Jon Gold: Most athletic directors have a passion for a particular sport, and as a former baseball player, you’re clearly a baseball guy. Does that make this year’s run to the College World Series any more special for you?
Dan Guerrero: I go back to my senior year in high school, when I was being recruited by a number of schools. I chose UCLA during my senior year, which was also the first time UCLA went to Omaha, 1969. It was the Chris Chambliss year. I thought I would come to UCLA, play freshman ball my first year, and maybe have the opportunity to come to Omaha myself. That dream never got realized. As I followed UCLA baseball over the years, saw the legacy of the great players who’ve gone through this program, to know that only one other team since that year was able to achieve this goal was a pretty interesting scenario. To actually be a part of not only the team that came back, but the first team to win in it, is really special to me. If you wear the uniform, you always have pride in that, throughout your career. You yearn for the days when your team can not only do well but have the chance to play for something. Coming to Omaha gives us a chance to play for the big prize. So it’s not only special for me, it’s special for all the other guys who’ve played baseball at UCLA.
JG: Have you been here before for the College World Series??
DG: My first year at UCLA, I was on the committee. Mitch Barnhart was the athletic director at Oregon State and got the Kentucky job, so they needed a replacement for him. Since they knew I was a “baseball guy” – in fact, I’d been on the Division II baseball committee for four, five years – I was familiar with the ropes and knew what was expected, I served for a short time on that committee.
JG: You saw something in John Savage a while ago, but he didn’t have THAT much experience – and he’s still a young guy – what did you see in him, before UCLA, back at Irvine, that made you say, ‘This is the guy,” and hire him?
DG: I have to credit Chris Ault, the football coach and then athletic director at Nevada, for an assist in hiring John. He was not only very insightful, but prophetic. I was the athletic director at UC Irvine, and Chris was in our conference at that time, and whenever we had conference meetings, Chris would say, ‘Dan, if you’re ever to bring baseball back, you ought to give my son-in-law a look, he’s a pretty darn good pitching coach. He’s over at USC, and he’s a pretty good one.’ I followed John, and I watched what he did at USC, always in the back of my mind with the hope and aspiration to bring baseball back to Irvine. When I finally did have the opportunity to bring it back, John was on my short list. I knew I wanted to build a team that was fundamentally sound, that would be built on pitching and defense. We actually built Anteater Field to complement a coach that emphasized pitching and defense. I hired John, and he did not disappoint. We won a number of games that first year with anywhere from 24 to 27 freshmen and the second year we made it to the NCAAs.
JG: So you saw something there in him, and then you got the job at UCLA. Did have in the back of your mind that when you needed to make a hire, you knew who you were going to go with?
DG: I always had my sights set on John. When (former UCLA head coach Gary Adams) said it was time to retire, I knew I was going to have the opportunity to bring a new coach in. This was a guy who does it the right way, he loves the game, and he’s a baseball guy, there’s no question about it. A baseball guy in every way, shape and form. I knew that he’d be able come in and give us the components we needed to not only continue to put Bruins in the Major Leagues, but to actually get us over the hump and give us the chance to win championships. We’re getting there.
JG: Are you just a baseball guy? Is it hard as an AD, when your heart lies in one sport, to focus or enjoy the rest?
DG: Everything good that’s happened in my life has happened because of the game of baseball. The relationship I had with my father, the opportunity to build confidence and believe in myself, the opportunity to go to a school like UCLA was because of baseball. To play professionally, to travel and to play on a team that represented the United States in the World Games. I met my wife because of baseball, and I had my children through my wife. Everything good that has happened to me has happened because of the game of baseball. If you say, ‘Am I a baseball guy?'” Yeah, I would say yes.
JG: At the same time, you are the caretaker of an athletic department that has won 106 national championships, going for 107 now; how difficult is it as an AD to have the pulse of everything? When the football team struggles, they look to you. When the basketball team struggles, they look to you.
DG: As you can imagine, these jobs are not for the faint of heart. One of the first things you learn is that you are never going to appease every stakeholder and every constituent out there that has its pulse on UCLA athletics. You have to find a place in your heart that gives you peace about what you do. You do that by building a program on a strong foundation, where core values and core principles are really at the forefront of everything you do. Then you have a staff and coaches and ultimately student-athletes who understand that. If there’s an aligned vision from everyone in your department in terms of how you want to operate the program, then you deal with it. You’re OK with the successes as well as the failures, because inevitably those are going to happen. It’s just an extraordinary experience to be the steward of a program with the kind of tradition and legacy that UCLA has, always with my eyes set on trying to make it better.