It really was an incontrovertible fact that one day Tim Reilly would be the head coach of a college baseball team.
So when Lafayette College named Reilly on March 25 to direct its baseball program, the reaction was something like, “Oh sure, that makes sense.”
Reilly, a catcher at Rutgers University and later an assistant at his alma mater, made an earlier stop as an assistant at Rider University. Along the way the young coach enjoyed he tutelage of such excellent baseball men as Fred Hill, Glen Gardner and Darren Fenster at Rutgers and 16-year Rider University mentor Barry Davis. So, yes, quite a coaching foundation had been formed.
Reilly (at left in top photo) replaces much-admired 21-year Lafayette mentor Joe Kinney (at right in top photo), who had announced his intention to retire back in November. The accelerated pace of Lafayette’s coaching hire was ignited by the sudden end to the college season as the result of the coronavirus pandemic.
When Kinney informed Lafayette of his plans in November, Reilly, beginning his third season at the Patriot League school, threw his cap into the selection process.
“I had conversations at that point with our athletic director and sport administrator,” said Reilly. “I let them know my interest and how much it meant to me.”
Lafayette told Reilly it anticipated opening the position up to a national search. “I knew, for me, the next few months would be an on-the-job interview,” said Reilly.
What actually happened, Reilly so impressed the leaders of Lafayette’s athletic program during the following four months that it never opened the position to that national search, quickly turning the program over to a man who had helped construct the current Leopards’ roster.
“The season started, the virus hit a few weeks in and decisions were made pretty quickly, “ said Reilly.
The call comes
Reilly said he received a call on March 23 from Andrew Foster, Lafayette’s sports administrator for baseball, asking him if he was free on Wednesday (March 25). “I went in and sat down with him and our A.D. (Sherryta Freeman) and they said they noticed me and that I have a lot support among the players, parents and administrators. We want you to take over.”
While any hiring during a pandemic would be described as “under-the-radar,” Reilly’s ascension to the head coach job at Lafayette is big news in baseball circles. Reilly has worked with catchers, pitchers and hitters and has been deeply involved in the recruiting process at all three of his college stops. That makes Reilly’s face a familiar one to the tri-state baseball community.
“We have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work closely with Tim while he was at Rutgers, Rider and now Lafayette,” said Steve DiTrolio, Diamond Nation’s director of recruiting. “Our relationship has grown over the years and we are fired up for him and his new opportunity. It is very much deserved and we know he is going to do big things there.”
Reilly had teamed well with Kinney and his staff the past few seasons to build a young nucleus at Lafayette and set up a promising future for the program.
“Joe is one of the best,” said Reilly. “He really taught me a lot about what it’s like to be a head coach in regard to handling a staff, the daily ins and outs of the program, player communications and alumni and administration communications.
“Joe is an old school style baseball coach. Off the field, he’s a guy you can sit down and have a drink with. He has some great stories. I can’t thank him enough for his help through the interview process and in helping me take the next step in being successfully.”
Kinney leaves Lafayette knowing the program is in good hands.
“Tim has been a tremendous part of our team for the past three years and has had a phenomenal impact on our recruiting, player development and overall program operation,” Kinney said in a Lafayette press release. “His experiences have prepared him to be a head coach and will help guide him as the leader of Lafayette baseball. I am confident he will take Lafayette baseball to new heights.”
There is no blueprint for taking over a college baseball program in the middle of a pandemic, so Reilly’s day-to-day in the wake of the season being cancelled is a brand new learning process. With no games, organized practices and the enforcement of social distancing, coaches at every level are hamstrung.
“There’s been a lot of phone calls to players, our incoming 2021 guys and alums,” says Reilly, who is forced to make intros from a distance instead of face-to-face. “I’m shooting out emails to introduce myself to our parent rep group. I’ve used Zoom, Google Hangout or Skype to reach people.”
There is plenty of internal planning ahead for the coming months and the fall that Reilly and his staff have had to do remotely. “There is a lot to do and you feel like you’re behind, but it’s only April,” he said. Reilly is months ahead of where he would be in planning if he hadn’t taken the Lafayette reins until late June.
“It does give you time to transition,” Reilly says, “and figure out what you want to do, including organizing fall practice.” Reilly says when he does have some down time he listens to podcasts and reads books in an effort to educate himself further in the game. “It’s a little personal development.”
On Monday, the NCAA granted all college athletes who compete in spring sports an extra year of eligibility. That development will have huge ramifications nationally but won’t impact the Lafayette program directly in September. Lafayette does not offer graduate programs.
“We have six seniors, seven counting our student manager, and four already have jobs,” says Reilly. “Two of our seniors are still discussing their options in transferring to start in a masters program at anther school.”
So the freshmen entering Reilly’s program in September, “will get the exact same experience at Lafayette we promised,” he said. That said, Reilly says the day he had to tell his seniors that the season was over “was one of the tougher days I’ve had as a coach. To tell a group of seniors they were done was rough. No one will take a baseball season for granted again.”
What’s next for high school recruits?
Reilly, in a typical April or May, would be dashing off to a high school game on his team’s off day to observe players he and his staff have targeted for recruitment. That process has taken a hit; too, since the high school season had been shutdown through April and a full cancellation of the season looming.
Instead of rushing off to parts of New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania, Reilly, like the rest of us, must wait out the pandemic.
“I don’t think losing a spring season is huge from a recruiting standpoint, but it is from a player development standpoint,” says Reilly. “A kid who pitches 30 or so innings in the spring is going to be ready to go in June when the summer season starts. Now that kid is not going to be as sharp. It’s going to take him a month to get in shape. One of the things I’m worried about for our guys and the high school kids is injuries. It’s hard to stay in shape without going to a field or a weight room.
“I’m afraid guys will jump on the mound while not quite ready. We’re going to see injuries. I hope not.”
Lafayette is a Division 1 school but has different recruiting parameters Reilly was used to at Rutgers and Rider. Division 1 schools have 11.7 baseball scholarships to spread among their rosters. Lafayette, however, offers limited scholarships and assorted financial aid packages, some of which are tied to academic achievement.
“It took a little adjusting to after Rutgers,” says Reilly of the recruitment process. “We are still looking for the best kid, the kid who can be at the top at a top school. It’s a different scholarship model than Rutgers so we have to be creative in our financial aid under different regulations. From an evaluation standpoint, it’s a very similar talent wise, just a different pool of kids. The kids we recruit are also being recruited by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Georgetown.”
Reilly says he’s is at the heavy recruiting stage in regard to the class of 2021 and is “identifying the ’22 class.” Complicating matters, however, the NCAA announced on April 1 that the recruiting “dead period,” initially March 13 to April 15, has been extended to May 31. Reilly suggests, “It’s not time to panic.
“You have to be patient. We’ll take some time to see how this and other rule changes affects different groups, college, high school, guys going into the MLB draft.”
Through it all, Reilly is also charged with creating a winning culture at Lafayette, one that will inevitably aid recruitment. He has the benefit of having not only a head start into next school year but he will also benefit from already having a profound effect on the formation of Lafayette’s past three classes.
“Having been here a couple years, I have an idea the kind of kid we are looking for,” says Reilly. “Coach Hill used to tell me, ‘whether you like it or not, you recruit yourself in the process. So, when you are frustrated with a kid, look at yourself.’ It is true and I’ve been able to recruit guys who have the attributes I want.”
Reilly says he’s fortunate to have players, “with a thirst for knowledge, work hard, don’t take shortcuts and are always looking for a better way to achieve things. I like to be organized. I have a plan, a lot of structure to a practice. But we listen to a players input. I hope they learn as much from me as I do from them.”
Reilly, in the end, can lean on that terrific line of coaches who’ve tutored him on the specifics of effective coaching.
“Coach Hill has had a huge effect on me,” says Reilly. “Those little bits of knowledge, little snippets that probably didn’t mean a lot to him, resonated with me and got me started.
“Glen Gardner was the first one to teach me how to recruit. And coach always remembers your birthday. He calls you on your birthday. He taught me a lot about relationships. That’s what really matters.
“Darren Fenster was the first one who kind of asked me if I wanted to be a student assistant. I can’t say enough about Darren. He’s been an awesome influence on me.” Reilly also points to two other Rutgers assistants, Rick Freeman and Jay Blackwell, for guiding him. “Rick sent me a card with a quote from John Wooden that said, ‘you can’t do anything about yesterday. The only way to improve tomorrow is today.”
His stop at Rider provided additionally benefits working under the 900-win Davis. “Barry had a completely different approach to practice. Coach Hill was a pro style coach. His practices were like spring training, the same thing every day. Barry’s was organized and structured but, at the same time, guys didn’t know what to expect. It moves fast and it’s creative. It’s hard to go through the motions. You had to be on your toes. I learned a lot from that.”
Davis had no doubt in Reilly’s ability to lead.
“Tim is a motivated young man with above the line integrity,” said Davis. “Above all, Tim is a baseball guy. HIs desires to become a head coach at the D-1 level were evident from the day I met him when he walked onto Pittaro Field. He excelled as my assistant and I knew, eventually, he would get his opportunity. All of the Lafayette supporters and players should be excited to have a young man who brings the leadership qualities Tim has.”
Lafayette loses two starting outfielders and their first baseman but returns much of its 2020 team in September.
“Our freshmen this year took their lumps early but showed they can handle it,” Reilly said. “We’re excited about our freshmen coming in next year and the guys we have coming back.
“I love going to work every day. We have 35 guys on the roster and there’s not a guy I have a problem with. It’s a just the best group of well-rounded people I’ve met. They are a driven force.”
NOTES: Tim Reilly spent six seasons (2012-’17) as an assistant at Rutgers working closely with the catchers while also serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator.
His first college coaching gig was at Rider in 2011 and he was also head coach of the Monmouth Monarchs, a collegiate summer team. After a four-year career behind the plate for the Scarlet Knights, Reilly was a student assistant coach at his alma mater in 2010. He played scholastically at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon.
Lafayette was 4-10 when the outbreak of coronavirus halted the 2020 season.