 conference record that left the Longhorns on the outside looking for the Big 12 Baseball Championship.
Pierce was so embarrassed by his team’s performance that he didn’t even want to show his face at Mass. The pressure that he puts on himself to succeed made for a stressful summer.
Then, he got a phone call that is already helping Texas turn the program around.
When legendary former pitcher Huston Street called up Pierce, he had some inside information — his former teammate with the Colorado Rockies, veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, was set to retire after battling through injuries for years. And he wanted to get into coaching college baseball. Not only that, but he’d already circled Austin as his ideal destination.
Pierce was immediately suspicious.
“Yeah, Huston, but he’s going to travel and he’s going to go play golf and do things that you do after your career,” Pierce told Street.
Street, who is involved in multiple post-baseball ventures, immediately pushed back, telling Pierce that Tulowitzki isn’t like him in that regard. Pierce agreed to take Tulowitzki’s contact information.
But even after the two talked, Tulowitzki remained in pursuit of a job more than Pierce pursued him. In fact, after talking initially Pierce said that he wanted to take 10 days to think about the potential addition to his staff. Instead of waiting on a verdict from the Longhorns head coach, Tulowitzki showed his persistence.
“He texts me on the ninth day and said, ‘Have you had the opportunity to think about our conversation?’ And that said a lot to me. I wanted him to be the one pursuing it, as opposed to me pursuing it. And when he did, then it opened the door for me to get him on campus.”
So Tulowitzki flew to Austin to meet with Pierce and talk baseball.
“We sat out in the suite for four hours and just discussed everything from A to Z of baseball,” Pierce said. “And what kept resonating with me is work ethic, work ethic, routines, being big in the box, being big in the field, being confident as a leader.”
The pitch from Tulowitzki about how he could help the Longhorns program was enough to convince Pierce to try to make it work.
“It’s been a very unique situation” Pierce said. “I think it needs to be unique. Most people that coach, of course we do it for love, we do it for the game, we do it for players, but you have to make a living. When you have a situation like that, where potentially the person can walk on you at any time, it has to be the right situation.”
Concerns addressed, things moved quickly — Pierce pushed out longtime volunteer assistant Phil Haig, his pitching coach, a move that became public on July 23. The decision surely wasn’t easy for the loyal Pierce, as he’d hired Haig at Sam Houston State in 2012 when he got his first head coaching job, as well as his other two assistants, Sean Allen and Phillip Miller, then brought all three with him when he made the moves to Tulane and to Texas.
Two days later, Tulowitzki announced his retirement after 13 seasons playing at the major league level. Then the Longhorns promptly revealed his addition to Pierce’s staff. Tulowitzki bought a house in Austin and moved his family to the Lone Star State. He’s all in, as Pierce noted.
Known as a hard worker with a consummate attention to detail as a player, Tulowitzki has brought the same approach to coaching that helped him hit .290 for his career and win two Gold Gloves to the Forty Acres.
“He’s been special just like he was as a player,” Pierce said. “I think when you look at his situation, you always have concerns of whether or not that type of player fits into a coaching staff. And he’s very different from most big leaguers that finish their career and are willing and wanting to get back on the field as quickly as possible. He carries so much knowledge and validity with him and he’s just a born leader. So, his influence with our infielders and our hitters has been tremendous.”
Tulowitzki has been able to draw on his extensive contacts across baseball to continue to grow the knowledge and validity he already possesses, but some of his own habits as a player have already produced changes at Texas.
“Troy did a very unique routine that he did daily for himself,” Pierce said. “We’ve incorporated that with them. And it’s really been a fast start for our players to get accuracy of their throwing and getting their feet moving. When you get the opportunity to watch some of that warmup, it’s pretty interesting — it’s a little different, but it’s very interesting. So that has been the key right there.”
More than just warmups, though, Tulowitzki has also had an impact on at least one emerging player for the Longhorns — sophomore outfielder Eric Kennedy, who hit .310 last year and then won the MVP of the California League this summer after leading it with a .400 batting average, 46 hits, 21 stolen bases, and three triples. He also hit three home runs for the Santa Barbara Foresters.
After returning to Austin, Pierce said that Kennedy has made some adjustments at the plate recommended by Tulowitzki and “the ball is really jumping off his bat right now.”
It may be the first public, tangible result of Tulowitzki joining the program, but it surely won’t be the last.