My son was struggling, and my heart ached for him.
This was not the way he had hoped to start his final year of college baseball. The University of South Florida Bulls baseball team captain, Jake Sullivan, took his leadership role seriously. In his mind, he wasn’t living up to expectations. Catching in the first series of the year, foul balls off each foot left him hobbling for a week. Even after the bruises healed, he couldn’t seem to “get his feet under him.”
After twelve games, he was sporting a .107 batting average and was 0 for 21 at home. By my estimation, he was leading the American Athletic Conference in pop-ups to the second baseman. As his confidence wavered in games 10 and 11, a talented young freshman appeared to have taken his spot. He sat for two games, appearing late in each as a pinch hitter; he padded his stat sheet with a couple of 2021 signature F-4s.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Dad. I’ve never played this bad in my life.” He seemed sad on the phone. “I can’t argue with Coach Mohl for sitting me. Nelson is playing better.”
“I know you’re hurting right now, bud,” I said. “The only advice I can give you is to do what you’ve always done. Work while you wait.” We both figured he’d be on the bench for a few weeks before he got another opportunity. “When they call your number again, make sure you’re ready,” I added.
To our surprise, Jake was in the lineup for a Friday night game against Florida Atlantic on March 19th. He would later say he felt “super confident” and had just missed a couple of pitches during his first two hitless at-bats. “No problem, he thought. “I’ll get a couple of knocks, go 2 for 4, and we’ll win the game.” Unfortunately, Coach Billy Mohl had a different plan. Before Jake’s third at-bat, the coach removed him for a pinch hitter.
The Bulls lost the game, and during the post-game meeting, Coach Mohl shared these words with his team: “We have some guys on this club who are putting too much pressure on themselves. You’re all trying to do too much. You guys play best when you’re loose and having fun. You need to relax and let your talent take over.”
According to Jake, after the meeting, Coach Mohl pulled him aside and said, “You know that talk was meant for you, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Jake replied meekly.
What followed is one of the most powerful examples of positive leadership I’ve seen in my 30+ years of coaching.
“Jake,” Coach Mohl continued, “Do you know how much I want you to be our catcher? Do you know how much we need you to be our leader?”
Jake lowered his head and nodded.
“I know how good you are. I need you to give me a reason to put you in the lineup.”
Jake called me that night and said, “Dad, If I get back in the lineup, I’m never coming out again.”
The next day Jake was in the lineup.
Armed with a fresh understanding that his coaches believed in him, he went on a tear. Over the next 10 games, Jake was 14 for 24. He hit .280 for the rest of the season. The South Florida Bulls, picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference, shocked the world by winning their first conference championship since 1995. They’re headed to the Gainesville regional this weekend, and the success of their season goes far beyond wins, and championships.
In one pivotal moment, Billy Mohl changed my son’s season and quite possibly impacted the rest of his life.
I’ve been around a lot of college baseball coaches. Many would have gotten in Jake’s face and shouted something like, “If you don’t start playing better, I’m sitting your butt on the bench, and you might not ever play again.”
Coach Mohl made a different choice, and that choice made all the difference.
The gap between, “I need you to give me a reason to put you in the lineup.” And “If you don’t play better, you’ll never be in the lineup.” is the difference between coaching to win games and coaching to change lives. It’s the contrast in what my friend Kyle Wagner calls “the long game” and “the short game.” As a coach, you have to play both, and sometimes you have to play them concurrently.
The short game in this situation was to sit Jake and play the Freshman. It wouldn’t have been fair to the other teammates to lose games and sacrifice team goals while the Captain struggled to figure things out. Coach Mohl had no choice but to play the short game, but he never lost sight of the long game.
The skill with which he communicated his message was a piece many coaches would fail to execute.
It’s not uncommon for a coach to offer an opaque reference to a specific player in a team meeting. But not many take the extra step, as Coach Mohl did, following up directly to ensure the player receives the intended message loud and clear.
I believe Billy Mohl has a deep appreciation for his true calling. Coaches are paid to win games. Leaders and mentors are called to invest in the lives of young people and teach them skills they can use for the rest of their lives.
Billy Mohl is a good coach, and he’ll win a lot more games.
Even so, if USF Bulls hadn’t won another game for the rest of the 2021 season, that conversation on March 19th would have been enough to convince me of his mastery as leader and mentor.
Coach Mohl changed my son’s season and quite possibly impacted the rest of his life.
He’s a good coach.
More importantly, he’s a good man.
Jake is our 3rd son. All were collegiate ballplayers. Our family has been at the ballpark, laughing, crying, struggling, thriving, bleeding, healing, fighting and winning for over 26 years. As the sun sets on the Sullivan family’s final baseball season, it warms my soul to know that under Coach Mohl’s tutelage, Jake has built a mountain of everlasting memories and relationships. He has learned invaluable lessons he’ll lean on in every future life endeavor.
When coaches do it right, what a ballplayer becomes always far exceeds anything he could ever achieve.
Billy Mohl did it right.
Thank you, Coach!
You made my son a better man.
Good Luck in the Regional!