One of the unusual aspects of the Frontier League is the length of its offseason. We're in a sports era in which offseasons, preseasons, regular seasons and postseasons seem to morph into one. The golf season seems to be 12 months long. The NFL postseason runs directly into OTAs, mini-camps, preseason and then the regular season. The NHL runs from September to June. Even high school football is starting earlier this year.
The Frontier League, however, is different because it has only a four-month regular season and an eight-month offseason. That allows one plenty of time to reflect, over-analyze and draw comparisons.
One day this winter, when I had way too much free time (probably the only day I had free time), I was thinking about the one-year-and-one-month run of Bob Bozzuto as manager of the Wild Things. Bozzuto had plenty of plus marks during his time as manager. He kept the team together and focused on baseball during a wacky, to say the least, 2014 season. He had a playoff win, which is something five other Wild Things managers cannot claim.
But it's how Bozzuto became the manager, some of the things that happened during last season and how his stint on the coaching staff ended that had me thinking the comp (that's a word too often used by baseball scouts) for the Bozzuto era is that of, not of another baseball coach, but rather former West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart.
Let me explain with some comparisons:
* Bozzuto became the manager in August of 2014. That was the year Bart Zeller began his his second stint as manager but resigned one game before the all-star break, with the team in first place. It came one night after some sort of altercation in the dugout with pitching coach Kevin Gryboski, during a game against Florence. Washington did not immediately promote somebody to manager. Instead, the Wild Things used a "coach-by-committee" approach with Gryboski, Bozzuto and Bob Didier for two weeks.
When Didier, a former major league player and coach, and a former manager in Triple-A, packed up and left the team in August, apparently unhappy that he wasn't named the manager, it left Bozzuto and Gryboski as the only coaches on the staff. Bozzuto, who had eight years of sweat equity in the team and extensive Frontier League knowledge, was named manager. He was originally hired as the interim manager but in the midst of an interview with this reporter announcing Boz's hiring, owner Stu Williams suddenly changed his mind and told an employee who was writing the news release of Bozzuto's hiring to strip the word "interim" out of the release. As we have come to know, all head coach/managers are interim, and Boz's tenure didn't last long.
Stewart was hired as WVU's head coach under similar bizarre circumstances. When Rich Rodriguez fled Morgantown for for the head coaching job at the University of Michigan following the Mountaineers' famous 13-9 loss to Pitt in 2007, Stewart was one of the few WVU assistant coaches Rich Rod didn't take with him to Ann Arbor. Thus, Stewart was named interim coach for WVU's game against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. WVU ended up blowing out Oklahoma. Sometime during the late hours of that night, during the postgame celebrating, WVU officials opted to remove the interim tag from Stewart and hire him as the head coach. It proved to be a lesson for all athletic administrators -- do not drink and hire.
* Bozzuto and Stewart, who died in 2012, have much more in common. They were longtime assistant coaches and loyal. The were "players coaches." In other words, the players liked them. They weren't overbearing. They were positive people. They were often the good cop to the head coach/manager's bad cop.
* To some, Bozzuto and Stewart never seemed able to shake that image of an assistant coach.
When Stewart was hired as head coach, Rodriguez's agent said, "They had a wonderful architect and they hired the painter to build the next house." Though Stewart's teams posted three-consecutive 9-4 records, they were considered underachieving and much of the blame was pointed at Stewart, who too often was caught on the sideline by TV cameras while fumbling with his headset or with a puzzled look on his face. It led to many people, even those in the WVU administration, to question Stewart's ability to lead a team. When Oliver Luck was hired in 2010 as WVU's athletic director, he decided it was time to make a coaching change and hired Dana Holgorsen as Stewart's replacement, in one of those "head-coach-in-waiting" deals.
In the Wild Things' first full season under Bozzuto, they went 42-54 last year and finished fifth in the East Division. They were never in serious playoff contention. There were problems from the start as one of the two assistant coaches was dismissed after the season's first road trip. The first one! One person in the front office told me, even before the season had reached the all-star break, that it was apparent Bozzuto was not the person to lead the team into the future.
* Another common part of the Bozzuto and Stewart eras was each did strange things with their rosters. Stewart didn't fill all of his recruiting classes and often had scholarships that were never used. Bozzuto went the other way. He wanted competition for roster spots among players classified as Experienced and for spring training signed far more than the Frontier League allowed during the regular season. The Wild Things tried to stockpile those who did not make the active roster by putting them on the suspended list, injured list or didn't have them on any list but allowed them to work out for several days before deciding what to do with them. During one game early in the season, the opposing manager counted about 35 players in Wild Things uniforms for batting practice. The Frontier League roster limit is 24.
* Bozzuto and Stewart didn't want to leave their job as manager/head coach. Stewart even went so far as to call two reporters and ask them to "dig up dirt" on Holgorsen in hope that the latter would be fired. That led to Stewart's forced resignation a season earlier than planned. The Wild Things announced last fall that Bozzuto was moving into a front office job. That job had not been created at the time. And Bozzuto, no matter what the company line was, didn't want to resign as manager. It wasn't his idea. Make no mistake about it, he was forced to resign.
Like Stewart, Bozzuto didn't seem to have the full support of higher-ups in the organization. Last season, Bozzuto shopped one position player in trade talks "every week," according to one league manager. When they'd have a deal, Wild Things management wouldn't let Boz pull the trigger on the trade, one person with knowledge of the situation said. Word is Bozzuto also wanted to release several players but was told he couldn't do that and was told to keep the players the entire season. Some players were promised certain roles/positions by the front office but Bozzuto wanted to use the player in a different way and couldn't do so. Some players, I've been told, were informed they were released before Bozzuto even had a chance to tell the player of the decision, which put Boz in a odd and uncomfortable situation, one that made his authority seem diminished.
While Bozzuto certainly deserved better, the Wild Things do appear to have done something right. The hiring of Gregg Langbehn has to be considered one of the few positive moves the organization has made in recent seasons. Langbehn is a former manager in the Houston Astros system and spent five years as manager of the Frontier League's Traverse City Beach Bums. He averaged 56 wins per year over the final four seasons with the Beach Bums.
The big question is, will Langbehn have the support of his staff and the powers-that-be within the organization that Bozzuto never seemed to have?