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Former McNeese Athletic Director Tommy McClelland stands near the player tunnel and watches the end of the Spring Game. (Photo courtesy of Geaux Cowboys)

Former McNeese Athletic Director Tommy McClelland stands near the player tunnel and watches the end of the Spring Game. (Photo courtesy of Geaux Cowboys)

Fresh faces leading to big expectations

Last Modified: Tuesday, April 08, 2014 1:51 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Before he exited town, Tommy McClelland left a present for Bruce Hemphill.

It didn’t come in a box, in fact most would say it came from out of the box for McNeese.

McClelland’s last hire as athletic director of the Cowboys was baseball coach Justin Hill.

It came a couple years after his last big coaching hire, that of softball skipper Mike Smith.

Both have worked out quite nicely.

The two men have their teams in first place this year in the Southland Conference and more importantly changed the feel of each program.

What made their hires interesting is neither one had previous ties to either McNeese State or the area.

Smith came from California, Hill an LSU product hired from Louisiana-Monroe. Both were also getting their first real crack at Division I programs, though Smith did serve a year as interim at UC-Riverside.

The lack of local ties was the real change. In the past, McNeese seemed to hire McNeese people first.

It kept the locals happy, which is always good for the cash box. It also made some wonder if a few new ideas would be such a bad thing.

A couple of new faces and fresh perspectives have worked out on both the softball and baseball diamonds.

The two teams are a combined 20-6 in conference play and an even more impressive 25 games over .500 overall at 46-21.

“I didn’t hire them but I’m sure glad we got them,” said Hemphill, who is in his first year as the Cowboys’ AD. “They are both very good coaches who we hope will stick around for a long time.”

Realistically, that may be hard, or costly.

One thing about going out of the area to get coaches is they often are on the radar of other bigger programs, as well. Smith has already interviewed for a job last summer.

“That comes with the territory,” Hemphill said. “We want to get the best coaches we can and keep them for as long as we can. We want their loyalty while they are here.”

Hemphill, who is both local and one of those out-of-the-box hires himself, then said something even more interesting.

“Part of my job is to help our coaches get where they want to be professionally,” said the Sulphur product who has worked in athletic departments all over the country.

“If they want to get some place else they think is better for their family, then we will try to help them. What we want first and foremost are people who are willing to work their tails off while they are here.”

Hemphill seems to accept the game more than others around him. It’s not always about helping the old alma mater, this is a business and winning is the way all in the athletic department is judged. It’s what’s on that scoreboard that counts.

“Don’t get me wrong, I want coaches who want to be here and give McNeese everything they got,” Hemphill said. “And I want good coaches who want to stay, but I’m in this for the long haul so we are going to do what is best for McNeese.”

Smith and Hill seem perfect fits for the school. Both are all business on the field with a touch of understanding about the kids.

They also are good at selling their programs, something they have in common with their athletic director.

“Both quickly became a part of the community and got their teams out in the area,” Hemphill said. “That’s a big thing for our school.”

On the field both are driven by a competitive fire that often comes steaming out of their ears.

After his team lost at LSU last week despite outplaying the Tigers for the first five innings, Hill said their was no such thing as a moral victory, sending a message to his players about the program’s expectations.

It’s the exact same message Smith has been giving his club for three years now.

When congratulated for winning the regular season Southland title last year, Smith was quick to point out his team wasn’t finished since they lost both of their tournament games.

It’s that kind of attitude in two sports often lost in the shuffle that make their hires interesting.

And both really want to beat their neighbors from Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

They know that would put their programs on the map of future recruits. Part of that might also be personal, you know good for their own futures, which is fine.

“When they win, we win,” Hemphill said. “It is good to have coaches who want to succeed and that will bring along interest.”

While he doesn’t want to turn McNeese into just a stepping stone, Hemphill also knows he can’t match dollar-for-dollar with bigger programs.

“We all have budgets to work with, but what we want to do is make McNeese a place where people want to come and work,” he said.

As the area grows and changes, and as the landscape of college sports does the same, it is good for McNeese to look where it can to find talent. This comes not only to coaches but also athletes.

“It is important to us to go out and find the talent that fits our school best,” Hemphill said. “If that happens to be somebody in our own backyard, that is great. If it is somebody from outside the area, then that is fine, too.

“We have to do what is in the best interest of McNeese State, both the university and athletics.”

Hemphill proved his point by giving credit to his predecessor for the hires of Smith and Hill. He knows when his teams are winning there is more than enough credit to go around.

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at

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