#11. The Firing of William Greg Van Zant
Speaking of Mountaineer baseball, another major event during the offseason was the transition of Greg Van Zant as head coach to Randy Mazey.
On May 20th, Greg Van Zant was fired after 18 years of service. Van Zant compiled a 528-451-1 record in his coaching career in Morgantown, but by the end of the 90s it had become crystal clear to those in the know that the program was solidly stuck in mediocrity. This rut continued for the next 10 years plus as former Athletic Director Ed Pastilong showed no interest in emphasizing the program. He saw Van Zant as a cheap and safe option that was able to grind out winning seasons against poor competition. At a school like WVU, you can only emphasize so many Olympic sports and with both soccers, gymnastics and wrestling being prioritized, baseball was never going to make the list.
Early on in Oliver Luck’s tenure as athletic director, he has set an expectation that each and every coach of WVU sports programs will be held to high standard, and will be expected to have defined path to success, regardless of inherent disadvantages. West Virginia is hardly known as a hot bed for baseball talent or even a desirable place to play the sport, but frankly, you could make similar excuses for any sport outside of Rifle.
To some, the news of this change of direction may come as back burner item that garners little interest, but for those who have followed the team for years, know that the story goes deeper.
If you ever spend time around members of the athletic staff, current or former, and they have a drink or two, ask them about their favorite “GVZ” story. You are guaranteed to see a smile and a get a good laugh. Likely, the first story will roll into the second and third. Some of the stories are harmless, but most are simply bizarre. Through the years there have been stories about players taking 2 liters of Coca-Cola into Golden Corral to save on program food costs, school issued equipment being withheld from players, refusals to issue a lineup prior to the game, post game arguments with communications staff about box scores (while subsequently allowing them to choose the DH for the day’s game) along with plenty of other stories that make you go, “huh”? Typically you have to take tall tales about coaches with a grain of salt, but the legend of GVZ is a deep and well covered verse.
Baseball is a unique sport. It is a sport that constantly deals in statistics (sliced and diced a hundred ways), superstitions, fundamentals, and constant arguments in baseball philosophy. More than any other sport, baseball has a way that you are supposed to play the game. No matter how much talent you have, the great teams play the game by way of time tested fundamentals. With that all said, GVZ always has a unique way of going about his business. He was known to have strange roster movements and an overzealous penchant for bunting. Small ball with aluminum bats simply doesn’t work. Unlike football, where we praise innovators such as Dana Holgorsen, in baseball you rarely want to be the odd “genius”.
Bizarre personality traits and managerial record aside, the most damning criticism of Van Zant’s tenure is probably the poor student athlete experience fostered on his watch. Talk to former players and staff and they will tell you that his treatment of players at times was rude at best and abusive at worst. While many coaches are harsh at practice only to have a close, friendly relationship with players off the field, you never got that sense with Van Zant. Many players transferred, quit outright, or simply endured him for four years. For every player horror story you hear, the only counter point you will get that is even close to a positive is a former player saying “He was my coach and I had to respect him.” It is also widely known that he would sabotage assistant coaches’ efforts to move on to better programs and the subsequent better wage that those programs would afford.
Combine these awkward idiosyncrasies with his persistent mediocrity and you will get glimpse at why Luck made the decision to move in a different direction. While his record is not miserable at .539 for his career, his early season scheduling make’s Jim Boeheim’s pre-January basketball scheduling look like a gauntlet. In preparation for our Big XII schedule, we may want to schedule a few teams tougher than Eastern Kentucky, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Coppin State.
As stated in the article about the new stadium, the baseball culture in Morgantown is not a deep, developed culture, so to some, mediocrity in baseball may not be a big deal, but after years of grumbling from ex-players as well as other involved in the program, this moment is a cause for celebration for many fans. If you are in need of examples, take a moment to checkout gvz-sucks.com, a website dedicated to flaming on the former coach. While baseball is far from WVU’s signature sport, there certainly are many who sincerely care about the program, who laud the change.
To be fair, there is another side of the story, the side that often represents the under funded programs that exist in many of our nation’s athletic departments. Who better to tell the tale than Van Zant himself?
“We’re the only Division I program that I know of that doesn’t have a clubhouse or locker room with heat and lights and a bathroom,” Van Zant said. “Our players’ locker room is the trunk of their cars.
“It’s just like summer ball. The guys who live on campus get dressed in their dorm rooms. The guys who live off campus drive over to the field and literally get dressed out of the trunk of their cars.”
You can click here to read more of the article from the Daily Mail and more of his perspective, but in a nutshell, he explains what he has had to go up against in his 18 years of carrying the flag of program no one cared about. As excited as I am for the new baseball stadium, it must be bitter sweet to the man who had to deal with a career of recruiting kids to stadium that is often considered a dump.
It seems apparent that Luck is finally ready to do what the Pastilong administration wasn’t willing to do in investing in the baseball program. Unfortunately for Greg, Luck apparently didn’t feel that Greg was equipped to steer the new ship in the right direction. All we can hope is that with a new coach, a new stadium, and a new direction that we can elevate the program into a contender.