2021 D1Baseball Coach of the Year: Notre Dame’s Link JarrettAwards
Previous Award Winners
2019: Erik Bakich, Michigan
2018: Tim Tadlock, Texas Tech
2017: Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida
2016: Gary Gilmore, Coastal Carolina
2015: Brian O’Connor, Virginia
By the most obvious measures, it seems like a tough job to be head baseball coach at Notre Dame. As an academically rigorous private, cold-weather program with inferior facilities relative to the warm-weather, public ACC powers, Notre Dame has some serious built-in disadvantages, which help explain why the program had been to just one regional (2015) since joining the ACC in 2014 — in fact, just one regional since Paul Mainieri left after the 2006 season.
But while other candidates saw Notre Dame as a tough job, Link Jarrett saw opportunity. So he jumped at the chance to take over the reins in South Bend in the summer of 2019, after seven years at UNC Greensboro.
“I saw tremendous potential. And that develops itself when you set foot on a campus and meet the people involved in the program, not only in baseball but across the board in all the sports,” Jarrett said. “It resonated with me, that we had a chance to build something excellent in all areas of the program. And I enjoy that. I enjoy piecing the roster together through recruiting and structuring the roster in a way you can compete at a high level. Notre Dame has a global brand that is really second to none, so you have a chance to be in the conversation with any athlete you like. We have that academic baseline you need to stay above, which is unique, but I find that challenging and enjoyable.
“I saw this as an opportunity to build something where there was hunger for winning, trying to make an impact in the ACC, trying to get back in the national conversation. My administration and the people I met along the way, they gave me everything I needed to start this process and elevate the program in all dimensions.”
And that’s exactly what Jarrett has done in a remarkably short period of time, earning him the 2021 D1Baseball Coach of the Year award. Under Jarrett’s leadership, Notre Dame has been one of the most improved programs in all of college baseball over the last two years.
After going 24-30 overall and 13-17 in the ACC in 2019 under Mik Aoki, Notre Dame was picked to finish dead last in the ACC’s 2020 preseason coaches poll. But the Irish emerged as one of the feel-good stories of the shortened 2020 campaign, jumping out to an 11-2 start that was capped by a three-game road sweep of North Carolina in the first and only ACC weekend of the season. That performance opened some eyes around the league and around the nation, but Notre Dame still had a lot to prove. But the signs of progress — and postseason potential — were already evident.
“The way we played at North Carolina before COVID ended the 2020 season, I saw our group apply the things we had worked on at an elite level. They applied it in game in a place that’s very difficult to win. And I saw them do it, and it hit me at that point, I was starting to feel that they were getting it,” Jarrett said. “That pause was far too long, but when you pause with momentum, it left a good taste in everyone’s mouth going into this fall.”
Over the last two decades as an assistant coach at Mercer, East Carolina and Auburn and then as head coach at UNCG, Jarrett developed a reputation as one of the best teachers of hitting in college baseball, and his impact on Notre Dame’s offense was immediate and dramatic. After ranking 241st in the nation in batting (.249) and 246th in scoring (4.9 runs per game) in 2019, Notre Dame ranked 25th in batting (.302) and ninth in scoring (8.9 runs per game) in the brief 2020 campaign.
“Coach Jarrett’s been able to prepare us unlike anybody I’ve ever played for, helped with our mechanics, our approach, everything,” Notre Dame infielder Carter Putz said in Chapel Hill after that 2020 sweep. “So he’s made a huge difference for all of us, and without him, I don’t know how well these past couple of weeks would go.”
But a few good weeks weren’t enough to make believers of the outside world. ACC coaches once again voted Notre Dame to finish last in the Atlantic Division in the 2021 preseason poll, and the Irish garnered just one more point than Pitt, which was picked to finish in the Coastal basemen. Here at D1Baseball, our ACC preview matched the coaches poll — we picked Notre Dame to finish last in the Atlantic Division. The coaches and the pundits couldn’t have been any more wrong, as Notre Dame went on to win the ACC by 4.5 games, host a regional, and reach its first super regional since 2002, eventually falling one win shy of Omaha with a road loss to eventual national champion Mississippi State.
It turned out, the tepid external forecasts only fueled the fire for Notre Dame, a team loaded with experienced veterans in the lineup but light on proven arms. The losses of projected ace Tommy Sheehan and bullpen stopper Tommy Vail to season-ending injuries only exacerbated the doubt about Notre Dame’s pitching.
But Jarrett and assistants Rich Wallace and Chuck Ristano bolstered the pitching staff with some key additions via the transfer market. Lefthander John Michael Bertrand came in from Furman and became the staff ace, providing stability in a rotation that otherwise lacked innings-eating horses. Juco transfer Tanner Kohlhepp (a bounceback from Tennessee) emerged as the linchpin of the bullpen, an All-America-caliber stopper capable of working multiple innings at a time. UCF transfer Joe Sheridan contributed 41 innings in a swing role. And returnees like Alex Rao, Aidan Tyrell and Liam Simon joined Kohlhepp to form the backbone of a lights-out bullpen, which Ristano and Jarrett deployed creatively.
It helped that the coaching staff got full buy-in from all of the players, who trusted that coaches would put them in the best roles to succeed, even if those roles were unconventional.
“I felt like Notre Dame was more important than their own individual desires. That’s what made this so special — the unselfishness of players to switch positions,” Jarrett said. “We had all four infielders in positions they really had never played. Our pitching staff, the way we constructed it, the unselfishness of these guys to perform in various roles. If you look at how the pitching statistics shook out, it’s absolutely phenomenal. There were so many guys that came in and closed games and pitched in middle relief, the unselfishness was absolutely priceless.
“We knew we had good variety [on the mound], it’s just a matter of how do you format it, especially when Sheehan went down after two starts. The other guys were groomed more for shorter spurts. So then we looked at them in shorter spurts with the mixture of a variety of righties and lefties, and that worked really well for us. We might extend somebody on a Friday and then use them a little bit on a Tuesday. But their buy-in to this and their understanding of every out was the overriding thing. Our guys bought into their roles, and their roles had to change.”
When the season ended in Starkville, Putz credited Jarrett and the other coaches for implementing a culture of selflessness and belief.
“The biggest thing was that [Jarrett] brought a culture that everyone bought into. We believe that we can be in Omaha every single year. It’s a culture where we all trust each other, and we believe in one another,” Putz said. “When you have a group of guys that believe in the culture and believe in each other, you can go really far, and I think that’s the biggest thing. We have to use it as motivation, continue to work, and hopefully get back to Omaha next year. …
“We fell behind multiple times throughout the year, so it just shows you how resilient and tough this team was. That’s part of the culture that Coach Jarrett’s implemented here, and we embraced it. We loved being the underdog the whole year, and we never felt that we were out of games.”
Notre Dame’s offense proved resilient and explosive, anchored by a superstar first baseman in Niko Kavadas, who blasted 22 homers and caught fire in the postseason en route to first-team All-America honors. But overall, the sum was greater than the parts of the lineup, which became renowned for its disciplined approach from top to bottom. As one scout put it while watching the Irish beat Clemson in March, “You look at their lineup and it’s not like they’ve got a bunch of big prospects. But everyone in their lineup, like, takes balls and swings at strikes.”
Plate discipline was a hallmark of Florida State under Mike Martin for decades, and Jarrett said he got his “foundation of college baseball” as a star player under Martin at FSU in the early 1990s. From that point, Jarrett developed and refined his own coaching philosophies and style over the course of two decades (which also included a year on Martin’s staff).
“You supplement and add, you use your personality, you use tactics and fundamentals you see. And you change it, you build and listen and learn and talk to other coaches. So you constantly adapt and evolve with the game,” Jarrett said. “And I think that’s very important. The evolution of our game, the technical data, the technology — the game has evolved, and we try to keep up with it but keep it simple for them to execute. I think they can be overwhelmed with information. The correct information in a simple format, to use the data properly, I think that’s really important.”
It’s no surprise that Jarrett’s Irish hit, because his teams always hit. But the program has made even bigger strides defensively. Notre Dame ranked 203rd in the nation with a .964 fielding percentage in 2019, and Jarrett said his No. 1 priority that first fall was to improve the team’s defense. The team fielding percentage jumped to .971 in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, but Jarrett said that final weekend in Chapel Hill that it still had a long way to go.
But in 2021, Notre Dame finished fifth nationally with a .982 fielding percentage, and that doesn’t even tell the whole story.
“I think fielding percentage-wise we were good, but making above-average plays, we were better. And it’s hard to insert in your fielding percentage the impact of an above-average play that your right fielder or your center fielder makes that turns what would have been a double or more into an out. It’s hard to measure that, but I saw it inning after inning after inning.
“You have a system and you have a way that you practice and individual segments that you work on your defense. We have various ways that we construct our defense drill-wise. We’re very consistent with it. Our outfielders — and [third assistant] Scott Wingo deserves a lot of credit for this — are so dedicated to playing balls off the bat in batting practice, and our field is very big so there’s a lot of ground to cover. We put a premium on running those balls down in BP, that’s part of our conditioning. We do a lot of work on double plays just so there’s more throwing and catching to be done. And we scrimmage more often than not with baserunners on base to start our innings. I think that heightens the awareness of the guy on the mound, it makes the defense execute more parts of the game, highlights decisions.”
Clearly, Jarrett applies incredible attention to detail to every facet of his program, and that mindset rubs off on his players. It’s one thing to talk about building a winning culture, but this is how you actually implement it: by making sure everyone in the program is attuned to all the little things that add up to big things.
And when it all comes together, special things happen. The 2021 Notre Dame season was very special indeed.
“It’s off-the-charts rewarding. The level of focus and the dedication the players at Notre Dame have to academic excellebnce, on-field performance, and being well-rounded young men, it’s difficult to put into words,” Jarrett said. “The players’ and coaches’ level of engagement to learning what we were trying to do was beyond anything we could imagine. My appreciation for them is hard to express.”