Schmack winds up at Valparaiso, and delivers
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After a long playing career that included time in three big-league organizations, Rolling Meadows grad Brian Schmack is directing the college program at Valparaiso University.
Northern Illinois University's venerable Chick Evans Field House might seem to be an odd place to ignite a baseball coaching future.
But walking through the one-time basketball showplace in DeKalb proved to be the genesis for Brian Schmack's eventual career.
"They seemed to always be talking about baseball and working on baseball stuff," Schmack said of the coaches in their office at Evans Field House during his time as a pitcher at NIU from 1992-95. "That's where I first got the seed planted that when I'm done playing, I'd like to end up coaching. It's something I wanted to do to help younger guys."
Schmack, a 1991 Rolling Meadows graduate whose 10-year pro pitching career included a September 2003 stint with the Detroit Tigers, is now the point man in the baseball offices of Valparaiso University's burgeoning Division I program. After seven years as a pitching coach and associate head coach, Schmack was promoted to run the program after former major leaguer Tracy Woodson left to become the head coach at Richmond.
Now Schmack is starting to feel more comfortable in his new position since he has his staff of assistants in place and can focus on what he enjoys most.
"It's a lot better now, but it was pretty stressful early," Schmack said of keeping up with areas such as recruiting and budget and travel plans. "Now I've settled into it and the most important thing is being back to baseball."
Especially since the game has always been a big part in the life of a kid who was a fifth starter as a senior at Meadows. But he persevered and never stopped believing, even though he was undrafted out of NIU and started his pro career in the independent Frontier League.
Schmack's odyssey through the White Sox, Rangers and Tigers organizations eventually led to his big-league shot. He went 1-0 with a 3.46 ERA in 11 relief appearances with the 2003 Tigers and was instrumental in helping them come up 1 loss short of matching the modern major-league record of 120 by the 1962 Mets.
But one more year in the minors brought an end to Schmack's professional career.
"When I was playing I put all my eggs in one basket, and that's what you're taught not to do, but that was the only way I was successful," Schmack said. " 'I'm playing, I'm playing.' Once that ended I said, 'Now what the heck am I going to do?'
"I tried to get into coaching right away, but I thought it would be easier than it was."
Schmack went into mortgage sales and spent a season working with the pitchers for former Meadows teammate and Elk Grove coach Terry Beyna. That stoked his passion for coaching as he joined Woodson at Valparaiso.
Schmack's responsibilities increased halfway through his stint with the Crusaders. So did his thoughts of moving up the coaching ladder.
"I was still doing the pitching and that's my passion," Schmack said. "But to be able to lead a whole team and do things the way you want them or think they should be run (was enticing)."
Especially since Woodson and Schmack were leading the program's turnaround to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances the last two seasons. In this year's regional, the Crusaders just missed beating eventual College World Series participant Indiana and did win their first tourney game in 46 years against Southeastern Conference power Florida.
The regard for Schmack's contributions was evident when the job opened and a big group of ex-Crusaders lobbied on his behalf. Former Buffalo Grove baseball and basketball star Ryan O'Gara played at Valparaiso from 2008-11 and said he couldn't recall Schmack missing any of the 6 a.m., four times a week workouts he coordinated.
"There's no doubt in my mind coach Schmack is going to run a successful program because he was already like a second head coach, and anyone who has played at Valpo since he's been there would vouch for that," O'Gara said via email from Elizabethtown, Ky., where he works as a sports writer. "It's great to see him get this opportunity because there is no one more deserving. His commitment to the program is unparalleled. This isn't a 9-to-5 job for him, and it never will be.
"He's going to help guys improve on the field because he is such a great baseball mind and his resume speaks for itself. But more importantly, he's going to challenge you mentally and to improve as a person."
Which figures to go a long way into Schmack's plan for Valparaiso to sustain its success and compete with college baseball's big-name powers.
"To start something and be a part of a turnaround, you want to see it continue," Schmack said. "With as much success as we've had on a national level, we're not Kansas State or Indiana.
"That's everybody's goal. The underdog role is very attractive to me and I like that aspect. I wouldn't trade my path for the world."
Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at email@example.com
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