Tim Tadlock felt like he had reached a crossroads in his coaching career in 2005.
The Denton native built the baseball program at Grayson College into a national power, guiding the Vikings to JUCO World Series championships in 1999 and 2000 while compiling the best winning percentage in all of college baseball at .744.
Dusty Hart, one of Tadlock’s former players and assistant coaches, described him as something of a local legend in Denison, where Hart said Tadlock could have spent the rest of his career, retired and likely had the school’s field named after him.
Tadlock walked away from it all after nine seasons, unsure if he would ever serve as a head coach again — let alone take a team to a World Series — to chase his dream of being a Division I head coach.
“I knew I needed to leave,” Tadlock said this week. “That’s all we really knew. When we made the phone call, we knew that there was only so much we could do there.”
Tadlock, 45, looked back this week on the gamble as one of the key steps that led to him returning to a World Series as a head coach — this time on the Division I level — with Texas Tech.
The seventh-ranked Red Raiders will make their first College World Series appearance today when they take on Big 12 rival TCU at 2 p.m. in an opening-round game at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in Nebraska.
Tadlock’s last World Series appearance as a head coach was in 2004.
“I really haven’t thought about how long it’s been,” Tadlock said. “More than anything, baseball is something we wake up and go to bed doing.”
Few have done it as well as Tadlock.
The Red Raiders’ World Series appearance will mark Tadlock’s sixth in his 11 years as a head coach and first at the Division I level. It also might be the least expected.
The Red Raiders were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12’s preseason coaches poll and entered the season off a 26-30 mark in Tadlock’s second season in Lubbock and first as head coach.
The milestones the Red Raiders have reached since illustrate just how big a turnaround Tadlock has overseen.
This season’s NCAA tournament is the first Texas Tech has played in since 2004, which also was the last time the Red Raiders won 40 games. Texas Tech (45-19) already has won 19 more games than it did last season, marking the second-biggest single-season turnaround in Big 12 history.
Tech’s turnaround story has captured the attention of the college baseball world. The National College Baseball Hall of Fame named Tadlock the Skip Bertman National Coach of the Year on Friday.
So what’s Tadlock’s secret?
Those who know him best say the answer isn’t particularly complicated.
“He brought in the right people with the right attitudes,” Texas Tech pitcher Chris Sadberry said. “That goes for players and coaching staff. You can see it everywhere he has been. Everyone trusts him and believes what he says.”
Lessons of a lifetime
The list of players who have bought into what Tadlock has sold throughout his career is a long and illustrious one.
Former Grayson pitcher John Lackey helped lead the Vikings to their first JUCO World Series title in 1999 and went on to win the decisive game in two World Series, including last season with the Boston Red Sox when he picked up his second championship.
Kevin Thompson was on both of Tadlock’s title teams at Grayson and went on to play for the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics.
Thompson credited his success largely to Tadlock, who has worked with 16 players who went on to play in the major leagues and 118 who were drafted.
“Tim is one of the greatest coaches I have ever been around,” Thompson said. “He lets his players play and learn from their mistakes. He doesn’t dictate too much.
“I always knew he would get there and be a Division I head coach.”
Tadlock’s path to get to that point started in 1993 at Hill College, where he was an assistant coach for four seasons before becoming the head coach at Grayson. Tadlock then worked for six years as Oklahoma’s recruiting coordinator before spending a year as Texas Tech’s associate head coach.
Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, whom Tadlock worked with at Oklahoma, had seen enough at that point and promoted him to head coach.
“We will be champions,” Hocutt said when he introduced Tadlock as Texas Tech’s new coach on June 8, 2012. “We have spent time talking to hundreds of individuals throughout all levels of college baseball, and it became very clear very quickly that the best man to lead our program was right here in our dugout.”
Hocutt’s words seemed prophetic two years to the day later when the Red Raiders completed a sweep of the College of Charleston in the NCAA super regionals and grabbed a College World Series berth.
Tadlock is quick to dole out credit to the players and coaches who helped him get there, starting with his childhood in Denton.
“When I was growing up, Denton had one little league and you could put it up against any,” Tadlock said before rolling through a list of mentors that includes W.H. Rainey, Ronnie Roberts, Tommy Blair and Bill Carrico, who were prominent figures in Denton youth baseball.
Tadlock credits the lessons he learned during his time in the league with helping guide him throughout his coaching career.
Even then, Tadlock’s coaches could see that he was picking up skills that would help him later in life if he decided to coach.
“Tim was extremely intelligent and a good athlete,” said Carrico, Denton’s athletic director during Tadlock’s high school career. “He studied the game and was dedicated. You never know if kids are going to be in coaching, but you could see that he would be capable.”
Tapping the Denton pipeline
Tadlock began putting the lessons he learned in Denton to use after a standout college career that saw him start at shortstop for the Red Raiders for two seasons in 1990 and ’91.
Tadlock immediately started recruiting the Denton area while working at Hill and then Grayson.
Former Denton standout Derrick Peoples played for Tadlock at Grayson. Tadlock recruited fellow Denton standout Aaron Baker at Oklahoma.
“It’s been pretty natural for me to come back and recruit Denton,” Tadlock said. “I consider all of North Texas home.”
Tadlock has several Denton-area players on his College World Series team, including Dalton Brown and Ty Damron, who played at Ponder and Krum, respectively. Lake Dallas product Jonny Drozd played for Hart at Grayson before going on to a key role in Tech’s run to the CWS.
Drozd pitched three scoreless innings and picked up back-to-back saves in a pair of 1-0 wins over the College of Charleston in a sweep of the Cougars.
Argyle pitcher Parker Mushinski has signed with Texas Tech and will join the Red Raiders next season.
There’s just something about Denton-area players that Tadlock likes. He describes his hometown as a baseball town, one that churns out players capable of thriving at the college level because of the player development system in place from youth ball all the way through the local high schools.
“I’ve said many times at places that I have been that we need a Denton guy on this team if we are going to win,” Tadlock said.
Putting his talent to work
The lessons Tadlock learned over the years and the baseball connections he built in Denton and throughout Texas gave him the confidence to leave Grayson and begin a journey that will reach a milestone in Omaha.
Tadlock has thought a lot this week about each stop in his coaching career and the players he worked with along the way.
“The biggest thing is every job we have had has been a great stop,” Tadlock said. “Everyone has meant a whole lot. All those guys who played at Grayson — you would be surprised how many are going to Omaha. There have been some special stops. We are blessed to have the opportunity to do what we are doing here where we went to school.”
Tadlock has just gotten started at Texas Tech and already has made a case that he is a perfect fit back at his alma mater.
Texas Tech sold out its super regional series in less than an hour. With several key players expected to return and a College World Series berth to sell, the Red Raiders’ future on the field also seems bright.
“There is no one who would have bet on him being in Omaha two years ago,” Hart said. “Tim will get even better players now. They are going in the right direction.”
Those who mentored Tadlock in Denton or have played for him in his time as a coach are anxious to see where he will take Texas Tech, both this week at the College World Series and beyond.
His future is much more certain now than when he left Grayson without the promise that he would ever lead a program again.
“It’s a perfect place for him,” said Blair, who coached Tadlock when he was a star infielder at Denton. “He is a down-to-earth guy who cares about common, everyday folks and works hard.
“If he doesn’t watch out he is going to be the next big thing. Actually, he might already be the next big thing.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.