Colleagues excited to see Mercer land dream job at Indiana

Across the past five years, Bob Grant has lost three baseball coaches.

The Wright State athletic director watched Rob Cooper leave for Penn State in 2013, then saw Greg Lovelady depart for Central Florida three years later. At the mid-major level, especially with the baseball success Wright State has enjoyed during the last decade-plus, Grant has grown accustomed to transition.

With Jeff Mercer, Grant wondered if it might be a different situation.

After all, the 32-year-old played at Wright State and received his first paid job as an assistant at his alma mater in 2014. And even though Mercer’s teams posted 77 victories during his first two seasons, attracting interest in the coach all the while, Grant wondered if Mercer might stay in place longer than expected. Perhaps he’d feel a sense of duty to stick around. Wright State, Grant knew, was Mercer’s second home.

“He’s so humble, and he wouldn’t tell you this, but he’s not returned phone calls the last year and a half on many other jobs that most would consider better than Wright State,” Grant said.

But in the back of Grant’s mind, he recognized the forces that could pull at Mercer’s heart, tempting him to leave.

He knew Indiana was one job the coach would never turn down.

“IU was the big gorilla,” Grant said. “I thought, ‘Man, if that came open at the right time, that’s Jeff’s dream job, and I’d help him get it.'”

Although Grant is back to searching for a baseball coach, he’s elated to see Mercer get the Indiana job — a position he’s long yearned to hold.

Ask anyone who worked with Mercer during his years at Wright State, and they’ll say the same.

“I’ve been lucky enough to coach for awhile, and in my entire career, I’ve been able to coach some really good players,” said Cooper, who coached Mercer during his junior and senior seasons and just completed his fifth season at Penn State. “But I’ll tell you, Jeff Mercer is in the group of top five people I’ve ever been around. You put that with the fact that he’s a very, very knowledgable, hard-working person who absolutely loves the state of Indiana and IU and what it stands for, and I couldn’t think of a better hire.”

As both a player and a coach at Wright State, Mercer developed a reputation as a dedicated, empathetic leader, who endeared himself to players and colleagues alike through his ability to quickly cultivate results at a high level.

After graduating from Wright State in 2009, Mercer worked a series of low-level coaching jobs before catching his first break. He spent the 2010 season as a graduate assistant at Ohio Northern before taking a volunteer assistant job at Michigan in 2011. Mercer left Ann Arbor for a similar role at Western Kentucky in 2012.

Two years later, he got a call from his alma mater.

Lovelady, who was a Wright State assistant during Mercer’s junior and senior seasons and succeeded Cooper as head coach, offered Mercer a paid job as a full-time assistant.

“I hired him with very little coaching experience,” Lovelady said. “That was all based on the work ethic and the ability to lead and how much he cared. I hired two guys that had zero recruiting experience and I did that because I trusted in their abilities. I knew very early that Jeff had this ability to gather people around him and pull on the same side of the rope as a player. That’s what you need as a leader, as a coach.”

Quickly, Mercer delivered results for Lovelady and the Raiders.

Never mind his lack of experience, Mercer established himself as a convincing recruiter who made the most of the talent that came his way. During his three years as an assistant under Lovelady, Mercer coached six players taken in the MLB Draft, including five in 2016.

Across his final three seasons with Wright State’s program, Mercer helped develop 12 players into MLB Draft selections.

“That’s really where he excelled for us,” Grant said. “Wright State is not a household name outside of our general area. We’re a very, very good baseball program and people who know baseball certainly know that. But we’re not always recognizable in a kid’s living room or in a high school hallway. Jeff had an unbelievable knack (for recruiting). He would go in and find a phenomenal athlete, sometimes a two- or three-sport person and say, ‘Here’s so-and-so, he’s a baseball player and a football player and a basketball player and a great athlete. If I can get him dedicated year-round to baseball, I can (make the most) of that athleticism.’

“Our joke with Mercer years ago was that he could teach a telephone pole how to hit. The guy is a hitting guru, and so many times, we would out-athlete you. We’re beating Notre Dame, we’re beating Ohio State (in regionals). We played at Clemson two years ago and we’re stacking up (and won the series). You could go athlete for athlete and if you said, ‘Which team is the BCS team?’ You wouldn’t know. With Jeff’s recruiting, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

So when it came time to replace Lovelady after the 2016 season, Grant didn’t have to look far for his next coach.

“It took me about half a second,” Grant said. “It was a pure no-brainer. … I love him like a little brother. He’s a very loyal guy. When we promoted him two years ago, I knew he was a superstar with a really high ceiling.”

His personality, record in recruiting and the results he generated as a hitting coach all spoke in Mercer’s favor. So, too, did his approach and willingness to try new things.

Mercer is versed in advanced analytics to measure the game in new and impactful ways. He’s also intent upon coaching the unseen aspects of the game.

Prior to last season, Mercer hired what was reported as the first full-time mental skills coach in college baseball, an assistant who focused on sharpening the minds of players who deal in a game of frustration and failure.

“He’s constantly looking at better ways to do things,” Cooper said. “As someone who coached him, one of the things I’m most proud of with Jeff is that he doesn’t do everything he learned from us. Be your own person. Be your own coach and find better ways. To me, that shows somebody that’s open to learning and open to getting better.”

At Wright State, that approach extended far beyond the diamond, too.

“His ability to think outside the box and look at the big picture is just tremendous,” Grant said. “He was very well known on our campus. He’d be on campus talking to professors about different things. He was on a couple of task forces that were trying to help with enrollment and strategic planning. He’s got a really broad skill set and can do a lot of things. He’s not just a baseball coach, that’s for sure.”

That’s a big reason why those at Wright State will miss Mercer. At the same time, administrators such as Grant and friends around the game recognize the young coach has already landed the job he’s long been aiming for.

And they couldn’t be happier for him.

“He’s a diehard IU guy,” Lovelady said. “He’s listening to podcasts on the basketball team. He follows it. He’s just a big fan of Indiana and a big fan of IU. To get an opportunity to coach at your dream job, it doesn’t happen all the time. I’m just really happy for him. I thought it was a home run hire.”

Photo courtesy Wright State athletics

6 comments

  1. Wow! That is unusually high praise for such a young man and a young coach.

    Based on this information, Glass hired a great young coach. Now, over the next four years, assuming he meets expectations, Glass has to make sure this young man is paid well enough so that he is invulnerable to being lured away by other schools offering a lot more money. I mean, he loves IU, but there’s no doubt that he loves his family even more. He doesn’t have to be the highest paid coach in college baseball, just paid high enough so that competitive offers are not impossible to reject.

    1. Po,
      I hate to say it, although money is important, I don’t believe it will be the ultimate deciding factor. If Mercer’s teams are good enough to get to the NCAA or CWS, but can’t get over the top to win it all, then he may be vulnerable to the lure of where he can. That is pretty much the reason for losing Smith & Lemonis. Whether it works out for either of them, they both knew at this time it is a long shot. I do however, wish Mercer well. If he can do it, he will be a miracle worker to get a cold weather team all the way to a CWS Championship. It has been a very, very long time since that happened.

  2. Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State)
    March Avg. High Temp: 56.1
    April Avg. High Temp: 60.7

    Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana University)
    March Avg. High Temp: 53
    April Avg. High Temp: 65

    I really think this “cold weather” thing is overrated…I wouldn’t call Corvallis balmy. Bloomington is 5 degrees avg. warmer in April and only 3 degrees avg. lower in March….than the home of the World Series champs, Oregon State Beavers(2006, 2007, 2018).
    Could be that people like ‘thinkaboutit’ are just feeding a weather myth. Southern Indiana is basically a different world in avg temps and snowfall during the months of March and April than a very blustery and cold northern Indiana. 65 degree average temp in Bloomington during April? Hell, that’s lovely temps.

    I don’t think you need to wear any heavier long johns playing baseball in Bloomington than in Corvallis.

    (All temp stats courtesy Wikipedia.)

  3. I U h as a new pitching coach Justin Parker from UCF, check out Indiana Daily Student article for the details.

  4. thinkaboutit, your point is well taken. But I don’t believe any IU baseball coach realistically expects to win the CWS while at IU. Producing winning seasons, winning Big Ten Championships, getting into the CWS, getting kids into professional baseball or helping them get their degrees will mean that that IU baseball coach will be extremely successful. But as this young man’s family grows, the pressure he feels be the best possible provider becomes more intense and begins to displace his love for his home state school, the community, etc. The pressure builds, and then some school calls and offers the man double his salary, or 50% more than he’s making! On top of that, they tell him, “hey, you can win a National Championship at our school.” He doesn’t really want to relocate, leave the friends, the community, etc., but his first obligation is to provide for his family’s future, and as a competitive man, he starts visualizing how great it would be to win a National Championship. But if that school who wants to poach him away can only increase his compensation by 20%, then the temptation is not nearly as intense. It’s easier to turn down those offers because his family is happy where their at and the increased income won’t change his family’s lifestyle financial future very much.

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