Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
PROVO — Mike Littlewood is just one of those men.
If you had a dozen cold, confused and discouraged people stranded on a frosty peak of Mount Everest, Littlewood would be the guy you'd want to get them to the next peak.
BYU’s new baseball coach is part psychologist, therapist, educator and taskmaster. He’s a perfectionist, a motivator who isn’t afraid to call people out, push buttons or take away playing time. In the process, he shows plenty of evidence that he’s part baseball sage and part swami. In short, he gets people to step forward and find a way.
This weekend, the Cougars, picked to finish sixth in the WCC, secured one of four spots in the league championship tournament in Stockton, Calif., May 23-25 by sweeping a three-game series against St. Mary’s in Provo. This comes after taking a series with talented San Francisco 2-1. And that came after winning the season series against rival Utah 2-1. And that came after upsetting then No. 22-ranked Gonzaga.
Before all that, Littlewood pushed the Cougars to defeat No. 21-ranked UC Irvine twice. And two weeks before that, in the early weeks of this season, he took a cold winter program to the warm-weather deep South and watched the Cougars upset No. 2-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge, La. And before that, BYU had the Tigers on the ropes and nearly swept LSU, a team that entered this weekend 48-7 and 23-6 in the SEC.
So, what’s up with this guy?
In simple terms, he came to BYU from Dixie State with a very simple goal for a program that was 22-27 a year ago: He wanted BYU players to “compete every play, every game, every day,” and he challenged everyone in a Cougar uniform to believe or get out of the way.
“If you just compete at this level, if you get 18- and 20-year-olds to compete, that mindset will carry you a long way. These guys have really done that,” said Littlewood.
As it stands now, the Cougars are 30-19 after sweeping St. Mary’s in Provo. The Cougars have won 10 of their last 12 games and have earned the No. 3 seed in the WCC tournament.
As far as college RPI goes, the Cougars are considered a bubble team for the NCAA baseball Tournament. There have already been calls to campus to inquire if BYU would play on Sunday.
Going into this week, San Diego (No. 50) and BYU (No. 52) have the best RPI in the WCC and those rankings are better than plenty of names with flavor, like Ohio State, Baylor, Texas and seven Pac-12 teams.
So, what makes Littlewood the man?
I asked his assistants, guys he brought with him as part of a coaching package when he accepted the job to follow Vance Law.
Trent Pratt, a former player at Auburn and Arizona State, has known Littlewood since he played for him as an eighth-grader.
“He has a presence about him and he commands a lot of respect,” said Pratt. “People play hard for him. I’ve coached with him for six years and that’s been the nuts and bolts of our team, that players play hard for him and he gets it out of guys some way or how. It may be tough on them, but he pulls from them their very best.”
Brett Adams, a former Littlewood player at Dixie State, agrees.
“He gets 100 percent out of his players,” said Adams, who says there is another trait Littlewood possesses that promotes trust, confidence, belief, faith or whatever you want to call it.
“Coach Littlewood’s baseball IQ is off the charts. It seems like he makes the right call, whether it’s a pinch hitter or bringing someone out of the pen. His baseball IQ really keeps us in the game and helps us win games. He makes the right decision almost every single time. I think baseball IQ is a little hard to understand, but when you see someone who has it, it is a tremendous attribute.”
Proof is in the record.
Littlewood has the Cougars believing they can play better than anybody in the WCC.
And right now, they’re the league’s hottest club.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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