For Karl Kuhn, Radford University’s second-year head baseball coach, winning on the scoreboard is obviously important, but so is coaching his players to win in the tougher game of life.
Kuhn talks about process, and Kuhn’s process begins with three simple words: athletic, competitive and tough.
“Coach told us in our first meeting that we were going to change Radford baseball,” outfielder Anthony Galati said. “He told us that we were going to play smart, tough baseball, and the sky was the limit. Hearing that from someone who has won a College World Series opened our eyes and excited us.”
Kuhn — or Coach K’s as he is affectionately known to seemingly everyone — began instilling these virtues as soon as he arrived in Radford.
That was in August 2019, when he was introduced as the Highlanders’ sixth baseball coach at a news conference in the Dedmon Center. Wearing a suit and tie, transitioning to Radford red and white and out of the blue and orange he donned for more than a decade and a half as the pitching coach at the University of Virginia, Coach Kuhn spoke about goals he had for his players, on and off the diamond.
“The mark of a good coach is to make a player a better player,” Kuhn said that day. “The mark of a good leader is to make a man a better man. I am committed to doing both.”
Helping his players become better at baseball — and life — is a goal Coach K’s has been striving for and achieving for years.
Kuhn made his way to Charlottesville in 2004 and began what would become an immensely successful tenure as the Cavaliers’ pitching coach. Through his 16 years there, he established himself as one of the best in college baseball.
Coach K’s mentored pitchers who helped UVa win a national championship in 2015 and earn four trips to Omaha, Nebraska — every Division I baseball player’s field of dreams — to compete in the College Baseball World Series. In 2014, Kuhn was named the Collegiate Baseball National Pitching Coach of the Year.
Awards and accolades can go only so far, but memories and relationships are the emotional pieces that complete life’s journey.
Just ask Chesdin Harrington.
A simple question from Coach K’s surprised Harrington as his UVa baseball team wrapped up one of their final practices of the 2019 college baseball season:
“Do you want to have a catch?”
“Yes,” Harrington quickly replied to Kuhn.
As he recounted the story, you can hear the emotion in Harrington’s voice. The simplicity of having a catch, tossing a baseball back and forth and hearing the pop of the glove, often evokes a special bond between coaches and players, between fathers and sons.
“So, we tossed the ball a little,” Harrington, the former UVa pitcher, recalled of that April afternoon in Charlottesville. He was holding out hope that his team would be playing in the postseason.
“But, I think in Coach’s mind — and I should have realized it too — that maybe that was the last time he and I were going to toss a ball to each other,” Harrington said. “We came in after a few minutes, and he gave me a big hug. I sensed a little emotion with him, certainly looking back on it. It brings out emotion in me, too. “I’ll always keep that memory with me,” Harrington said.
As Coach K’s transitioned to his new Radford home, his process of molding the Highlanders into his image of a good baseball team took time and spawned a rollercoaster of early results. The Highlanders opened the 2020 season with three wins, but they followed their early success with seven losses in eight games.
Then the team hit a hot streak, winning five games in a row. Bats were hot. Pitching was solid. The team was forming a bond as tight as the 108 red stitches that bind together a baseball.
“I think we were finally gaining the confidence we needed to become the best team we could be,” Galati said.
Soon thereafter, the unimaginable happened. The spread of COVID-19 threw a knee-buckling curveball — at everyone — and presented unprecedented challenges. Radford University and other colleges across the United States transitioned to online instruction, and soon the NCAA cancelled all 2020 spring sports.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to have our season cut short,” said catcher Straton Podaras, a senior on the 2020 Radford squad. He will be back on the team in 2021 as a graduate student working on his MBA. “We hit some speed bumps and lost some tough games, but we were gaining momentum,” Podaras said.
The Highlanders played only 17 games and finished 9-8 under Coach K’s in the shortened 2020 season, but they quickly took on the personality and enthusiasm of their coach.
“I think their energy was different,” Kuhn said. “A lot of our seniors have told me that this was the closest team they’ve been on. This team grew individually and collectively an enormous amount.”
Losing the season, however, was a tremendous blow to Kuhn, his coaches and their players.
Anyone who follows baseball knows it is a humbling game built on failure. Failure makes baseball players better, Coach K’s believes, and as former ballplayer and sporting goods entrepreneur Albert Spalding once said, “Baseball is a man-maker.”
The principles Kuhn teaches are man-makers, too. And, baseball, he says, is a “gimmick” to teach life.
“Less than 1% of these guys will go on to play professional baseball,” Kuhn said. “Well, these guys are going to be 99.9% fathers, husbands and leaders in business and industry.”
The words the Radford players use to describe their new coach sound similar, as if they have read and studied a script. In a way, they have. It’s the script and guidance Coach K’s is using to direct his young players into maturity on the field, in the classroom and in life.
“He treats us like men and talks to us like men,” Galati said. “He always tells us that he wants us to be good players, but it’s not possible if we aren’t good men first. I respect that a lot.”
–Chad Osborne, Radford University