MANHATTAN — New Kansas State baseball coach Pete Hughes covered a wide range of topics at his introductory news conference on Tuesday, but his message boiled down to one word.
“Our athletes will prepare at an Omaha pace and at an Omaha standard,” he said, “so we can play at an Omaha level.”
Like any ambitious college baseball coach, making it to Omaha for the College World Series is Hughes’ goal. And he is not shy about stating it now that he is in command of the Wildcats.
That destination feels a long way off at the moment for K-State, which parted ways with Brad Hill following five straight seasons without a NCAA Tournament bid and back-to-back last place finishes in the Big 12. But Hughes is confident it will one day be within reach.
Omaha or Bust ... That might as well be his motto.
“That is how I wake up every day,” Hughes said. “That is my goal and it always has been. I would never get involved with a program if I didn’t think that was a reality. They proved they were one game away from it in 2013. Do I think I can take a team to Omaha at Kansas State? Absolutely. I would be short-changing the following if my goals were any less than that.”
Is Hughes the right man to guide K-State to that type of success?
K-State athletic director Gene Taylor thinks so. When he began evaluating candidates to replace Hill, the most successful baseball coach in school history, he looked for a man capable of returning the Wildcats to the glory they experienced in 2013 when they won the Big 12 and reached a NCAA Super Regional.
Taylor focused on people with head coaching experience, a winning background and a track record for turning struggling teams into winners.
Applications poured in from across the country, and Taylor said he seriously spoke with half a dozen coaches. But Hughes quickly separated himself from the pack.
“Initially, we will have to show patience,” Taylor said. “It is going to take some time to build this program to where I want it and to where he wants it, but ultimately we need to not just hope to be in the Big 12 Tournament. We have to be in the Big 12 Tournament and play for a Big 12 championship.
I think what happened in 2013 and before then wasn’t an anomaly. I think we can get back there ... He has a great formula for how to get there and I expect it to happen in the next couple years.”
Hughes took an interesting path to K-State.
He spent the past season as a volunteer assistant at Georgia, where he served as first-base coach and offered suggestions to head coach Scott Stricklin. Before that, he was the head coach at Boston College, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma.
He has piled up 652 victories over 21 years and appeared in three NCAA Tournaments, but he has never led a team beyond the regional round. He has never coached in the College World Series.
Hughes also resigned from his last post at Oklahoma in 2017 following a 35-win season that included a trip to the NCAA Tournament. During his four seasons in Norman, the Sooners showed yearly improvement and went 128-107-1. But they never finished better than third in the Big 12, and a new coach guided them to a NCAA Regional this year.
Why didn’t things work out for Hughes?
“I left with my head high and feeling real good about my accomplishments at Oklahoma,” Hughes said. “We just couldn’t get on the same page at the end. It was amicable. We both shook hands at the end and said, ‘Good luck.’”
Taylor said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione gave Hughes a strong recommendation.
“Their expectations might have been a little higher than what they wanted,” Taylor said. “I talked to Joe and he said, ‘Gene, we just got to a point where we felt we needed to go in a different direction. Long term I didn’t think he would get us to the level we thought we could. But he is really a great guy and really a great coach.’”
In the end, Taylor thought enough of Hughes to offer him a five-year contract and a $375,000 salary. That’s $60,000 more than K-State was paying Hill. He thinks Hughes’ past experience, and recruiting familiarity, with the Big 12 footprint will help.
Hughes coached against K-State every year while he was at Oklahoma and admired the Wildcats from afar, saying they displayed ideal toughness. He hasn’t met any current K-State players, but he has compiled scouting reports on many of them.
With a stronger focus on fundamentals and an infusion of pitching talent, he thinks the Wildcats can improve right away. K-State has always been solid on offense. He wants to help on defense.
“If you can’t pitch, you are not going to win at this level,” Hughes said. “You can’t hide that. You can’t hide poor defense. We have to change who we are defensively and on the mound. That is probably going to have to be done through the recruiting market and really preaching fundamentals.”
Those will be some of his first steps as K-State’s baseball coach. He hopes they lead the Wildcats down a path to Omaha.
“Is Kansas State a program that needs to be revamped a little bit? Absolutely,” Hughes said. “But it has proven to have success in the past. The fact that there will be no growing pains with me as far as recruiting network and region and getting to the know the league was very appealing.”