Matt Heath had spent four seasons as an assistant baseball coach at the collegiate level, but he knew there was something missing in his professional life.
As an assistant coach at College of Charleston from 2006-08, Heath, alongside head coach John Pawlowski, had helped lead the Cougars to an NCAA Super Regional appearance and a Southern Conference regular season title.
When Auburn lured Pawlowski away from the Lowcountry in 2009, Heath went along for the ride as the Tigers hitting coach.
But after just a year in Auburn, Heath knew he wanted more from the game.
“To be honest, I just think I got a little bored,” Heath said. “I needed to make a transition. I wanted to stay in baseball, but I needed to do something else, and scouting seemed to me to be the best way to stay close to the game and learn something new at the same time.”
In 2010, Heath took a job as a regional scout for the Houston Astros. His territory included most of Northern Florida, an area Heath knew well. Heath had been a star baseball player at Fernandina Beach High School, just a stone’s throw from Jacksonville. He would watch two or three games a day and started to learn about the game from a different perspective.
“I knew how to evaluate a hitter, but I didn’t know much about evaluating pitchers,” Heath said. “That year taught me a lot about pitching and how to see a guy’s potential down the road.”
The year he spent as a scout made Heath the coach he is today.
Heath, 36, isn’t sure he’d be the College of Charleston’s head baseball coach today if not for that year he spent as a scout.
“Scouting was the best crash course I ever got in baseball,” Heath said. “It was a huge adjustment for me. I couldn’t go on the field and teach players and I couldn’t get on the field and push players. That personal side of the game was taken away from me. That put things into perspective. I learned how to evaluate players at a different level. It helped me grow as a recruiter. I knew I wanted to be a coach again, but that year was crucial in my development as a baseball coach.”
When a pitching coach position opened up at College of Charleston on Monte Lee’s staff, Heath jumped at the opportunity.
“I loved Charleston, the school and I knew Monte pretty well, so I felt like this would be a great fit for me,” Heath said.
Lee wasn’t so sure. The two had become friends as rival coaches when Lee was an assistant at South Carolina and Heath with the Cougars. Their paths had crossed on the recruiting trail and a quick friendship had ensued.
“We just seemed to always run into each other and we hit it off from the beginning,” said Lee, who left C of C to become the head coach at Clemson last June. “I knew if I ever got a head job I was going to try and hire him, but he’d been a hitting coach his whole career. I wasn’t sure he could be a pitching coach.”
After a couple of conversations, it became apparent to Lee that he’d found the right guy to lead his pitching staff.
“Matt is the smartest baseball guy I know,” Lee said. “He talked about what he wanted to do with our pitching staff and I knew he was the guy I wanted.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Cougars’ pitching staff quickly became the strength of the team and one of the top staffs in the country. In 2014, the pitching staff helped carry the Cougars to one of the best seasons in program history. Charleston advanced to the NCAA Lubbock Super Regional behind a phenomenal weekend rotation made up of a redshirt sophomore and two true freshmen. The Cougars broke a number of school records in ERA (2.73), opposing batting average (.224), walks per nine innings (2.55), WHIP (1.10) and tied the school record for saves (20). The Cougars’ ERA ranked No. 18 in the nation, the WHIP ranked seventh and the strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.89 ranked No. 9 in the country.
“Matt has very high standards and expects his guys to meet those standards,” Lee said. “I don’t think there’s anyone better at getting more out of a kid than Matt Heath. He sets the bar so high and then makes sure they reach all of their goals.”
When Lee left for Clemson last summer, Heath could have gone with him as the Tigers pitching coach. He was offered both jobs — Clemson pitching coach and College of Charleston head coach — within hours of each other.
“Toughest decision of my life,” Heath said. “Monte’s my best friend, and not being able to work with him on a daily basis was going to be tough, but I decided the time was right for myself and my family to be a head coach.”
The current Cougars players couldn’t have been happier with Heath’s decision to stay in the Lowcountry.
“Coach Heath is a great hire for our program,” said redshirt sophomore Bailey Ober. “He holds a certain expectation for all of us players — one that pushes us to become better players on the field and better men off the field. I’m really excited for next season and can’t wait to get out there with the guys.”
Making the transition from assistant coach to head coach will have its share of bumps in the road, Heath admitted. While, he’ll still be involved with the pitchers, he knows he’ll have to spread himself around the field more.
“When you’re an assistant, your focus is on your guys and what they’re doing,” Heath said. “I wish there were two of me so I could be with the pitchers 24/7 and the hitters 24/7, but I can’t think like that. I’ll spend time with the pitchers like I used to, but I’m going to have be around the hitters as well. I think that’ll be the biggest adjustment for me.”
Heath, who finished his playing college career with LSU, said the lessons he learned from legendary LSU coach Skip Bertman will help him as a head coach.
“I think you take something from every coach you played for or worked with,” Heath said. “I’ve got to let my assistants do their job. The thing I learned from coach Bertman was how to manage people. He spent a lot of time with everyone. But he wasn’t in the cages all the time and he wasn’t in the pen every single day. He let his assistant coaches coach and spent a lot of time with everyone.”