A Conversation With Donegal Fergus

Donegal Fergus was hired as head coach of LMU baseball in June 2023. He has built a baseball career, especially in hitting instruction, by working at UC Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, and Seattle University. Fergus also was hitting coordinator for the Minnesota Twins, for whom he oversaw the Twins’ entire minor league hitting staff. In 2018 and 2019, he was head coach of the Irish National Baseball Team. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. This is a longer version of a conversation that originally appeared in LMU Magazine. It was edited for length and clarity.

Our baseball program has had some notable success under our two most recent coaches. Do you inherit the benefits of that success, or do recruits think LMU is starting over with a clean slate?

There is never a clean slate. There have been some unbelievable coaches here, and I’m honored to be in that group of them. But let’s be honest: I don’t talk to a high school kid who knows who [former coach] Frank Cruz is, unfortunately. That’s too bad, but that’s the case. Kids are not following as closely as you might think. There are some kids who know we won the conference last year. We’re definitely getting the benefit of that, even though we are a new staff. I’d love to have former coaches involved because that’s important to me, to a lot of families, and to people who are connected to the school. The more we can do that, the more it seeps into the consciousness of the local baseball community.

Do you have overarching philosophy — such as small ball vs. the three-run homer? Or do you adapt strategy to the skills of your players?

Absolutely. We try to recruit a certain way so that we have to adapt less. Being an offense guy, I’ve told every team that I’ve ever had that on the offensive side I want us to be able to walk into any ballpark and say to the other team, metaphorically speaking, “You tell us how you want us to beat you today, and we’ll do it. You want to have a home-run derby? Saddle up. We’ll hit more than you. You want to force us into stealing a bunch of bases? We can do that, too. We’ll run all over you. You want us to squeeze in the ninth to win 1-0? We have that in our bag of tricks as well.” I want our players and team to feel that whatever the game asks us to do, we are prepared and capable of doing it at a high level. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the best bunting team in the country. But I also don’t want to be beholden to the three-run homer.

But one of the first things you said when you came here was, “Get ready for homers over the big wall.”

Absolutely. It’s the most efficient way to score, to hit home runs. That, to me, is always going to be what we’re known for. I laugh when a coach or scout says to me, “Well, you’re just trying to hit home runs.” Yeah. Why would we not? We’re trying to hit a home run every time. But we’re trying to do it correctly and as efficiently as possible. And we’re not doing it at the expense of anything else. We need to be trying to do what we’re good at, while also understanding that we need to have alternate ways of beating somebody. To ignore the fact that sometimes a bunt is a great play is silly in my book. Sometimes you do need a ground ball to the middle of the field, to score that run from third, or a sacrifice fly. We want to run the bases really well, and we want to strike people out, but also get ground-ball outs. All of those things are part of the game. If there’s anything I really want to be known for it’s the ability to adapt to whatever the game and/or my roster would have for us. That’s the beauty of baseball and why it’s so interesting for people who are real fans of it. We’re going to be known for certain things, and that’s power production and damage, hitting home runs, and striking people out. But we are also going to be pretty adept at a lot of different things. 

Is recruiting in D1 baseball different than recruiting for other D1 sports?

In some ways. Our scholarship limitations and the nature of how they’re broken up is different than in other sports. The headcount in those sports is a numbers game. There is a finite [scholarship amount] number, a determined number of how many guys you can offer. 

Baseball has never been like that. We don’t know how many we need. We have the professional draft, which affects us really late in the process. So, we may lose a [high school prospect] who has been committed to us for years and who has signed a letter of intent, and he just doesn’t show up because he has signed a professional contract. That inherent uncertainty over what your number actually is creates even more headaches and more math problems, because you’re not always certain of the amount of scholarship dollars you have or will have available. In fact, almost no one gets 100%, or very few do. 

You’re also [challenged] on the other end of it, honestly. Will they leave after their junior year? Because that’s their draft-eligible year and they’re older. You don’t know that either. Sometimes a guy gets drafted in the 12th round instead of the 5th round. All of a sudden, he thinks, “I am going to come back because that kind of [professional] money isn’t enough for me.” Or “I want to come back and take one more run.” Or a guy you thought would only leave if he was drafted in the 5th round gets drafted in the 12th but decides, “You know what, I’ve gotta’ go.” You don’t plan on losing that guy. So there’s an uncertainty that I don’t think any other sport has. Basketball and football have drafts, and players have to declare, and say, “I am in this draft.” In baseball you don’t, everybody is available.

Do you feel that you’re recruiting not only against other universities but against the major leagues?

Absolutely.

How do you talk to someone who is deciding between college and professional baseball?

I talk to kids all the time about this. [I tell them,] “I want you to play professional baseball, but I want you to be ready to play. If you’re ready, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world for you. I’ll help you pack. If you’re not ready, you’re not going to make it. The runway to do something and to show that you’re capable is really short.’” I tell recruits, “I think you could benefit by coming to play for us, or by coming back for another run, and let us get you ready.”

Are certain player roles more valuable to major league teams than others?

We’ve seen a shift in professional baseball, especially with hitters. Productive college hitters are much more valuable than they ever were before, and probably the most valuable in some ways because they’re the most big-league ready. You have the shortest path to the big leagues if you’re a really productive college hitter. High school pitchers don’t have a great track record of big league success, because there’s injury risk. Pitching is always dominating, it’s always going to be the most important [skill], there’s always going to be the biggest market for it, it’s the hardest to find — all of those things are true. But when teams ask themselves “How do we find an edge,” productive high-level college hitters are the route to that, because they are more closely ready for all of the things they’re going to be asked to do to play in the big leagues.

Is it harder to recruit in Southern California than other parts of the country because LMU is competing for players with UCLA, Fullerton, Long Beach State, Pepperdine, and USC?

Sure, in some ways. There is certainly a certain sex appeal to those places. You can make all the logical arguments with a particular kid that we’re a better option than those places, but ultimately the perception of those places still holds a lot of weight. USC hasn’t been a relevant factor in high-level college baseball in 20 years. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter because the perception of USC as a school and an athletic program still stays strong. That’s our challenge. One reason I hired Justin Dedman, our recruiting coordinator, is that he and I both have recruited nationally before. I do think there’s a real path for a kid from the Midwest or the Atlantic region to say, “I want to go to L.A., I want to play in the sun, I want to play in California. I know that’s where the best players come from, and I know I want to take my shot there.” Now, we’re also in L.A., we’re by the beach, have a beautiful school, and an unbelievable campus. Our bread and butter is always going to be our backyard. Southern California is the best baseball region in the country, and we’re going to continue to mine that and gather as many of those kids as we can. But it is a balancing act.

Are you concerned about the impact of the transfer portal on college baseball? 

I don’t fear the portal. If players are treated well, coached well, and cared for, the chances of them wanting to leave just for a better NIL deal or just for a bigger conference aren’t as great as you think. If you have a bunch of players leaving every year, I think that says something about the environment you’ve created. Will we lose somebody to the Southeastern Conference? I’m sure that will happen at some point. We’ll find somebody, make him really good, and my buddy Jay Johnson at LSU will swoop in and say, “I’ve got an opportunity for you.” But I don’t fear it, because ultimately the portal is the right thing. Our regular students should be able to transfer to wherever they want to go and can; a player should be able to do that as well.

But for some fans, a lot of roster transience makes them feel less allegiance to a program. 

This is an interesting point you bring up. I thought the same thing with basketball. Everybody has been complaining about men’s college basketball: “Kids don’t stay long. You can’t get to know them anymore. I miss the days of Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, when you could watch them and get to know them.” OK, I get that. I grew up watching St. John’s basketball, when Chris Mullin played for four years. I remember how cool that was. You felt that that was going to be your team, and you could track those guys for a while. I wonder if part of that is involved now: People see Caitlin Clark and think, “Caitlin Clark is sticking around at Iowa, and I’m going to get to watch her for a while.” I agree completely with that. It’s one of the great things about college athletics: You can get to know college athletes. Women’s sports have done a better job of that, honestly. I hope that we can do that here. But I’m not worried that we’re going to get a bunch of guys who will do really good in their freshman year and then bolt on us. I don’t think that’s going to happen because of the environment we’re going to have for our players, how good this school is, and how beautiful a place it is. Why would you leave here? If we’re treating you well and giving you all the things you need to become a professional, which is why you want to come here, then I don’t think we’re going to lose many of our players.

Moving away from the transfer portal, what kind of culture do you want to instill in the program?

I think culture is more about the way you treat people and the way you can affect them to treat other people. To me, it’s less about a slogans or gimmicks: What makes you different? What makes you stand out? I want us to be known as people who actually care about other people. That, to me, is the culture. I care about every kid who plays in the program. I really do, not just the top player. That’s why college baseball, for me, is infinitely more enjoyable than professional baseball. I’ve built relationships with professional players, loved a lot of those players, and coached a lot of those players. But in college, it goes deeper. That’s why it was so hard for me to take this job: I was so scared of the Zoom call I had to have with my old team, UCSB. There was no chance I could say the words, “Guys, I’m leaving, and I’m going somewhere else.” I broke down in five seconds and couldn’t get through the call. But that reminded me that I’m doing my job in the way I should be doing it, by caring. I want my players to care about me, but I want them to care about their teammates. That’s one of the first things we talk about: “If you can’t invest in the person sitting next to you, this isn’t going to work very well.” If everybody involved invests in the same way, we reduce the urge for people to leave, we reduce the feelings of “I’m not getting an opportunity here,” or “I’m not being coached the way I want.” We need to approach the No. 40 player on the roster with the same level of care that we approach the No. 1 player on the roster. We don’t treat everybody in the exact same way, but we coach them with the same compassion, care, and energy. If the best player on your team can care about the 40th player on the team in the same way he cares about himself, that’s the magic. 

When Athletic Director Craig Pintens introduced me to the returning players on this team, I asked if anybody wanted to ask or tell me something. Sam Biller, a returning player, had something to say. He didn’t say this explicitly, but his point was clear: ‘We have a good thing here, this culture is good, we really like each other. We all stuck together through this transition period. We really care about each other and like being around each other. Don’t screw that up.’ I loved the fact that he said it. He was right. I want to maintain that. I think coaches screw this up. They think, “I have to give them the culture and make them do this in a certain way.” What you’re really doing is to model behavior but also allow those experiences to happen, where the players can take care of themselves. They crave it, the connection with each other. That’s what we’re going to create — the environment for it to happen — and then just let it happen. 

It is often said that Michael Jordan, an exceptional athlete and possibly the greatest basketball player ever, failed in baseball because he just couldn’t hit the curveball. What’s so hard about hitting a curveball?

Your brain doesn’t understand it the [right] way. From a young age, the hardest thing to deal with is the fact that the ball might hit you. That’s an innate fear, you can’t get rid of it. It’s the sub-conscious brain’s flight-or-fight response: The ball is a threat to us. So, every problem in hitting, mechanically, is about moving away from the baseball. The curve ball messes with that concept because it looks like it might hit us, then it doesn’t. At least with the fastball, you can expect it to do what it’s supposed to do. The curve ball doesn’t. It doesn’t do what our subconscious brain expects it to do. When you learn how to play a sport, you learn the rules of what happens. That’s where the curve ball gives us fits. It doesn’t make sense to our brain. Our subconscious brain is just trying to solve the problem, which is: Get away from the ball enough, and then hit it. Our subconscious brain doesn’t really care about hitting it far — that’s our logical brain saying, “I need to hit far.” Our subconscious brain thinks, “What is this dark magic? The ball is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. We need to get out of here.” That’s why you need so many repetitions: to overcome those impulses. Your brain has to do it so many times that eventually it says, “OK, we got it now. We have a solution to the problem.”  Michael just didn’t have the time to do it. If he had stayed with baseball from the get-go, he would’ve been a big-leaguer. He’s too good of an athlete to have not figured that out.

Last question: Is there a reason why you wear No. 1?

When I was a kid, I was the smallest kid on every team I was on. In youth sports, typically, the No. 1 jersey is the smallest jersey, and 40 is the biggest jersey. So, I always got the No. 1 jersey. As a coach, I’d say, “Just give me any number the players don’t want.” When I took this job, that’s just the number on the jersey that they pulled out for me for the public announcement. But I thought, “Let’s go back to my roots. If I have to have a number, let me take that one, and it’ll remind me of how I started this whole thing.”

LMU Baseball’s 2024 schedule will include home games against Michigan, Villanova, Dartmouth, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton and WCC opponents. Go here to purchase tickets.