When Robert Woodard was named to replace Loren Hibbs as the Charlotte 49ers’ head baseball coach on June 29, it meant Woodard would be returning to coach in the city in which he grew up.
Since graduating from Myers Park High, Woodard went on to become of the top pitchers in North Carolina history, helping the Tar Heels to two College World Series appearances. After a brief career in the pros, Woodard spent time as an assistant at UNC Wilmington, Virginia Tech and UNC, where he was reunited with Mike Fox, his old college coach.
Woodard, 34, takes over a 49ers program that was 819-682-5 in 27 years under Hibbs, who retired and is now assistant athletics director for baseball operations and player development at his alma mater of Wichita State. Charlotte hasn’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2011, a drought Woodard wants to end.
Woodard recently spoke with the Observer’s David Scott:
Q. What’s the most important part of getting started as a new head coach?
“It starts with people. If you have the right people, special things can happen. Priority one for me is to surround myself with the best possible coaches. They not only have my respect, but I know they’re extremely knowledgeable and hard working and passionate about 49ers baseball and the Charlotte community. They’re also going to be good at assessing any weaknesses I have from a skill-set standpoint. They’re people who will complement my skill set.”
Q. What was behind your decision to retain and name Bo Robinson as your associate head coach and to hire former 49ers star catcher Ross Steedley as an assistant?
“They both bleed 49ers green. Passion is really important to me. People do their best work when they’re passionate about what they’re doing. Their knowledge of the program, the alumni and players, and guys who were here long before I got here. They’re getting me up to speed on all this.
“But it’s also about Xs and Os. Bo was an All-American hitter who I’m getting to know better after just two weeks. I’ve known him for around 20 years now. As a co-worker, I can pick up so much about hitting from him. It’s something he lives every day. Ross being a catcher can also help me with hitters. His view is from the other side of the ball. My experience is working with pitchers on the dirt on top of the mound. His is on the dirt behind the plate. His perspective is really important.”
Q. What’s will be the biggest change for you as a head coach?
“That’s a great question, and I don’t know if I have the answer to that yet. I think I’ll know that a year or two from that now, honestly. I feel incredibly prepared for this, but when you go from assistant coach to head coach, there are going to be challenges that come across your desk that you haven’t had to deal with before. So I will try to lean on my nine years of experience I have as a Division I assistant coach and from working with men like Mike Fox and Mark Scalf, who between them won 2,400 college baseball games.
“Being on staff with those guys, I’ve seen them handle things on a very high level, whether it’s in game — to pinch hit or pinch run, to bunt, to make a pitching change or not — there are dozens if not hundreds of decisions you make every day as a head coach. Most of them are not the Xs and Os of baseball. So I don’t know what’s going to be the biggest adjustment for me. But I’ll know more in time.”
Q. Who’s been the biggest influence no you, professionally?
“It would have to be coach Fox. I’ll forever be grateful. He took a shot on me and gave me a $1,000 scholarship and gave me the opportunity to play at Carolina. If he didn’t do that, I’d probably be in medical sales today, honestly.
“He’s so organized and is such a great communicator. He’s really good at trusting his players and his staff to do their jobs and be what they’re capable of. He’s not a micro manager. As a first-year head coach, the most important thing for me initially is finding the right people because I’ve seen him do that.”
Q. Can you describe the 49ers baseball program as you see it today?
“It’s in great shape. There’s a very strong foundation. Coach Hibbs was here for 27 years and won over 800 games. But it’s a program that’s hungry to get back to the NCAA tournament. That’s the initial vibe I’ve gotten from every player and coach. That path is through Conference USA, which is a very strong league.”
Q. What kind of standards do you expect to set for the program?
“We want to strive to be excellent at everything we do — with our habits, how we interact with others, that we’re there for each other. Promptness: being early is on time. Doing more is pretty much expected. Not cutting corners. Having high expectations of all facets of what you do. Not just baseball. That’s a given. If you do things at a high level and set high standards outside the stadium, those things will translate into wins, too.”
Q. Finally, how does it feel to be able to coach in the town in which you grew up?
“Humbling. It’s special. I feel incredibly blessed. I consider myself a baseball guy, and usually baseball guys end up someplace far away from home. This is the only D-I job in my home city. It’s a job I never thought would come open, because I thought coach Hibbs would be here for 50 years.
“This is bigger than a job to me. It’s not work. It’s something I’m going to be very passionate about and something I’ll be looking for on the recruiting trail — guys who are passionate about playing with those nine letters on their chest. This city means a great deal to me. I’m honored to have the opportunity to build something that we all want.”