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Play ball: Q&A with Coach Harrel

Written by Mike Thee
February 19, 2010

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the men’s baseball team will do something that hasn’t been done for three decades. They will take the field as the home team for a Division I game. Not since 1986 when the university last fielded an NAIA team has intercollegiate baseball at any level been played at SU. 

Leading the Redhawks into their 2010 campaign is Donny Harrel, a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers fan, who after playing professionally in the Royals organization went on to a successful career as a college coach, helping to develop such current major leaguers as Brent Lillibridge (as an assistant with the University of Washington) and Jacoby Ellsbury (as an assistant at Oregon State). Harrel now turns his attention to perhaps the greatest challenge of his career: Rebuilding a long-dormant program into a contender. For the Redhawks, the season will be a baptism by fire as they face down a schedule that is not for the faint of heart. Yet, by every indication, Harrel and his team are relishing the chance to compete against some of the top-caliber programs in the nation right out of the chute. They will play their home games at Bannerwood Park in Bellevue.

In an interview with The Commons just days before the team’s season opener at Washington State University, Harrel talked about his expectations for the team’s inaugural year, how his slow-footedness helped prepare him for coaching, why he loves what he does and much, much more. 

The Commons:  So why did you take this job? 

Donny Harrel:  The number one thing was definitely potential and the ability to start something from the ground up. I don’t think many of us have an opportunity in our lifetimes to start something from scratch and build it how we envision it. Number two, coming from the University of Washington and coaching there, the recruiting base of people that I have connections with in the city and the state, I felt, gave us an advantage to get out and be part of the recruiting process right here in Seattle, which is just really thick with tremendous student-athletes to play at the Division I level. 

The Commons:  What’s been most challenging about restarting the baseball program, and what’s

 
Donny Harrel brings an impressive resume to the Redhawks baseball team.
been most invigorating?

Donny Harrel:  Our biggest challenge when Bill Hogan (athletic director) brought me over was the fact that we didn’t even have a baseball on campus. 1986 was the last year we had a competitive baseball team (at the NAIA level). 1980 was the last Division I level team. So starting baseball back at an institution that didn’t have the facilities ready and without a conference already intact was definitely our biggest challenge.

The excitement part of it was that the kids wanted to help build this thing, so in our recruiting process in that first year we were able to attract 21 of the 25 kids we went after and have them sign National Letters of Intent. Not only did we feel it was a great opportunity, as did the institution, when they decided to bring baseball back, but the student-athletes were just as excited about the challenges as we were.

The Commons:  What are you telling recruits about the program?

Donny Harrel:  The thing that really helps us is the institution itself. The education that Seattle University provides is huge in parents’ eyes and, obviously, if you can complement that with competitive baseball, that’s helps you attract the student-athlete. As much as you hope that students just choose institutions for an education—and mom and dad are wise enough at their age to know that part of it—the sons and daughters are always looking at the coaches and the ability to go in and play. One of our attractions right off the bat was the ability to come in and play because we weren’t going to our full 35-man roster, which the NCAA allows. We’ve started this first year with just 28 players and we look to grow in our second year to 32 to 33 and then get to our full complement of 35 in year three so we have a natural roll over in our classes that graduate.

The Commons:  When you were an assistant coach of the Huskies, you oversaw the team’s academic performance, and during your time there, the team broke a 14-year record for cumulative grade point average. Can you talk about how you look at the relationship between academics and athletics?

Donny Harrel:  I’ve got three holes in my shoulder that stopped me from playing, and my feeling is that truly competitive people compete at everything they do, so this is a great venue because kids who get into Seattle U have obviously accomplished some things in their life, not only in the classroom but in their personal life of what they’ve given to community. So, for us to get the right people, it’s a natural fit because we know they’re going to compete in the classroom, the field, the weight room and in the community. Obviously, our standards are high for academics. If guys don’t go to class, they don’t go to practice; and if they don’t get involved with their community, they’re not going to be here. We’re really trying to attract the well-rounded student-athlete, and Seattle U and their mission statement really complements what we believe in as a program.

The Commons:  What are you hoping to accomplish in this first season?

Donny Harrel:  We’ve put a heck of a schedule together, and being independent, we were able to do that. And thank goodness for our baseball fraternity and friends that we’ve been able to be in contact with over my 17 years of coaching—a lot of programs and coaches allowed us to get games with them that maybe we shouldn’t have in our first year. But we wanted to put that schedule together to attract the kids and tell them we were serious about taking this step into Division I athletics. So our goal for this first season would be to get to .500 or a click over. That’s a challenging goal just based on our lack of Division I experience with our players because we have no one coming back that’s faced Division I pitching or the speed of the game.

The Commons:  Looking further down the road, say five years, where would you like to see this program positioned?

Donny Harrel:  As we progress as an athletic department, hopefully someday we’ll work our way into a conference that welcomes us. And by the time our window’s up to qualify for post-season, our hope is to be an NCAA-berth team. Dallas Baptist is a great example of an independent team that made the tournament two years ago and was on the bubble last year of getting in. So it can happen even as an independent, and by the time we are able to qualify for post-season, we want to be there.

The Commons:  Can you talk about your home stadium?

Donny Harrel:  Bannerwood Park for us is just home. We did our best at Seattle University to find a stadium or a field that would accommodate Division-I baseball. Obviously, with us being on 48 acres, we can’t build something within Seattle University’s property lines. Believe me, we measured every corner we could! And as we looked around Seattle, there just weren’t fields owned by the City that were big enough to accommodate our game. The City of Bellevue has welcomed us there. It gives us a true stadium to play in and it gives us a venue that has an opportunity to be a true Division I site. It works for us financially. It works for us in terms of location. We’re the team on the east side of the lake and the Huskies will be the Division I team on the west side of the lake, so hopefully we can keep our fans over there and bring our Seattle fans across the lake.

The Commons:  Why do you coach?

Donny Harrel:  I don’t think there’s anything like coaching, and obviously teachers and professors could say the same thing. Really, our world is about teaching and watching kids grow from becoming young men to full mature men that go out into society and make an impact. So I would say, number one, seeing that progression of life and, number two, the ability to teach and then finally see something click in a human being when they finally get it. I think it’s the most fulfilling thing you could do.

The Commons:  Who’s your favorite current major leaguer and who’s your favorite player of all time?

Donny Harrel:  I hate to say it because he’s not a Dodger, but it would be Albert Pujols just because of the ability he has to do what he does. He’s just a model person for how every professional should go about their business off the field and definitely for what he does on the diamond.

I hate to say it but my favorite all-time player is Pete Rose for nothing that he did off the field but just his accomplishments and the message he gives that you can be of any size and accomplish anything that you want to do. There’s a guy who’s 5’9” and didn’t make his high school team but goes on and sets the hits record in Major League Baseball.

The Commons:  Why do you root for the Dodgers?

I was born in San Pedro, Calif. We grew up around the Dodgers down there. We moved to North Bend, Ore., but every summer we spent down in San Pedro and I’d go to the LA Dodgers games.

The Commons:  What was your position back in your playing days?

Donny Harrel:  I was an infielder until I got into pro ball. When I got to the Royals organization, they said, “You don’t run very good, so you better start catching.” It was actually the best thing that could’ve happened to me because as a catcher you’re basically the quarterback of the team and you learn all the positions on the field and how to control the game. So from a managerial standpoint, having to become a catcher was just a perfect fit.

The Commons:  Had you ever caught before that.

Donny Harrel:  No (laughs). It was interesting.

The Commons:  What is it about the game of baseball that does it for you?

Donny Harrel:  The first pitch. I get goose bumps just hearing you ask that question. Our game, baseball—with a man on a mound at 60 feet, 6 inches away throwing a baseball 85 to 95 miles an hour to challenge a human being with a bat who’s trying to make contact, the smallness of the ball and the bigness of the field and yet there’s only so many hits and runs that come out of the game—it’s just unbelievable to me. It’s truly the most competitive situation in all of sports, pitcher versus hitter.

The Commons:  What do you like to do in your spare time?

Donny Harrel:  I love to kill things. I love to hunt and fish. You know, one thing that’s tough in our sport and our occupation is the time away from your family. The only negative I can say about coaching is obviously it’s a lot of time spent away from your kids and losing some of those aspects of them growing up. I’m blessed to have a wife and two children that come to the park every time we play and get involved. So besides hunting and fishing, it’s spending time with them and watching them progress and watching them play baseball and watching my wife teach her kids in her (Kindergarten) classroom.

The Commons:  You named your son Easton, as in the bat, and your daughter Brooklyn, for the Dodgers. Was it a hard sell to get your wife to go along with that?

Donny Harrel:  She got it. She’s a Montana gal that didn’t really know anything about baseball when I met her. When we got married I got her the book Baseball for Dummies just to get her in tune with what she was getting into. She’s gotten really into it. I sold her easily on Easton, because that was our first son. Brooklyn, I had to sell her on a little bit, but she gave in when she was allowed to pick her middle name Skye for the Island of Skye in Scotland, which is where she’s from. So all that worked out. We also have a dog named Wrigley, so it’s truly a family feast as far as the baseball world is concerned.

The Commons:  How can faculty and staff be supportive of the baseball team, especially in its first year back?

Donny Harrel:  I would hope in all our sports that our faculty and staff come out and see the time and effort our students put into something outside of the classroom that makes them the well-rounded people they are. 

The Commons:  That’s all I’ve got. Anything else you want to add? 

Donny Harrel:  The only thing I would add is that we’ve had tremendous alumni support. We’re in a tough situation from our kids’ standpoint because there’s that large window there where our kids don’t have anyone to relate to. They don’t have a Brent Lillibridge or a Jacoby Ellsbury to come in and shake their hands and say, “Hey, be the next generation to lead us to success.” Pat Gillis, one of our main alumni started what’s called a Sponsor a Player program. This has been huge as our alumni have adopted our players and been there for them, which means a lot with this being their first time away from home. Our alumni have been tremendous, Bill Hogan has been a tremendous leader and Tim Leary (executive vice president) has been outstanding with support especially for a new program to give us everything we need. 

For more information about the team, including their schedule, visit SU baseball. For directions to the ballpark where the Redhawks will play their home games, visit Bannerwood Park.