Ram-bition: NECBL Alum Leighton Starts 8th Year as D1 Skipper
By Don Leypoldt
Kevin Leighton went from Kid to Top Ram in quick progression.
When Manhattan College hired Leighton as a grad assistant in 2002, the former Seton Hall standout catcher was actually younger than one of his players.
When the Jaspers promoted Leighton to head coach, he was just 25. But Leighton clearly was up for the job. During his six years at Manhattan, the team never had a losing season and clinched two MAAC championships. Yet of his 220+ wins, none was bigger than the Jaspers’ 2006 upset at #6 Nebraska during the opening round of the College World Series- a game where ace pitcher and 2004 NECBL All-Star Chris Cody beat Joba Chamberlain and where fellow NECBL All-Stars Matt Rizzotti and John Fitzpatrick slammed back to back homers to send a shocked Red Sea into silence. (Rizzotti, incidentally, won the NECBL’s Sportsmanship Award in 2005.)
Leighton’s program was also honored by the NCAA in 2008 for being among college baseball’s top 10% in the Administration’s Academic Progress Report (APR).
Two seasons ago, Leighton changed his commute slightly. He now skippers the Atlantic 10’s Fordham Rams in the Bronx. Fordham is sending players to Danbury in 2013- the place where Leighton himself teamed with his twin brother Brian to earn All-NECBL honors in 1998, and where Kevin played two additional seasons in ’99 and ’00. The Westerner, who is the first NECBL graduate to head up a Division I program, recently took time out to field some questions from NECBL.com.
NECBL.com: Kevin, what sticks out from your time in Danbury as a player?
Kevin Leighton: “1998 was the summer I played a full term. In 1999 and 2000, I was there but didn’t play a lot because of injuries. I didn’t get to play pro baseball but I imagine that is what it must be like as far as the environment, the travel and the guys on the team. We would jump in the vans and take a ride to Keene, play a game up there in front of a couple of thousand and then get back in and go home. You’re going from town to town, driving all over the place. It was a lot of fun when you got to play in front of a big crowd.”
(Note: Leighton never played pro ball but he had a chance. The Phillies’ drafted him out of high school in 1997)
NECBL.com: You’ve been to the NECBL as a player so you know first hand what summer ball is all about. As a manager, what do you hope your players get from summer ball?
KL: “We try to match them up with a League or program where we feel they can contribute. We don’t want guys sitting around, but rather where they are wanted as much as we want them there. Also, we want a place where we feel they will be comfortable. The hard part of that is knowing the kid and if he wants to be close to home or far away. We try our best to accommodate that without missing out on opportunities. In a league like the NECBL, they can play against some of the best competition.”
Former Danbury GM and NECBL Commissioner Mario Tiani on Kevin Leighton: “One of my favorites when I was GM of the Westerners. Kevin Leighton played for me in 1998 with his brother Brian (a power hitting 1st baseman), and in 1999, where his season was cut short by a season ending thumb injury. Kevin was a local kid from Brewster NY and a no brainier recruit for me: a power hitting, lefty catcher who hit seven homers in 1998. Kevin was a great kid on and off the field, the kind of player you wanted on your team. He was a real general behind the plate. Pitchers respected his game calling and receiving. A real clutch player, the type of player I wanted at the plate when the game was on the line. Kevin was a great student of the game. I could tell early on, regardless if he made it as a professional player, that he would have a career in Baseball.”
NECBL.com: How did you get into coaching? What was the segue to Manhattan?
KL: “I was very fortunate. When I was in college, I worked a few camps with Steve Trimper, who is at UMaine now but was with Manhattan at the time. He lived in the town that I grew up in and there was a previous relationship. When I graduated from Seton Hall, he offered me the grad assistant spot at Manhattan and I basically was a volunteer for baseball. That turned into a part time position, which then turned into a full time position.”
NECBL.com: You were a real young buck when you were hired as Manhattan’s head coach. How did you make sure your youth was not an issue with your players?
KL: “I was lucky in the sense that I was at the program as an assistant. When I was an assistant at 22, I was able to establish the line of ‘coach.’ They knew that, and being in the program as an assistant then being the head coach, all of the guys were familiar with me and they always treated me as a ‘superior’ or whatever you want to call it. I give them a lot of credit, especially from my younger days. I was very fortunate in that I had good teams and good coaches but I didn’t do anything special other than creating the line.”
NECBL.com: What was the biggest surprise going from a player to a coach? I’m sure you had misconceptions about coaching when you were a player.
KL: “Going from a player to an assistant, you never realize how difficult it is, how much time is involved, how much of your life is invested into the 35 guys on your team along with the guys that you are recruiting. As a player, you just kind of figure that guys would want to come and that recruiting is easy. You never realize the challenge of going from a player to an assistant.
“The one thing I can say about going from an assistant to a head coach that people have told me is that it’s like having kids or buying a house: you never know if you’ll be ready for it so you just do it. When the opportunity came about, I wanted the opportunity and challenge but I didn’t know if I was ready to be a head coach. Even now, you’re constantly worrying about things you can be doing, could be doing or should be doing.”
NECBL.com: One of your coaching highlights has to be Manhattan’s CWS win at #6 Nebraska, in a game that featured a slew of NECBL alumni. It might have been the biggest David vs. Goliath story of 2006. What stands out to you about the game?
KL: “That was an amazing experience. Going out there and playing at that stadium, was really the thrill of a lifetime for the guys- including myself. Everything about that experience was top notch. But regarding the game, I can tell you that I really wasn’t that nervous…because I really didn’t think we had much of a shot! As the game went on and we were beating them, I got more and more nervous in the dugout. I don’t think the guys could tell- at least I hope not- but I can tell you in the seventh inning it started getting more like ‘Oh man, now we’ve got to win this game.’
“Chris Cody could do that to one of the best teams in the country and I still think he could do it to high level pro guys. He knows how to pitch in any count. He could locate any pitch. He has a very good curveball, a good change and a good cutter. For a team like Nebraska, facing a lefty like Chris who topped out at 88 that day and threw more junk than hard stuff can be difficult. I think they were more looking for a right hander who threw 90-92 like they are used to seeing. If you know Chris, he is a quiet, shy kid and the nicest guy in the world but on the mound he is such a competitor. It’s amazing how into the game he is, and how he would never back down no matter who he is facing. I remember in the 7th or 8th inning when his pitch count was up there, asking him ‘How are you feeling?’ and him replying ‘Do not take me out of this game.’ That’s the type of kid he was- he wasn’t thinking he could leave the game with a lead and be happy with that. He wanted to stick it out and get the win…or the loss.
“I remember how loud the crowd was and how quiet they were when Rizzotti and Fitz went back to back and how quiet it was when the last out was made. When Joba struck out two of three to start the first, the crowd was so loud. It was like nothing that I have experienced as a player or coach. We ended up with a number of guys who played in the NECBL and a lot of those guys went on to play pro or independent ball. Like you said, it was David vs. Goliath but we ended up having a very good roster. Still, that’s not how I would bet!”
NECBL.com: Do you have a coaching philosophy? Are there 1-2 things that you really emphasize with your team, or are their trademarks that you want a Kevin Leighton-coached team to display?
KL: “I took this from playing at Seton Hall with Coach Sheff. He kept saying ‘Never lose your hustle.’ I don’t like to steal his quote but…I kind of took that with my team as a head coach. I wanted guys to show up every day, give everything they have and play hard. Whether its practice or games, I wanted to be known more as a blue collar type of team, a team that is not so concerned with looks but rather what the outcome is. Did we win or did we lose, not whether we look good. That is more of my style: I want guys to go after it and not back down.”
NECBL.com: What advice would you give someone coming to the NECBL who was interested in pursuing coaching as a profession?
KL: “It’s (pause), it’s a tough profession. I always remind myself how lucky I am that, especially at the Division I level, there are only about 300 head coaches so the job market is not very big! I would recommend that guys get an idea early- kind of like how I was lucky to have an opportunity before I graduated. If this is something that they want to pursue, coaching at college or junior college, then reach out to your current coach and make it known that they’re looking to get into that field.
“I played for Moe Morhardt at Danbury, who wasn’t a collegiate coach at the time but he had been previously. Had I known what I wanted to do with my life, I would have asked him how I go about this. Sometimes, we as coaches don’t know what every player wants to do with their lives, so if I had a kid who tells me that he wants to go into coaching, I will look out for that guy. If a position comes up with us, or I see volunteer spots that open I will certainly recommend him. But sometimes when they graduate, it is too late. I don’t know if you can prepare other than saying just that and expressing interest. It would be a good idea for that kid who is interested to get an idea of what it’s really like, but you can’t do an internship for it!
“We have a couple of guys going to Danbury this summer with Jamie Shevnick. He is at a different level than us, so maybe he has more turnover or more opportunities. Knowing him will create more coaching opportunities if guys know what they want and are willing to ask for it.”