Date: February 21, 2019
By: Eric Leary
The Dirtbags are fortunate to be joined by High Point University’s head coach Craig Cozart for this week’s Under the Gun. Coach Cozart, you are entering your 11th season at the helm of the Panther’s baseball program. Prior to coming to HPU, you spent time as a player and coach at UCF. Share with us this journey you’ve taken as a college player and how that led to your coaching opportunities.
As I look back on my younger days, I can never remember a time when baseball wasn’t a daily part of my life. From the moment I could walk I had a baseball or bat in my hands and the game has fascinated me ever since. I was your typical little league all-star and solid high school prospect but wasn’t very highly recruited by colleges at the time. Fortunately, I went to a pitching camp at UCF and caught Pitching Coach Mike Maack’s eye that day. Shortly thereafter he offered me a scholarship and the dream of playing D1 baseball for my hometown team was underway.
My interest in coaching started when I was a senior in high school and I had a couple elementary age kids that I gave weekly pitching lessons to. Then in college, Coach Maack hired me to help him with his weekly pitching clinics where every Tuesday and Thursday night we would work with 20 to 30 pitchers per session. The more I taught, the more interested I became in the finer points of pitching and that really helped me as a player since I developed a deep understanding of mechanics and the mental part of the game.
So, my career on the field progressed, I was drafted by the Atlanta Braves my junior year in college and then signed with the San Francisco Giants after my senior year. However, this when the most pivotal time of my baseball life occurred. After I signed the contract with the Giants, the Lord showed me that this was not the path my life was to take and He made it evident that I was supposed to pursue a coaching career. That summer, my college pitching coach, Mike Maack, left UCF to pursue an opportunity to coach at the University of Tennessee. This left the pitching coaches job open at UCF and I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to begin my coaching career at UCF under the guidance of my head coach Jay Bergman. Coach Bergman and I spent 12 awesome years together at UCF where he let me grow in the profession which led me to the opportunity here at High Point University.
Who were some major influences to your career and what were you able to take away from them to build your skills in the profession?
Without a doubt, my father Charlie Cozart has been the biggest influence in my life on and off the field. He served 21 years in the United States Navy and retired from the military when I was just starting to play organized baseball. I was fortunate to have him coach every team I played on all the way through high school. He created a culture of toughness, competitiveness and discipline with every team he coached but still made each player feel loved and valued. Beyond that, he was never too busy to invest in me and to this day is still in the stands for the majority of our games. He is the ultimate example of a loving husband, father and grandfather!
My grandfather, Bill Cozart, also had a big influence in my life. He was born in Maggie Valley, NC and made his way out of the mountains by working and pitching for several textile mills along the way. He made his home and raised his family in Cramerton, NC. I can remember many conversations while we were sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs; just talking about baseball and life. He used to tell me, “If you’re gonna accept a man’s money when he hires you to do a job; you better do the job to the best of your ability……….however, if you give a man an honest day’s work; you better demand an honest and fair day’s wage.”
Last but not least, Coach Jay Bergman, my college coach at UCF gave me a start in this career and gave me the freedom to grow as a coach. His coaching style was aggressive but he trusted his player and his coaches. He was not a micromanager and I think that is a big part of what I strive to do today. I hire guys that I trust and I let them do their job; if they’re professionals they don’t need me looking over their shoulder. Freedom breeds confidence and with Jason Laws, Rick Marlin and Chris Fenisey I have a staff that I am proud to work with.
In 2018, your Panthers squad finished 34-22, while winning 19 games in the Big South and reaching the championship game of the conference tournament. What are you and your staff most excited about as 2019 has arrived and you look to leverage last season experiences to continued success this spring?
This program has come a long way over the last decade. When I first arrived at HPU, this program had never experienced a winning season at the D1 level. In fact, it had endured twenty consecutive losing seasons until we broke that streak in 2010. Since then, we have consistently won 30+ games per year but 2018 was by far the best season this program seen. It set the record for regular season and conference wins. So, we want to see our guys build on that success and have the next group of upperclassmen step up and lead. As a program grows, you see it evolve from hope, to belief and finally to expectation. We want our guys to expect to win and expect to bring home championships.
Your background is definitely noted in coaching pitchers, having tutored an impressive list in your time as a coach. Define your philosophy in working with this position group and maybe share how that has aided in your ability to get great production out of your teams offensively, an area where your teams have really shined.
Pitching has always been my “specialty” in coaching I guess you would say. Even as a head coach, my primary focus is on pitching and defense. Our philosophy in developing pitchers is that first and foremost we do not want to clone guys. We want them to maintain their distinct styles, deliveries and arm actions so that, as a staff, we can create as many variables for opposing hitters as possible. Secondly, we want to maintain a learning environment for our pitchers and give them the freedom to explore what works for them within the structure laid out for them. We have an amazing advantage at HPU in our Human Biomechanics and Physiology Lab where we do 3 Dimensional film analysis and several other cutting edge research programs. This has allowed us to look deeper into pitching performance and injury prevention. Lastly, we want our pitchers to go between the lines and create discomfort for hitters by changing angles, planes and speeds so that they can close the at bat as quickly as possible.
The state of North Carolina is not short on its share of D1 programs, several of them notable in their prestige at the national level. A quick glance at your 2019 schedule shows your Panthers are scheduled to play a number of them. How do you use being in such proximity to so many D1 programs as an advantage as you continue leading HPU to winning seasons year after year?
Scheduling is one of the most challenging and important jobs I have. College baseball is unique because we schedule so far in advance. For example, we are already done with our 2022 schedule. So it is important to look at your team, decide what it is capable of handling and also consider your opponents and what their roster looks like. You also have to look closely at the RPI, understand how it works and go from there. Over the last 5 seasons our average RPI has put us in the top third in the country out of almost 300 D1 programs. This is a great place to play college baseball; there are almost 30 college baseball programs within a 4 hour radius of our campus.
One last question. What message would you like to give to youth baseball in order to help create a sense of kids having fun playing the game while also learning to compete?
I would recommend that young players spend more time playing the game in less structured environments. I learned more about myself as a player when I was just playing in the neighborhood “sandlot” so to speak. Lessons are great; travel ball practice is great and they are necessary, however, young players need to experiment without being told what to do. Go outside and bounce a ball off a wall, throw from different arm slots even if you are off balance! Go out and catch a ground ball without worrying about your footwork; catch a fly ball with one hand not two! Give yourself the freedom to figure out what you are as a player without a coach defining it for you. Baseball is a beautiful game, so have fun playing it in a structured setting or in your backyard.
Well, that’s all we have from Coach Cozart on Under the Gun. We greatly appreciate your time and knowledge in fielding a few questions that provided us with a clearer picture of the High Point University program and its leader. Best of luck this spring & the Dirtbags will be keeping track of you and the Panthers as the spring unfolds.