There’s an air of optimism in Walker Fieldhouse; after leading the baseball team to national prominence, Jason Verdugo is at the helm of the Piper coaching staff. We look back on decades of Piper success and toward an age where recruiting rules the roost.
Jason Verdugo, Hamline’s new athletic director and former head baseball coach, took the baseball team to the NCAA tournament in 2011. So the man knows a thing or two about athletic success. For starters: “We need to enhance our recruiting efforts,” he says. “We need to create better ways to attract stronger student athletes. Recruitment is essential.”
Athletics is a major part of life at Hamline—roughly a third of undergraduate students participate in sports. Players compete in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), recognized as one of the toughest Division III conferences in the country. The MIAC’s top teams earn national rankings every year. With approximately 2,000 undergraduate students, Hamline has one of the smallest enrollments of the 13 participating schools, but the teams remain competitive. Recent standouts include baseball, cross-country, softball, track and field, and hockey.
“The stronger our athletic teams, the more visible Hamline is in the Twin Cities,” Verdugo says. “We’ve changed the reputation of our baseball program, and it’s my goal to enhance all of our sports programs to change the face of Hamline athletics.”
What’s the Buzz?
To step up recruitment, Verdugo plans to generate buzz. He’ll start webcasting all home football and basketball games and hopes to launch a new website design and double the site’s number of hits. He will also create a stronger social media presence, using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
And he’s calling in the experts: A consultant visited Hamline last summer to conduct a recruiting workshop and survey student athletes about why they chose to play for the university. “Recruiting is a lot like sales,” says Nelson Whitmore, Hamline’s head men’s basketball coach. “It’s ultra-competitive.”
Whitmore calls prospective students every night of the week, often late in the evening to catch a convenient time for West Coast residents. Twenty Division III schools might compete for the same athlete, he says. “There are certain students we’ve recruited to Hamline that we’ve met with 20-plus times to entice them to come,” he says. “The recruiting process is 365 days a year.”
The Athletic Department sees the Piper Athletic Association (PAA) and alumni as a huge asset to recruiting efforts. Many alumni now work as coaches throughout Minnesota, says Ron Woodbury ’73, a PAA board member. Simple word-of-mouth can go a long way to bring new students to campus, he says.
The PAA raises money to support athletics, and it maintains connections with alumni. Following an analysis of its strengths and opportunities, the PAA is seeking more involvement from young alumni and women, says Doron Clark ’00, past president of the PAA. In order to do that, the PAA will become more visible on social media sites. The university Athletic Department has been more active on social media sites, which has paid off. “We’ve increased our Facebook presence the last couple of years,” says Clark. “It has definitely helped me feel more connected.”
Verdugo encourages alumni to visit campus. He plans to double participation in the PAA’s annual golf outing and hopes the game webcasts will also attract more alumni. And he wants them to know he is accessible—there has been a fair amount of turnover in Hamline athletic directors in recent years, and Verdugo expects to be a stabilizing force. “Alumni will have a face to the program for an extended period of time,” he says.
Motivated to Lead
Head women’s track and field coach Shawn Johnson-Hipp has worked for several athletic directors since she started in 1983—all of them talented, all of them with different management styles. “Some ADs expect you to wear polo shirts and be in the office by 8 a.m.; some let you bring dogs to work,” she says. “But we’ve been lucky to always have good people who respect the coaches. It has been a gift to work with all that talent.”
Johnson-Hipp says she’s impressed with Verdugo’s early accomplishments on the job. He has already tackled a difficult budget, helped with alumni relations at the annual PAA golf outing, and organized new training clinics for staff. “He really hit the ground running,” she says.
Doron Clark ’00 is confident in Verdugo’s plan for the athletics department. “He has an established record of success,” says Clark. “Folks have confidence that he understands what it takes for students to do well athletically.” The baseball team thrived in Verdugo’s 11 years as head coach, earning the MIAC tournament title in 2011. Throughout his tenure, men’s baseball tied or broke 20 single-season school records.
And while he’s a young athletic director, he’s had a long journey and a plethora of experiences. He played football and baseball at Arizona State. (He served as backup to former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer and played alongside the late Pat Tillman.) During his junior year, the Anaheim Angels drafted him as a pitcher, though he turned down the offer to finish a degree in history.
He was drafted again during his senior year, and played for San Francisco from 1997 to 2000, when he left professional baseball to coach at McClintock High School in Arizona. He spent just one season with the school, but in that season he was voted 5A Coach of the Year and selected to coach the region’s All-Star team. At the age of 25, he was the youngest coach ever voted to the honor.
In 2004, Verdugo came out of retirement to play with the Saint Paul Saints and later spent five seasons as the Saints’ pitching coach. He currently co-owns a year-round baseball training program for high school athletes, called Next Level Baseball Training. The process-oriented program focuses on the mechanics behind each athletic skill. “I am fortunate to have this job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “There are very few people in the working world that can say they truly love what they do.”
Hamline Athletics Through the Years
Paul Schmaedeke ’77, director of track and field operations, came to Hamline as a student athlete in 1973 and has spent 30 years as either an athlete or a coach at the university. When he looks back at the athletic department’s recent history, he notes several sports that have taken turns winning conference titles—swimming and football in the 1980s, for example, and gymnastics in 2000, when the team won the NGCA national championship. All of the winning teams have shared a similar work ethic. “There was very much a blue-collar approach to what they were doing,” Schmaedeke says. “They were dedicated to what they did, they prepared well, and they did whatever it took to be successful.”
When Johnson-Hipp considers her own 30-year history with the athletic program, she recalls Title IX growing pains while the department figured out how to share resources and fund new opportunities for women’s athletics. She misses the intense camaraderie among female coaches and athletes in those early years when they had to band together and be vocal about their needs, but she appreciates the current expectation of fairness. “I am happy to work in an environment where equal treatment is expected,” she says.
As Woodbury looks back at Hamline’s athletic history, he notes increased competition within the conference. “Athletics weren’t as high-profile,” he says. “It wasn’t as tough to recruit.” The MIAC has added schools, and competing universities have changed their admissions policies. Schools have also hired more full-time football recruiters and many have built new athletics facilities. “It’s a different atmosphere,” says Woodbury. “It used to be that everybody on the football team wasn’t necessarily recruited. Now, recruiting is the most important thing for coaches.”
Today, Hamline enjoys more full-time coaches, and they are given more time and resources for recruiting, which is particularly important for widely watched small teams like basketball. “Just one or two recruits can make a huge difference,” says Woodbury.
A Winning Strategy
Whitmore sees two strong assets that tend to lure his players to Hamline. One is the campus. Of 100 students Whitmore has shuttled around campus, only a couple didn’t find it appealing, he says. “Our campus has a small, private college feel in the Cities,” Whitmore says. “That’s been really attractive to out-of-state students.”
The other asset, he says, is the coaching staff. “Most student athletes pick their college based on the relationship they’ve developed with their future coach,” he says. Players like to be confident in their ability to play under a particular coach and fulfill their athletic aspirations.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that made discrimination between men’s and women’s educational programs illegal. Title IX expanded girls’ and women’s sports in high school and college, creating greater professional opportunities for female athletes. Hamline is proud of the achievements of its women athletes, throughout its history.
Verdugo agrees. “The strength of our department is our coaching staff,” he says. “For them it’s not a job. It’s a passion.”