Friday First Takes - My Q&A with Maryland coach Terry Rupp

I'm in basketball mode here in Atlanta, I've got to admit. This is the first Final Four I've ever been to and I'm into it. UCLA, Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown... that's a strong field of teams.

But I broke away for a visit to Russ Chandler stadium tonight to see upstart Maryland take on Georgia Tech in the first of a three-game ACC weekend.

And since the Terrapins have been pistol hot with series wins over N.C. State and Clemson in the last three weeks, I thought it would be a good chance to catch up with UMd coach Terry Rupp.

So I met coach Rupp just outside the Maryland dugout and immediately, I am swamped by his stature. A full 6'6" from heel to hat. It was like going to my first Midnight Oil concert and wondering why the mic stand for Peter Garrett was set so high. Then he comes out, "Ohhhh. He's a giant, that's why."

Maryland hasn't been used to success on the baseball diamond, having just one 30-win season in Coach Rupp's six-year tenure. But an 18-8 start and getting notice from outlets like SEBaseball.com, Rivals.com and Baseball America has made Maryland the latest "it" team in college baseball. This has to be a welcome sight to the Terp coach.

Me:
Sorry I'm a little late coach, I've been over at the Georgia Dome covering the Final Four practices today.

Coach Rupp:
How was that over there at the Final Four?

Me:
Well, just a bunch of boring pre-game quotes and a handful of teams practicing their fast break drills.

Coach Rupp:
We're going to head over there for tomorrow's games.

Me:
Yeah, Dan (Reiseg, the Maryland S.I.D.) told me you guys were going. That's cool. I have to admit coach, I've never seen your team play before, so I look forward to this first time. How does all this sudden notoriety and pub help you guys. What do you think of it all?

Coach Rupp:
We've done relatively well. (He says, with an emphasis on "relatively")

Me:
Okay.

Coach Rupp:
Because our program, historically, hasn't done well in quite some time. We're off to a good start this year and we hope we can maintain it and continue to play good baseball. We've gotten some good pitching and defense and that's been the key. We've been able to scratch some runs here and there.

Me:
Has anything surprised you about going down to N.C. State and winning a few, and beating Clemson last week.

Coach Rupp:
Obviously, we're happy with this team, they kind of EXPECT to win now. And that's something that I've been trying to instill in them since the day I got here seven years ago. And that's a tough animal to tame, you know? It's an expectation to win, and I think that this group of guys expect to win instead of hope to win.

Me:
What has put them over the hump? I know you guys won 32 or 33 games back in '02, but what has been the difference this time? Did you see it coming?

Coach Rupp:
We had a lot of young players that had to play for us last year. And I don't know if you know, but our schedule last year was rated as the 10th toughest in the country.

Me:
No, but I knew it wasn't kind.

Coach Rupp:
Yeah. and our guys battled through that and that really set us up for this year because nothing surprises them now. They've played great teams and they know they can compete with them. Also, some of these young guys went away last summer and really blossomed into some pretty good players this fall.

Me:
This might be kind of a dumb question, but is this your best team you've had since you've been here?

Coach Rupp:
We'll find out (laughs). We WILL find out. It's definitely the best start we've had since we've been here.

Me:
Let me ask it this way, have your players finally bought into what you're doing here?

Coach Rupp:
Well I think a lot of it has to do with development of the team and changing the culture of the team. And that comes with hiring some good coaches - a great coaching staff - and all in all, that stuff makes a big difference.

Me:
That's one of the things I was going to ask about was the culture of the program. Are you getting good support from the administration? Do you see things improving in the years to come?

Coach Rupp:
Well our administration's always been trying to get us to where we need to be. It's just a matter of time. We keep getting a little bit more support every year. And it's starting to show now.

Me:
Well, keep winning like you have and they have to back you more, right?

Coach Rupp:
Yeah.

Me:
A couple more things. First, how do you assess the ACC this year as opposed to last year?

Coach Rupp:
Well it's hard to say right now. the teams look a lot different now. I mean, Clemson looked like a pro pitching staff. Every guy they brought out against us threw bullets. You know, and on the position player side, they're not as strong as they were. So I think we're seeing a little bit different side of every team right now as opposed to last year. So it's a little tough to say right now. I mean we still haven't played Virginia and Florida State and from what I understand from other coaches those are two of the better teams in the conference this year. So we'll find out.

Me:
Let me ask you this, lemme know if I'm reading this right - you mean to tell me you were a Parade All American in basketball as a senior in high school?

Coach Rupp:
(Grinning) Yep.

Me:
(Laughing) Heh-heh, you're a strapper too, what are you? 6'4"? 6'5"?

Coach Rupp:
Yeah, I'm about 6'6".

Me:
Did you not want to stick with the basketball thing? Was there any deciding factor as to why you wanted to stay with baseball?

Coach Rupp:
Well... it just kind of went that way. I mean, I was on a basketball scholarship at the University of Tampa. And I always got out to baseball in late March.

Me:
Oh, because basketball would go that long.

Coach Rupp:
Yeah. I only played about half a season in baseball each year. And I was lucky because I was got to play with Tino Martinez for three years and was able to DH for three years. You know, it was just a matter of... well I was drafted by the Padres then and I could've easily been a basketball coach. But I am where I am now because it's a situation where everything fell into place that way. Because after I finished my playing days, the Yankees hired me as one of their coaches in the minor league system. I learned a lot from them.

Me:
One last thing, I saw that A.J. Casario was doing really well for you with a .370+ average. He's just a Freshman too. What can you say about him so far?

Coach Rupp:
Yeah, A.J.'s still young and has a lot to learn but he's doing really well. He can beat you with his legs, he can beat you with his arm and he can definitely beat you with his bat. He hit 20+ home runs in high school last year. Now he hasn't shown the power numbers yet but he's getting good swings on the ball and he needs to make a few adjustments. He's got a good feel at the plate and the way he puts the bat on the ball. He's playing right field for now, but he'll play catcher for us eventually.

Me:
So 6'6" huh? I'm thinking you'd be able to take me down in the blocks pretty easily.

Coach Rupp:
Oh you play hoops?

Me:
Way back in high school, yeah. I wasn't good enough to play anywhere collegiately like you were.

Coach Rupp:
(Ha-ha) I see.

Me:
That's about it coach. Good luck the rest of the way. It'll be cool to see you guys make the ACC tournament this year.

Coach Rupp:
Well, we've got a shot... thanks for coming out. Hopefully we won't disappoint tonight.

The Terps didn't win in game one at Georgia Tech. But they showed a lot of fight. A lot of the "expecting to win" attitude that coach Rupp talked about. They took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 9th on a Steve Braun solo shot to left. But the Jackets came back for two runs in the bottom of the frame to pull out the 5-4 win.

But don't worry Coach, it was a great game, and no, your team didn't disappoint.

Comments

Great stuff Eric

Beauty! Thanks Bri.

I just hope that those Maryland peeps don't curse my name by thinking I jinxed them by interviewing their coach before they went 0-fer this weekend.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert