It was a phone call that Matt Heath didn’t want to make, but knew he had to make.
Heath had to call his best friend — former College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee — and tell him he wouldn’t be going to Clemson as his pitching coach. Heath was going to stay at the College of Charleston and continue to build on the foundation that Lee established.
Heath, a pitching coach for the Cougars since 2011, was officially introduced as the College of Charleston’s head baseball coach Tuesday afternoon with Lee sitting just a few feet away.
Heath, 36, and Lee had been together for the past five seasons and built the Charleston baseball program into a regional power, going to the NCAA tournament four times, including the last two seasons. When Clemson hired Lee to replace Hall of Fame coach Jack Leggett last week, Heath had every intention of joining his old friend as the Tigers’ pitching coach.
“When Monte got the job at Clemson, he wanted me to come up there with him,” Heath said. “We’ve been partners in crime for the past five seasons and when he interviewed for that job, he told me he wanted to take me up there with him. At that point, I didn’t have any other offers and I was prepared to go.”
But College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull had other plans. After discussions with school president Glenn McConnell, Hull knew Heath was his man. Heath was offered the Cougars’ head coach position over the weekend, but still wanted to talk with Lee about his future.
“We talked twice that day and I told him I was going to sleep on it and would call him in the morning,” Heath said. “When I got off the phone with Monte, I talked to my wife (Elizabeth) and told her it’s time I became a head coach and I called Monte back.
“I don’t know how many people put an emphasis on pure loyalty and the friendship that Monte and I have is huge. I love the College of Charleston and I’m excited to be the head coach, but saying ‘no’ to a best friend is a tough thing to do. At first, Monte said, ‘You need to go, you need to go,’ but after a while he was like, ‘You need to stay, you need to stay,’ and that made it a little easier to stay.”
Hull understood that there was a time factor involved in hiring Heath. If Hull didn’t move quickly, Heath would follow Lee to Clemson and the chances of landing the former LSU star might fade.
“I fully expected to put a search committee together to find Monte’s replacement,” Hull said. “We knew that if Matt took the job with Monte, he was going to have a tough time turning around and interviewing for the head job here a week later. So, we wanted to move quickly. Matt is a known quantity. He’s a great coach, his record speaks for itself.”
Lee, who played at the College of Charleston from 1996-99, knows the program is in good hands with his former top assistant.
“Matt’s going to do a phenomenal job. He’s one of the best baseball guys I know,” Lee said. “He’s extremely well-rounded. I couldn’t be happier for him and I know the College of Charleston is in great hands. He’s like my brother. He’s one of my best friends. I think he’ll do an outstanding job at the College of Charleston.”
Heath already has the support of the players.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this hire,” said College of Charleston pitcher Jake McBreairty. “Matt Heath turns boys into men and I think that’s what makes him so good. I was worried after coach Lee left that they might bring in a whole new staff, but with coach Heath here you know you’re getting one of the best coaches in the country.”
At the College of Charleston, Heath developed a talented pitching rotation that has compiled a cumulative ERA of 3.56 over the past five years. During the 2015 season, the Cougars achieved their second-highest national ranking (No. 13), won the regular-season CAA Championship title and made their third NCAA Regional appearance in the last four years.
Heath initially came to Charleston in 2006 after spending two seasons as an assistant coach at Tallahassee Community College in Tallahassee, Fla. In his first stint with the Cougars, he worked primarily with the hitters and the Cougars excelled under his guidance. The offense was ranked nationally in numerous categories and broke multiple school and conference records.
After two years in the Lowcountry, Heath accepted an assistant coaching position at Auburn. There he worked with hitters, fielders and catchers in leading the Tigers to national rankings in several categories and breaking numerous school records during the 2009 season.
A former prep star who was named North Florida Player of the Year out of Fernandina Beach High School in his hometown of Fernandina Beach, Fla., Heath went on to play at the University of Florida for two years. He later transferred to LSU where he was a two-time All-SEC Tournament selection, making the team as a catcher in 2001 and playing in the outfield the next season. In 2002, he led LSU in home runs and runs scored.