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Sunday Chat: The Odd Couple, Fitz-Gerald & Hofman

This week’s Sunday Morning Chat is a treat for longtime Broward baseball fans. Douglas Manager Todd Fitz-Gerald has a state and national championship from his days at American Heritage. Rich Hofman is the most celebrated high school baseball manager in Florida’s history. Three summer’s ago, the two hooked up to run the Hof-Fitz summer program, and this year, Fitz-Gerald convinced Hofman to sign on as a top lieutenant and bench coach. The results have been stellar. Having coached with Hofman, and been friends with Fitz-Gerald for many years, it is my pleasure to bring you an exclusive interview with two of the most successful managers in Broward history. Enjoy!

Anthony: Alright, so I have a little history with both of you guys for a while now and I thought this was a good opportunity to do something unique for Broward fans with you guys joining together this year in our first dual interview with two coaches at once. So, let’s start off with how this partnership started. Fitz, tell me how you and Hof joined forces a few years back.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: Well, I have known Rich for a long time and his son used to coach with me at Heritage for a little bit so we have always had that relationship there. Then a few summers ago we just started talking when I came over here about summer ball and trying to get something started. We went out and had some breakfasts, and met for lunch, and we just kind of sat down and threw our stuff together and thought that our whole thing is we want to coach our kids in a stable, disciplined, program. Soon after that, we decided on keeping all of the Douglas kids together and all the incoming kids together and going from there. But, our goal is to eventually have a 14, 15, 16, 17 down the road. But, right now we are just really focusing on developing the incoming guys and the JV guys. Rich was on board, I was on board. He coaches very good with the practice stuff and bringing people in to help with the program, so it’s been great.

Anthony: Coach, you have been bouncing around a bit, from Piper, to University, and SLAM, the past couple years. You are also the most successful manager in Florida history. So, when did you think you could start to work with Fitz as an assistant coach?

Coach Hofman: Well, our relationship in the summer was great. We hit it off right away because Fitz doesn’t have an ego, and I do, but we clicked. We combined and talked about his philosophy, my philosophy, and what we did was just kind of formulated our Hof-Fitz philosophy, which is what our summer program is all about. It’s all really the transition from when I became available this year. He said, ‘Let’s do it full time.’ And, I had no reservations at all because our working relationship before that was really great.

Anthony: Let’s talk a little bit regarding summer baseball and regarding the state of high school baseball now. You guys are even having some hard times finding some kids in the summer, even with both of your resumes so strong. So talk a little bit about what that really says about the state of baseball right now.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: For me, I think that a lot of these kids are being sold on a pipe dream; a showcase here, a showcase there. Their parents will spend $400 for a weekend and then send the kid to showcase, he’ll pitch two innings, where they could be with us for nine weeks and get three days in the weight room, and two practices a week, 20-25 games, but understand and learn how to play the game. That’s our biggest argument. These kids go off to these summers and they have no structure; they have no routine. They come back here and you have to spend the whole fall de-programming them to get them back on the same page with us. If we can get to the point, Coach and myself, where we have our kids all year long, we think we can do something very, very special.

Anthony: You have anything to add to that?

Coach Hofman: Yes, I agree with all of that. I think possibly for the very, very top of the league kids, those summer programs are good because the scouts like to see all of the guys they are going to draft. But what is that, 1%, 2% of all of the kids? That’s it. What is this whole thing about? It’s a layered, tiered thing. And the parents don’t understand it. They are just like the little league parents that see themselves at Williamsport on national television and none of them ever have a chance to even go there; but it’s just a dream. So, they spend all of this money for their kids to do that and they are sold a bill of goods.

What is really happening is that, at a lot of these programs guys are making money doing this. This is really what their goal is. Yes, indirectly it is to help kids, but, their goal really is to make money. So if you are a good marketer, and you do a good job programming and everything, and you get enough business, your mid-range kids or your kids that are really going to struggle to play college baseball are supporting the guys that are the elite players, because the elite players don’t pay to go or they pay very little. So, what’s happening is, it’s a pyramid system really where the guy at the top gets all the breaks and all the people at the bottom are paying for the bill.

The big thing, we have said this from day one, for us, in the summer, it’s about teaching the game. That’s why we practice more than we play. And I don’t think most travel programs do that. And, of course, we are a little selfish and most of the kids are in our program, not all of them, we have outside kids that come in to play, but we treat them exactly the same. Obviously we are also developing a mindset for Douglas baseball and that is their secondary goal or ultimate goal eventually, because that is what the kids’ goal is, too. It’s like baseball at the next level and we try to get them there.

Anthony: Fitz, what is Hof’s role and how important it is to the overall success of the team?

Coach Fitz-Gerald: He is the man. He is fun to be around. I like Coach. Like you said earlier, I am not one of those guys that has an ego. We kind of coincided. We brought our philosophies together. He brought over some things that we didn’t do before. He is very knowledgeable. He is a great teacher. And more importantly than that, for the first time in a long time, for him, he is having fun. And he comes out here everyday with a smile on his face, ready to work, and wants to make the kids better, has the same goal in mind as I do. He’s my bench guy. He works with our hitters. We coincide together. We do the defense together and everything. We run all of that together. But just during games, he is extremely focused, sees things that maybe some of the younger guys don’t see. Makes points in the dugout, that’s a big help. He understands and knows what I am trying to do at third base. I can look into the dugout and we can be on the same page. I am thinking something and he is, too. So, in that retrospect he is very valuable. He is a great asset to the program. I am very happy that he is here.

Anthony: And Coach, you mentioned it before that, for years, people have accused you of having a big ego, most likely a product from all the winning that you have done. But, taking the backseat dispels that notion a little bit. So how hard is it to have always made the big decisions and now having to watch someone else, in the heat of a game, make those decisions?

Coach Hofman: First of all maybe by definition, clarifying ego. Confidence, I would say. I am very confident in what I know about the game and how to do it. And I try to, through osmosis, get that through to the players. So, everybody has some ego. If you don’t, you’re in trouble. But it is based on confidence, hard work and all the things that make you successful.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: Yeah, Coach is really set in a lot of some of the things that he does because he has been doing it his way for so long. But, also understands that if I want something done a certain way, then we will do it that way. Or we will come to an understanding. Maybe my way and your way, we can tweak it together. It is really good. Honestly, I think the way we teach the double-play is outstanding. You know the way Coach has put that in is a benefit for us. It’s just a lot of little things that get overlooked at times. Because again, honestly, I have a bunch of part-time guys here that are very good coaches, we have a wealth of knowledge on the staff but, at the end of the day, there are really only two full-time guys. So, with him being here, as well, that is huge help.

Coach Hofman: I have no trouble, whatsoever, with this situation. In fact, I am enjoying it. But, it is a very difficult thing in most cases to do that, so that is why this is the only place I would be right now. And Fitz, because he does have that confidence, he does allow me to still coach. But, we will argue a little bit, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this’ or ‘Well, you need to do it because of…’ But ultimately he makes the final decision. All of us coaches give our opinion and he listens. But, he makes the line-ups, he’s making the calls, and so forth and so on. Our pitching coach, Vaughn, he played for me at Academy so we have a bond here and we’ll go at it a little bit sometimes, but ultimately, he’s the boss. And, I don’t have to make any decisions, but to be honest with you, the way I coach, I coach just like I am a head coach here because I want to win. I want to be successful and I put the same amount of effort and energy into being an assistant coach as I do a head coach. I think what is really helpful for him is, I know what he is going through. And, so I can anticipate things that he can use help on without him having to say anything. OK, at times I am going to rip him, because in some cases, I think we need a little more structure here, and I am a little more structured. But, together the whole thing is coming together really beautifully.

Anthony: And you guys both hit on this point that I was going to bring it up a little bit later, but how important is it, as successful as you both have been, you both have always been great at delegating to your coaches, and always have had people around you that you have given a lot of responsibility to. I know that firsthand with you, Coach Hofman, but how important is that? Because a lot of coaches these days try to make all of the decisions themselves and even further than that, the preparation of the two of you, there isn’t a lot of in-game decisions because of the preparation beforehand. Talk a little about that.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: I think we have a great coaching staff here. Vaughn played for Coach Hofman; he played for me. So, from the pitching standpoint, he’s got the pitchers. I’ll make the pitching decisions, but he trains our pitchers. Joey trains our infielders. Coach oversees that. The outfielders, Coach Bonner takes the outfielders. I’ll oversee that. Then, as a collective staff, as a unit, we will come together and say this, this, and this. This is what we need to do, this is the guys we think that give us our best chance. And then we have a great young coach, Andrew Medina, who runs our JV program, during the summers, as well, and is here religiously non-stop even when the varsity is here. And, he is trying to learn it. He’s picking Coach’s brain; he’s picking my brain. He has a lot of enthusiasm. We have a really, really good unit here. And I think that is critical to have guys that you can trust. I have two young boys of my own, and Coach’s boys are all grown, so if I have to leave a little early to go watch them or go coach them, I know that we’re good. You know, I have no problems. He’s going to take care of the situation.

Coach Hofman: I think the key word is trust. Can you trust your assistants? When you coached, I knew you had a plan for the outfielders, and with strategy, and you knew the game, so I trusted you. But I think assistant coaches have to earn trust, too. So, for a lot of the time, I had to do it all myself. Maybe that’s why I am so dominating when it comes to practices now. I really am. When I first started, I was it. And maybe I had one assistant that can hit fungos. So, it’s a different experience and over time, I have had some great ones, Gino DiMare, who was with me for a year. It was a great year. I have had other people, Dave, my son, who was a pitching coach, just like Vaughn over here. I never called a pitch for the last two or three years we were together. When you coached, I knew I could trust you. I just think that if you believe these guys can get it done, and you know if they can or not, the longer you have been at it, hopefully, the more you have accumulated. But, it ultimately comes down to you have to trust your guys because you can’t do it all yourself.

Anthony: So, we talked about all the good things that go along with you guys working together. Obviously there are times when you guys are going to butt heads or have different philosophies on things. Tell me something specifically that you guys have a different philosophy on, a specific situation or a play or something.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: I don’t know that I would say difference in philosophy, but he’s crazy. The guy is crazy.

(all laughing)

Back in the days, kids were a little different than they are today. If I give them a day off for conditioning, that’s where we squabble. He doesn’t want that. He says, ‘You’re too easy’ or whatever. But, no, you have to understand that’s just the makeup of the kids these days and you want to keep them fresh. But, at the same end, I totally get what he is saying, because conditioning is very valuable and often overlooked, not paid enough detail or attention to. So, in that retrospect, that is one of the things that we argue about. Honestly, we don’t argue. We poke at each other. We have fun with each other. I don’t see it. He loves to talk; he is a great teacher. Sometimes I would rather talk later and work now, and he wants to get the point across right now. Again, that’s Coach’s way and that is no problem. Those are just some little things. Like, I said, nothing big at all. I think we are on the same page 99.9% of the time.

Coach Hofman: Well, it got really bad one day. He said, ‘Shut up, old man! Let’s get going.’ (Laughs) But, I mean, if you understand where it is coming from, that’s your personality and that’s your outlook on life. And the kids get a mix of that and that is good. One thing I hated most was hitting on the field. And he believes in hitting on the field. So, we don’t agree on that and we duked it out. But, what I did, instead of standing there all day, watching them, and watching them try to jerk everything out on the park and not situational hitting, I went to the batting cages. I throw every day that we have practice. I throw to all 15 hitters. And I can teach there. And I have made them do it the way I want them to do it. Now, they don’t always follow through. And I tell them, ‘In the games do what you are used to doing. But, if you do it long enough here, eventually I think you might see it translate to games.’ And they bought into that, which has really made me feel good. I am surprised a little, to be honest with you, because kids today just want to do it the way they want to do it.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: To interrupt, and to piggy back off of that. I can vouch for the fact that they are doing it. Because today they had the opportunity to hit on the field before the game, and instead they all said they wanted to go down to the cage. They wanted to work on their routine, so that is good.

Coach Hofman: And a combination is good. As long as they have to do specific things on the field, too. Just stuff like that. I guess the reason why I say that is because as I go back to memory lane, I know how hard we worked and I know that even today, if it is reasonable and they can see it, that’s cool, they’ll buy into it. And they have. It’s early yet, so the proof will be down the road, but Fitz has already been successful. I am just trying to get them to that one more notch and help out in that little bit. The one thing I love is working with guys that have athletic abilities. These kids have some good athletic ability that I was used to a decade ago. So that makes it fun, too.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: I can tell you this: nobody is going to outwork us. On the field or when it comes to scouting, nobody is going to outwork us.

Anthony: One of the biggest things I see is young coaches coming in and wanting to reinvent the wheel, or do things their way. So, do you think you guys could have done this 15 years ago, and how much do you think your knowledge and personal growth over the last 15-20 years allowed this to happen?

Coach Fitz-Gerald: Well, I mean, I did do it 15 years ago. But I think, for me, I am always wanting to learn, always. That’s why I go to the national clinics every year. That’s why I get with guys like Coach Hof and other great coaches, legendary coaches, and try and pick their brains. The problem is, you hit the nail on the head. People see Coach Hofman as someone with a great big ego. But it’s not the ego; it’s the confidence. But, if you take a moment to go up and talk to him and ask him questions, he’s never going to push anyone away. People are scared to talk to him, and they take their own insecurities and turn them into, ‘He is arrogant, and has a big ego.’ But nothing is farther from the truth. He will sit there and talk baseball all night long if you want to do that. People don’t understand that. He’s got 1,000 wins for a reason. Not by chance. He’s had great players over time, and, a key point that everyone overlooks, is he has developed great players. There are a lot of coaches that have had great players, that have not had the success that Coach has. The proof is in the pudding. So, don’t knock, or be jealous. And I say that people are jealous because they want to be like him and that’s why they don’t talk to him. When people talk negative about someone, it’s because they want to be like him. That’s the attitude I have. Because they can’t beat you. Understand?

Coach Hofman: I think it works. Everybody develops their systems. You can call it whatever you’d like…systems, philosophies, whatever. If it works, it will work at any level, at any age. And when I teach, I never teach anything different because that is what works for me. You tweak things, sure. I spent my whole life learning the game, and I am still learning. Whatever I do is about learning baseball, if I know that guy has been successful, I try to read everything I can about it and about why. Because we can always grow; You can always do something different.

Some of the greatest players, (Alex) Rodriguez, that never went to college, but they went through the same system. But, the most important thing, and we haven’t even talked about this, is life lessons. These kids are learning some life lessons that they will use for the rest of their lives about discipline, about doing little things the right way, about attention to detail, about everybody being on the same page, and that is what parents today have a little trouble understanding if their kids don’t play.

They don’t see the value of them being in the program. They just see the value of playing. So, I’ll say this, Fitz does a good job at trying kids in the lineup. Sometimes I say, ‘Why are you giving other kids a shot?’ Because my philosophy is we only have 22 games and I want to win every single game of the year. There are a lot of coaches out there that it doesn’t matter what they do until they get to the playoffs. And so what happens? They get to the playoffs and they get to the first game and they lose. So does that mean the whole season was a waste? I want us to compete at the highest level every single game. Fitz does a great job of mixing and matching with match-ups. Sometimes Vaughn and I will question him on his pitching choices and we will get into it. But, what the heck? He gets credit for all the wins and he gets credit for all of the losses. So, he has to make that decision. If he lets me make a decision and his mind is unclear, that he should have done that, then he will always be pissed at me. So, that’s how I feel. And when I was the head coach, I said I gotta make the final decision because I am going to get the blame or the credit.

Anthony: Alright, last question, you guys both won state titles individually. We saw recently in the NBA, big names started to team up to win titles and it has changed the game of basketball, really. Now you guys have the chance to change the coaching landscape by doing kind of the same thing, something, like I said before, that has never really been done in this aspect. So, what would it mean for you guys to win a state title together? Fitz, you first.

Coach Fitz-Gerald: First and foremost, I think it would be fantastic. Obviously, the ultimate goal every year is to be a state champion. So, to do it together and understand that we have talked about this for several years. It hasn’t been something we talked about for months. We have been together for three years coaching summer baseball and I finally got him to come over. I think, for him, Coach is 70 years old, and hopefully he has another 10 years in him, but he is on the back end of his career and I’m sure he wants to get another one. I still have a few more years left in me so I definitely I want to get another one. And, more importantly, its really not so much for us, because we have had ours, but for these kids. They pay that price everyday. They work everyday. They come to work everyday. They do what we do. They do what we tell them to do. They buy in, and they work hard, and they deserve that opportunity as well. We want to get them there and we feel like we can get them there.

Coach Hofman: I always said that the first one was for me. Every other one is for the kids. So, the last nine have been for the kids. The first one was for me. Now this is the first one with us together. But, I think we both feel like we have had our accolades, we’ve had our honors, but we still, every year, we have that burning desire to be successful. There is no greater feeling in the world than to be in a dog pile on the last game of the season. I have been fortunate enough to do it ten times and he’s done it a time and it is really what you set out to do because you want your kids to have that experience. Until they do, they don’t really understand, that’s why we preach it so much and so hard. And it’s not easy.

There is no guarantee just because I am here and he is here and we have the best staff around, there is no guarantee we are going to get there, because the kids still have to perform. I think our chances are getting better the longer we are together. Because if you look at the staffs that have been most successful over the years, they have usually been together for a while and everybody is on the same page. There was a period when I went to the last game eight years in a row and won the last seven of them. And, I thought it was easy. We worked hard but I thought it was easy. Now, I haven’t won a district game in ten years. It’s not easy. So, it would be nice to win a district game this year and be able to build on that and get back on top.

Anthony: Thanks, guys, and good luck the rest of the season!

Coach Fitz-Gerald: Thank you Ant.

Coach Hofman: Thanks U.T.

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