No rebuilding allowed: Clemson coach Monte Lee’s quest for Omaha begins now

Clemson baseball coach Monte Lee poses with athletic director Dan Radakovich at Lee’s introductory press conference on Monday. (Brian Hennessy/Clemson sports information)

The sounds of power drills and jackhammers and shouts of construction workers rang through steamy air on the second day of summer and first day of hope.

Monday was just as oppressively hot as it’d been the previous week, yet the task continued to polish a three-story player development center lording over the first-base line at Clemson’s Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

Meanwhile, near the third-base dugout, the sun beat down on the man wearing a dark navy suit, a goatee and an earnest look his in his eye keen on assuring the fans who’ll soon fill those orange seats: light, meet end of tunnel.

“I’ve been here many times, and it’s as rabid a fan base as there is in all of college baseball,” Monte Lee said, never breaking a sweat even with the temperature nearing triple digits. “We really appreciate their support moving forward.”

The $8.85 million baseball center missed its deadline by one whole season, frustrating to fans and players and coaches alike. If the $350,000-a-year coach doesn’t complete his own renovation project by 2016, impatient will be an understatement for the ones they call third-base grumps.

Lucky for Lee, the honeymoon lasts at least eight months; the homegrown South Carolinian will remain undefeated during the offseason, at least in the public eye. His new Tigers won’t find it so easy.

“The fall practice session will be tough,” Lee said. “You don’t work the game of baseball. You play the game of baseball. So when they cross those lines in the season, when we’re playing a 56-game schedule against extremely tough opponents, we will want to play.”

Lee, 38, signals optimism for a program with 12 College World Series appearances and the eighth-most wins in college baseball, but one that hasn’t sniffed Omaha or won a regional since 2010 and just dismissed Jack Leggett after an “enough’s enough” 32-29 season.

One of the brightest young coaches in the sport — Baseball America said so in 2012 — Lee has been head coach in 16 NCAA tournament games and won eight of them. That’s better than the 5-10 mark put forth by Clemson the past five years.

“There’s a lot of players on this roster who have played in the postseason. Sometimes you want to have so much success that maybe you try too hard at success,” Lee said. “We’ve got to get these guys to understand that hopefully when we get to the postseason, just play baseball. You’re not going to get to Omaha unless you stay within yourself. If you try to do too much, it’s not going to work.”

On paper, Lee made the right move, leaving a promising mid-major to join a Power 5 program. And even though Lee had just received a 68 percent raise at the College of Charleston, the offer from Clemson nearly doubled his 2014 salary.

Still, Lee had to leave his alma mater.

“Anybody who knows me knows how much I love the College of Charleston and how much I love the program and players there,” said Lee, who on Tuesday drove back to Charleston to watch his former assistant Matt Heath get introduced as the new head coach at College of Charleston.

“It’s a very, very special place to me, and that’s never going to change. I’ll always look forward to the opportunity to visit and reflect on the great memories I had there as a player and a coach.

“But my focus has got to be on Clemson now. I’ve got to turn the page for a new chapter in my life.”

Hours after his introductory press conference, as he walked up the steps from the ballfield to greet his family and his new superiors, Lee spoke of the accommodating and friendly nature of Clemson folks he’s found in such a short time. He talked about recapturing success in the “second to none” Clemson-South Carolina rivalry, which he experienced for six years as a Gamecocks assistant. He promised to make coaching adjustments to his players, on the condition they pledge to make adjustments to him.

And the only rebuilding he would acknowledge involves a construction site on the foul side of the first-base line, not the output on the fair side of the line.

“I don’t think you ever want to talk about rebuilding, because the mindset’s got to be we’re going to play at the highest level,” Lee said. “It’s a process, day by day to get this team better. But our expectations are going to be extremely high. We expect to compete at a national level, and that’s not going to change in Year 1.”

Clemson is first and foremost a football school, but much like women’s basketball at Tennessee, men’s hockey at Boston College or lacrosse at Duke, the baseball program at Clemson matters. It matters a lot. It matters so much a longtime head coach with College World Series pedigree to spare, whose Hall of Fame plaque hadn’t had time to collect dust, was run out of town because simply making the postseason wasn’t good enough.

Monte Wesley Lee II wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We know there’s going to be pressure, because it’s a rabid fanbase that loves their program,” Lee said. “Baseball fans are gonna let you know when the team’s not playing well.”

So how will Lee feel the first time the Tigers have lost two in a row, they leave the bases loaded or surrender a two-run double and a cascade of boos rains down?

“That’s just part of expectations and a great fanbase. They’re not going to be happy when we don’t play well, and guess what? I’m not going to be happy either,” Lee said. “But it’s my job to make sure our guys continue to compete pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game.

“The only thing we can control as a team is the next pitch. That’s it.”