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EXTRA: The Sitdown with Nolan Cain
LSU's new recruiting coordinator shares the challenges and thrills of keeping the talent pipeline flowing into Baton Rouge
Editor’s Note: This Q&A appears in our latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, which contains our 2017 Baseball Preview. The magazine will be hitting newsstands around Baton Rouge starting Wednesday, just in time for Opening Night. And as always, it’s free! Click here to find a location near you or here to purchase your own copy for delivery.
By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Nolan Cain’s mind is already on 2019.
He’s not looking too far ahead or eyeing a promotion, nor is he shirking his responsibilities to the 2017 Tigers as they embark on another quest for Omaha. He’s always thinking about how he can help the players of the present, too.
But as LSU’s new full-time assistant and recruiting coordinator — Cain, a former Tiger and veteran of Paul Mainieri’s staff, was promoted from within when Andy Cannizaro left to become head coach at Mississippi State in November — tending to the future comes with the territory.
The back wall of Cain’s new office is adorned with depth charts for 2017, 2018 and 2019. As the years go on, the familiar names of current stars disappear and are replaced by current underclassmen and the next wave of high school talent identified and targeted as being good enough to wear purple and gold.
On those boards Cain maps out the future of LSU baseball. He obviously doesn’t work alone in that regard, but keeping the pipeline of premier players flowing has now become his chief responsibility. He sat down with Tiger Rag to talk about that task and his climb through the coaching ranks.
James Moran: So take me back to when Andy left. What was the emotion like when Paul offered you the promotion to full-time assistant and recruiting coordinator?
Nolan Cain: It was something that happened pretty quickly and it was very humbling and exciting in the same standpoint. I was blessed to be in the situation I was where I was the Ops guy and then moved into a coaching role last year. I’d always been a part of the recruiting process because it’s a team effort. You’d see the kids who came onto campus for visits and I knew all of them because, in that ops role, you’re the one who makes the itineraries, take them through the tours and get to know the kids and their families. So it was exciting, but it was also one of those things that I felt like I was 100 percent ready for. I understand it’s a huge responsibility, but for me, I was just ready to immerse my life into it and dive in head first. Get on the phone with these kids and high school coaches and summer coaches and scouts to start putting these classes together for the future.
JM: You’ve climbed the ladder under Paul from player on a championship team to ops director to volunteer assistant and now you’re full time. Do you think you’re as familiar with how this program has to run as anybody?
NC: Oh yeah, 100 percent. Being a player in the program gets you ready to be on the staff because you know what the expectations are, you know what kind of work goes into everything. I remember being a player and having kids come in on official visits, being a host and showing those kids what it was like to be at LSU. Just getting prepped on that stuff by whoever the recruiting coordinator was at the time, you realize coaches don’t just show up for practice and games. There’s so much work that goes on beyond the scenes. That was really what intrigued me. I was still playing for Coach Mainieri when I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a coach. I’m very blessed that he’s seen the things in me that he feels like I can handle this role. Now it’s just about coming here every day on the staff and proving yourself. Bring it every day, whatever the task is. Doesn’t matter if you’re the ops guy and it’s the most minute thing to help keep the program running.
JM: Last year being your first season in a hands-on role on the field, how do you assess your own performance?
NC: I think it went great. I had a lot of responsibility, but I was lucky to have been around and see how Javi (Sanchez) and Andy and Will (Davis) went about it every day. I had the outfielders, and we had some great outfielders last year. We’ve got some great athletes running around out there tracking fly balls. I had the catchers, which went well. Last year you saw the emergence of Jordan Romero. That was something that made me proud, to help him develop defensively, because the bat had always been there. Moving forward this fall, Mike Papierski made definite improvements. He’s always been a good defensive catcher, but he’s gotten even better with his receiving and transfer of the ball. That’s something that’s really been taken off my plate. I will be coaching the outfielders, the base runners and coaching third base this season.
JM: I remember coaching third was something you were a bit nervous about going into last season. It’s obviously a somewhat thankless job.
NC: You can never get enough reps. I remember last year, from the spring scrimmages to the end of the year, the progression I made and just feeling much more comfortable out there. Toward the end of the year you get some tough situations. I remember in the Rice game we were down and I decided to send (Jake) Fraley from third when Bryce Jordan just kind of flayed a ball to right. He ended up safe, Kramer (Robertson) moved up to second base and next thing you know we’ve got momentum and (Greg) Deichmann hits the homer. So there’s always tough decisions over there, but the great thing is that’s Coach Mainieri’s philosophy. Since he got into coaching, it’s always been to be aggressive on the base paths and make them make the play. We’ve scored the most runs in the league on average over his 10 years here, and I think that’s a big reason why.
JM: Moving over to the recruiting side, it seems like, from the outside, coaching and recruiting would be two separate skill sets and entities. You’re as into the recruiting side as anyone, so what made you kind of fall in love with that line of work?
NC: When Javi was here and Andy was here, they’d come into our office and talk about players who were at our showcase because we recruit those pretty heavily. The guys who can play at LSU stick out like a sore thumb. The guys who show up here or when you go watch a high school game, the guys who can play for you stand out. So it’s just following that philosophy of what Coach wants: he wants premium athletes and premium defenders. Obviously it’s LSU, so we feel like we’re always going to hit. And then looking for those power arms on the mound because it’s not old school Gorilla Ball. You’re not trying to beat people 14-11. You’re trying to beat people 4-1. Within the SEC, you’ve got to have some dudes on the mound and you’ve got to be able to defend and not give them extra bases. Being strong through the middle is exactly what you want to do. It’s as easy of a baseball philosophy as there is. You talk to anybody, they’re going to tell you that you want to be strong up the middle. Catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base and center field. I think we’ll continue to follow that map.
JM: Are you having to start recruiting these guys much earlier than they did in the past?
NC: Oh yeah. I mean, you’re on the phone with eighth graders on up. You start putting together some names in the state of kids who will be able to play here. And there’s so many resources now with videos and recruiting databases, you can get a name and cross-reference it to see if it matches up with what you do as a program. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to see them in person and you got to work and be on the road. You can’t just go off what scouts or summer coaches tell you. You’ve got to see them. You can’t go in blind. As for the evaluation process, I’ve been around baseball my whole life. I played in this program and played professional baseball. I know what baseball players look like. So you’re LSU and you’ve got a $45 million facility, a $2 million weight room coming and great resources, so you feel good when you identify a kid and get him down here on an official visit. When you offer that kid, you feel like you’re going to get him. It’s about being choosy and selective. But to answer your question, yes, you’re starting earlier. We’re already looking at 2019 and 2020, which are underclassmen in high school. Those are the classes you’re trying to put together at this point.
JM: Per NCAA rules, I know you’ve spent pretty much your entire tenure as recruiting coordinator working the phones. How much do you look forward to March and being able to get out on the road?
NC: I’m itching, man. It was a weird time to become the recruiting coordinator. A lot of the work for our 2017 class had been done, and there was work to do for the 2018 class and obviously the 2019 class moving forward. I’ve gotten five commitments since I became recruiting coordinator, all guys we’d identified and targeted early in the process. But when you get that first one, man, you’re ready to do a summersault. Every kid you get committed is exciting and you’re really building those relationships and spending as much time around the kids as possible. That’s what it’s all about. You talk to these kids and then you’re putting the work in, and once you see that they can play and they’re going to be a Tiger, that’s exciting.
JM: Obviously you haven’t been in this role for a June yet, but how interesting is the challenge of almost having to recruit against professional baseball clubs?
NC: I don’t know how many teams have to do that. I’d probably guess around 20-25 teams in the country battle for these kids, sign them and feel like you have to re-recruit them against the MLB Draft. But I’m looking forward to it. I pride myself on being a really organized and detailed person, so once you get into June, just making sure you’re in the right place is huge. You’ve already identified the guys, but you might have to watch this kid pitch four innings in the morning and then make your way to Atlanta to watch another one play shortstop. You know you’re going to be away from your family and on the road a lot from June through early August, and that’s what it takes. I think the biggest thing about this job is being available and having the work ethic to see as many players as possible who you think can play here and then building relationships with everybody. Anybody you can get information from about a kid. Even if it’s a high school principal or something like that, you’ve got to put in the leg work. It’s like going down a rabbit hole where you’re talking to this guy or that guy to try to get a sense of who a kid is. Next thing you know, you look up and you’ve spent two hours on the phone. You always wake up with a purpose with LSU baseball, but now I feel like the work I’m doing will have more of an effect on the program.
JM: You mentioned being away from the family. Is that aspect easier when your wife, Kristen, also works in LSU athletics?
NC: Yeah, definitely. She played softball here and then Yvette Girouard hired her during her last few years as head coach. Kristen wasn’t the recruiting coordinator, but they were recruiting all the time. She knows what it’s like, and it’s awesome to have a wife who has worked in the athletic department at LSU. She knows what it’s going to take, and we have a 4-year-old son, so balancing being a father and a recruiting coordinator is the toughest thing you battle. Like there’s days I realize I need to go home and be a father and a husband as well. But she’s understanding and makes it easier for sure. I believe, in this business, having the right wife who understands is as important as anything. Kristen understands that and she knows that when I’m gone I’ll be working. We’ll be wearing out the FaceTime with her and Cason for sure. Especially when the season starts and we get out on the road and start pounding the pavement.
JM: I’ve just got one more question for you. This staff has to feel pretty familiar with you, Micah Gibbs, Sean Ochinko and Nate Fury having all played here at LSU. What is it about Paul Mainieri that makes so many of his former players come back and coach under him?
NC: Some of the things I remember most about Coach is the fact that he’ll spend time with you. He has an open door policy any time you want to go in there and talk to him. You’ll be talking to him, maybe on the field before practice, and next thing you know he’s talking about his life experiences and the tough decisions he’s had along the way and the reasons he made those decisions. You feel like he’s way more than just your coach. So that’s probably the biggest reason why, the impact he’s made on our lives. I’ve got a great family with a great father and mother, but it’s one of those things where you feel like Coach is a second father or a really close relative. Since 2007 I’ve probably spent more time with him than my own family at times. He does have a big impact on the players. He demands a lot. He runs a tight ship. There’s a lot of discipline in this program, but you realize it’s all for the best and your life beyond baseball.
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