Boxes filled with clothing – the word “beanies” partially scribbled on the side of some – sports equipment and much more linger around the cluttered space.
The floor is graced with a baseball, a black Under Armour backpack and several Rawlings baseball bags filled with beat-up bats. Upon entering, one could have easily mistaken it for the inventory room of a Modell’s Sporting Goods store. In actuality, it is the office of Seton Hall baseball head coach Rob Sheppard.
To add to the assortment of objects in his unconventional office, there are keys, remotes, papers, folders, post-its, two pieces of whole wheat bread and paper cups scattered about his desk. An order form with “Baseball, Softball and Lacrosse Products” on the cover is sitting on top of a lineup card, but the biggest and most prominent object is the 2011 Big East Championship trophy shining at the far end of the coach’s desk.
The office explodes with baseball memorabilia and signs: Big East Conference trophies and autographed baseballs line the shelves. Plaques with baseball pledges read “Lord, in all I do in work or play, may I serve you every day,” and “Baseball player’s prayer.” In addition, an All-Big East Second Team trophy for Cullen Dana sits on the back shelf along with his teammate Shane McCarthy’s hardware, his All-Big East First Team award.
On this frigid morning in November, the Seton Hall community is gearing up for the opening game of the men’s basketball season later that night at historic Walsh Gymnasium. Even though Opening Day of the baseball season is months away, coach Sheppard is using the offseason to his full advantage.
One of his players stops by the office, and the coach directs him to a conference room downstairs in the Richie Regan Recreation Center.
“We have a number of guys if you’re talking [who] are draft-eligible,” Sheppard said. “So we have scouts come in to get an opportunity to speak with them. The gentleman that came in is a former player that played here in the 90s, but now works for the Mariners. So he’s coming back to talk to some of the guys. We’re trying to negotiate, navigate through that, too.”
Sheppard explains that throughout “my whole life, I’ve been surrounded by baseball.” This office and his job are testaments to his words.
Despite the lack of cohesion or flow to Sheppard’s office, he is anything but scattered or disorganized. With baseball practically in his genes, he said he is creating a new chapter of the Sheppard baseball legacy at Seton Hall.
Sheppard succeeded his father as Seton Hall’s head coach in 2004.
“You could say I was born into it. As long as I remember, I was always on a baseball field,” he said.
“Born into” is an understatement: he, his older brothers and cousins have all played baseball at the Hall, and his brother-in-law is the current head coach of the St. John’s baseball team.
One can only imagine holidays at the Sheppard’s with baseball talk and memories thrown around the dinner table like an inning-ending double play.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “It’s actually a little bit more normal than I think people would imagine. We talk a lot of other things. We really don’t talk much about baseball as much as people would think.”
Even though Sheppard’s family is living baseball day in and day out, the SHU head coach initially worked a career in finance. Sheppard said that his objective after graduation was to use his degree.
“I worked for a couple years and I had the opportunity to come back and get my MBA and at the same time be the volunteer coach here,” he said. “So one thing led to another.”
Like a player moving through a team’s farm system from Single-A ball to the majors, Sheppard worked his way up the ranks in Seton Hall’s program. He was a volunteer, assistant and associate coach before becoming the team’s head coach.
“It was over a period of time, but I’ve always been around it. I didn’t necessarily have the thoughts I was going to be a coach in high school or in college, but as my career kind of moved on, that’s the path I ended on taking,” Sheppard said.
Seton Hall baseball associate head coach Phil Cundari has been working with Sheppard for more than 15 years and “one of the benefits of that is that we have a really good understanding of what he expects and what he wants as a head coach,” Cundari said. “At the same time, Rob has given me a great deal of freedom in terms of being able to do my job and my responsibilities” and “that’s a freedom that every coach would love to have.”
Sheppard’s philosophy for success in his tenure is simple: everyone has to be on the same page and everyone must commit themselves to excellence. For someone who has coached a Big East Championship team, a pitcher who threw a perfect game last season, three freshmen All-Americans in the past three years and more, this strategy has been the driving force behind Sheppard and his team.
Senior catcher Matt Fortin said this mindset was instilled into the team “when I came in as a freshman. [Sheppard] gets a group of seniors together and just makes sure that he can trust us and give us enough leeway so we can take the freshmen and sophomores, underclassmen under our wing to show them the way.”
Another part of this approach is to play it game-to-game.
“I know it sounds cliché and people say take one game at a time,” Sheppard said. “But the reality is that’s how you have to approach it. Whether you’re having a great year or a not so great year, you have to take it one game at a time.”
The upcoming 2017 season will mark the head coach’s 14th year at the helm. In those 14 seasons, many players have gone through the University’s baseball program, and Sheppard has had the opportunity to impact each of their lives. He said that he gauges his work as a coach on the success of his former players. In his role he explains that the “biggest thing you get out of it as a coach [is] knowing that you have the opportunity to impact someone’s life in a positive way.”
Fortin said he spends more time with Sheppard than his other teammates do since the catcher and coach work closely together. He said Sheppard drove home the notion of being committed physically and mentally “to get better each and every day.” He added how it can be simple “to show up to practice and go through the motions, but if you work on something each and every day over the course of your four-year career,” you can see “how much you’ve improved and how much that’s had an effect on you from the beginning.”
The impact of Sheppard’s presence in Fortin’s life goes beyond the baseball diamond. “When I was younger as a freshman, it was kind of hard for me because I’ve never had a coach on me that much but now looking back at it, I’m very glad he was a hard coach,” Fortin said.
“[Sheppard has] made me such a better baseball player and a human being and a man.
“He’s really made me be the person who I am today and I’m very happy about that, happy that he’s my college baseball coach.”
Part of his coaching strategy is to have his players “understand that baseball is a microcosm of life. It really is a model that will help prepare them” on the field and in the future, Sheppard said.
He recounts in 2011 when the team was ranked No. 5 in a tournament, their record wasn’t great, but they were still able to shut down a higher-ranked Arizona team and win the game.
Moments like this, Sheppard said, help make his job special and memorable. He said he enjoys seeing his players grow up.
“There have been a lot of different things that have gone on as a coach and sometimes they’re not the most publicized moments,” Sheppard said. “I think even every year when your players graduate you get an opportunity and the thing I love about coaching the most is you get to see a young man as a sophomore, junior in high school and you see him develop into a man, and graduate college and move on.”
Sheppard emphasizes the importance of hard work off the field as well, and said he wants to recruit players who are tireless and strive to be better in all aspects of life.
“We tell our guys that whether it’s a baseball game, a term paper or just meeting somebody in public, it’s an opportunity to put a name on something,” he said. “Your name’s on it and every time you put your name on something, you want it to be your best effort, your best ability, and whatever it may be, whether it’s a professional baseball player, a businessman, a teacher, a coach, a father, you want to be present and do your best job.”
This mindset can be easily reflected in the team’s 3.4 GPA and 20-plus players on the Dean’s List, Sheppard said.
“I would say there are principles that we’re guided by from Rob,” Cundari said. “Part of the reason that the players really thrive in this environment is because coach Sheppard has created that kind of culture on a daily basis.”
Throughout his time as head coach of Seton Hall’s baseball team, he has had many achievements, but for Sheppard, the best is yet to come. He said he doesn’t believe he has had his greatest accomplishment yet.
However, Sheppard’s commitment to Seton Hall’s baseball team does not go unnoticed.
“Coach shows up more than anybody I know on a daily basis, on a regular basis and his leadership is by his example so nobody in this program works harder than Rob and I don’t want to underestimate that in any way,” Cundari said. “He’s a leader on the field and off the field. His work ethic and his vision for the program really resonates with the players and I’m just really grateful to be part of it.”
In Sheppard’s tenure at the Hall, Fortin said his coach has “really pushed us to want to win. Just [to have] the desire to go out and win, not just to show up and play, but we go out there expecting to win each and every game.” Fortin added how “it’s hard to have a bad practice just because he’s there wanting everybody to get better and just encouraging everyone to improve upon their skills and knowledge of the game.”
Sheppard, however, is always looking to do more.
“That’s my opinion. I think I could always be better,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s one thing as a coach, regardless of the amount of success you have or haven’t had, you always want to move beyond, or raise the bar. I like to think that we have accomplished some great things here. I just always want to be a little bit better.”
Andrea Keppler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.