CLEMSON – Opposite sides of the state, opposite talking points on the recruiting trail.
Monte Lee altered his entire approach to convincing teenaged baseball prospects to play for him during this past offseason. Lee rose to prominence over seven years molding the College of Charleston into a regularly tough out in the postseason, and was rewarded with an appointment last June as Clemson’s third skipper in 58 years following College Baseball Hall of Famers Bill Wilhelm and Jack Leggett.
A native of Lugoff on the outskirts of Columbia and also a former South Carolina assistant, Lee starred as a player for the College of Charleston and therefore had a natural recruiting method: pitch the city.
In Clemson, he quickly learned: pitch the school.
“The difference is, you come to Clemson as a student and you live in this community for one reason: the school,” Lee explained in his office during a recent one-on-one interview with the Post and Courier. “I’ve never seen a place where the people are more intact with what’s going on campus as far as in school and in athletics. You wake up in the morning, you cut the radio on and they’re talking Clemson sports. You read the paper, you look at how the Tigers did in basketball, football, baseball. People live for this university.
“Whereas in Charleston, it’s so eclectic and so diverse – you’ve got arts and you’ve got food and beverage and you’ve got history and you’ve got so much going on in Charleston that I could walk through King Street and nobody would even know who I was.”
Lee could lure elite talent to the Lowcountry from the Carolinas: see Charlotte-bred right-hander Bailey Ober, the 2014 NCBWA National Freshman Pitcher of the Year, and former infielders Carl Wise (Lexington) and Nick Pappas (Irmo), who were each named to first-team freshman All-American squads. Recruits also flocked from up and down the east coast, with New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia each producing at least a pair of current Cougars.
“The College of Charleston’s a great education, one of the oldest schools in the country, lot of history,” Lee said. “And we sold the city. The beach, downtown, and you just get a great life experience along with a great baseball program.”
Clemson, S.C. is known primarily for Clemson University, with many past and present players growing up dreaming of donning a uniform for the Tigers.
“What you’re selling here: a great school, a great community, it’s a very safe place to live. There’s no distractions here: guys are going to go to class, and he’s going to be in a great program,” Lee said. “It’s two totally different sales pitches. It’s just two totally different places.”
Upon moving to Clemson in June, and having his family join him in their new home in Seneca in early August, Lee sought out counsel from all sorts of sources: from Leggett, his predecessor; from assistant coach Bradley LeCroy, who served under Leggett and retained his job under Lee; and even from football figures Dabo Swinney, Jeff Scott and Thad Turnipseed, who have designed a blueprint for national championship contention in the tiniest of college towns.
“The great thing about Clemson is it is a small-town community and the most tight-knit athletic department I’ve ever been a part of, by far,” Lee said. “Everywhere I’ve been, you’re almost on your own little island. I’m around my coaches, the SID and trainer, and that’s kind of it other than maybe bumping into somebody in a hallway somewhere.”
Lee said he’s met every football coach on Swinney’s staff, and the staffs on several Clemson sports like men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, golf and tennis.
“This place, it’s kind of cliché, but it’s much more of a family atmosphere here,” Lee said. “Our first social events here were going on boat rides on the lake with other families and going to dinners at people’s houses where they were cooking up a barbecue. I’ve never been at a place where hospitality means so much, and acceptance for our family has been such a priority. That’s been the cool part.”