This season, ESPN.com is taking you inside the Oklahoma baseball program. Each month, Sooners coaches and players will provide insight into what it takes to become an elite program. For the first installment, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway, assistant coach Tim Tadlock and coordinator of baseball operations Ryan Gaines discussed the preparations involved in putting together the first practice of the season.
When do you start thinking about the first practice?
Golloway: Right around Jan. 1 or 2, after the holidays are behind us, I start to get competitive, back in combat mode. My body knows; it starts gearing up. I start getting up at 6:30, 7 a.m. I start thinking about lineups, the field, the staff. I can't explain it. After 20 years, it's just what happens.
Gaines: You don't stop thinking about it once the season's done, but things really pick up after New Year's. I usually text Coach [Golloway] a few seconds after the football team's bowl game ends: "It's baseball season."
Tadlock: When does a 10-year-old kid start thinking about Christmas? There may be some days you don't think about it, but in the middle of summer and sometime in the winter, you do. You spend a good amount of time, when you're a 10-year-old kid, thinking about Christmas. It's the same way for us.
What's on your to-do list?
Gaines: It's against the rules for me [as the director of operations] to be on the field during practice, so my role is the planning, whether it's dealing with the equipment managers, strength and training coaches or getting the field ready. Before the season, we go through the newest technology that Nike has outfitted us with. They send the newest gloves, bats, and we have to make sure all of those things are ready to go. The baseball field has to be in pristine condition, which is a major concern when you're dealing with the weather here, which could be 20 degrees at 7 a.m., 40 degrees at noon and 20 degrees at 4 p.m. We always have to prepare for the possibility of practicing indoors, which requires working with event groups and coordinating with other sports that are using the facilities, and then communicating the changes and updates to the entire team.
Tadlock: Going into the season, you better be very aware of rules changes. We have meetings with the players and coaches to discuss compliance rules and any changes. Preparing for the first practice all depends on the team and where it is after the fall. The first practice is really simple; I don't think we're reinventing the wheel. There's a tremendous amount of consistency in our daily practice schedule. Guys know what to expect; I think you can say that about most good programs. But Coach Golloway's definitely not afraid to throw a wrinkle in there either -- in a good way.
Golloway: The preparations are different year-to-year. If you have a coaching change on your staff, you might spend more time with that coach. I've been blessed to basically have the original staff from when I came here as the head coach six years ago -- our [sports information director] Craig Moran, our trainer [Robert Fulton], strength coach [Tim Overman], [Debbie Boyls], recruiting coordinator [Tadlock] and our operations guy [Gaines]. Our pitching coach [Mike Bell] has been here four years. It's unheard of to have no staff changes in four years, and I attribute that to having good people around you. At this point, our staff knows what each other thinks and what everyone's role is.
Last year, I was preparing to get after the guys harder. When you have a lot of young guys, you need to keep their focus on you and the task. These guys are veterans; that won't work with them. You've got to give them the respect they've earned. They got us to the College World Series and a top-five finish. With them, we stress staying injury-free by doing the things they need to do in strength and conditioning.
How have preparations changed over the years?
Gaines: Technology has changed the way we all communicate drastically. We communicate with the team and entire organization through text messaging -- things like practice time changes or schedule changes. Before, we had to call them all, the players may be in class, it took forever. Now, I can send one text and in two minutes, everyone knows the plan.
Tadlock: [For the past six years], we've stayed the course, followed the same general plan. Absolutely, we do stuff that's different -- maybe it's a defensive drill, maybe it's simulating something -- I can't give all the secrets away.
Golloway: Before Oklahoma, I was the head coach at Oral Roberts. Preparations here are more calm than they were there, and what I mean by that is that there was more of a sense of urgency there. Our conference schedule wasn't as challenging -- we won the regular-season and conference championships for six straight years -- but our pre-conference games were against teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arizona. We were a small mid-major playing BCS schools, and I felt we had to fine-tune earlier because we needed to upset people earlier in the year. Now, it's flip-flopped. We build up to the Big 12 schedule. We don't have to rush. We have time to sweat the details, to focus on doing everything a little better. But at Oklahoma, the demands on our student-athletes are much greater. They're interviewed more, they have more meetings regarding compliance, for example, and we have to manage that.
What's different this season?
Tadlock: [On the introduction of the BBCOR bats this season] On offense, we've always strived to be good at a number of things to create runs. We've always been able to do that with whatever bat we're using. I've picked up the bat and swung it. It's definitely different, but it's still an aluminum bat. Put it in [Albert] Pujols' hands, and the ball's still going to go a long way.
Gaines: Everyone's common goal in Division I is making it to Omaha; that's preached here from the first day that people arrive in the fall. We have to get back there this year. The biggest difference this year is that going into the season, the mindset is of being the hunted, not the hunter. The guys got a taste of what it's like to go to the College World Series, and that's a dynamic we hope to continue. If anything, it's made people hungrier.
What's the first message to the team?
Golloway: The first thing I tell my players is that I love them. I may get mad at the action, but I still love them. That message is the key to successful relationships -- it solves everything. If a player doesn't know you care, you can't teach him anything.
In the first meeting, we emphasize academics, nocturnal activities, and we stress hard -- hard -- the alcohol issues on college campuses in America today. I fear for the young men. We love these players, and we don't want to see anything bad happen to them. But I'm not naive. Whatever college you're at, you can go to a party any day of the week. I tell the players, we're training our bodies, trying to beat our opponents, win championships and pursue our passion. We're working together to do it. Doesn't matter if it's only one or two guys -- every decision affects the team.
I give them this speech -- and the seniors now have heard it three times: "You can't drink and drive. It puts lives in jeopardy. Think you're man enough to drink and drive? Are you man enough to come to me, after you've driven drunk and hit someone, are you man enough to come to the hospital and ask for my forgiveness because you've taken my son's life?" My son Callen, who's 11 years old, is our ball boy. The guys all love him. And when they think about hurting him, the message hits them. It scares them enough to understand. If you drink and drive, you're hurting someone's son, someone's daughter. I don't know another more profound way to get them to understand the danger and the consequences. Drinking and driving ruins lives.
The players are young and they're going to make mistakes. It's our job to stress that their actions have consequences that effect the entire team. Before the end of every practice, I tell them, "Take care of the program tonight."
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.