Pete Hughes doesn’t do anything halfway.
Virginia Tech’s head baseball coach only knows one way to attack a situation: head on. Whether that comes from his background as a football coach and player, family man, community service advocate, or baseball coach, Hughes makes sure his presence is felt.
Don’t mistake his energy for intimidation or his enthusiasm for fakeness. Hughes is the face of baseball at Tech, but it didn’t come easy.
“Everyone’s got the trials and tribulations of sacrificing in this crazy profession,” Hughes said. “You’ve got to have a good wife, you’ve got to have goals and you have to be persistent. Sometimes it works out for you, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s worked out great for us.”
The Hokies, who finished 35-21 in 2012, are poised for a breakout 2013 season. In his six years in Blacksburg, Hughes has already climbed the all-time wins list at the school, trailing only Chuck Hartman and G.F. “Red” Laird with 182 wins. At the age of 43, Hughes has coached 16 seasons of college baseball, amassing a record of 484-363-2 entering 2013.
His success is a testament to the sacrifices he’s made in his early coaching career, a journey that has taken him to five schools before the age of 40 and often tested his and his family’s resolve.
Climbing the ladder
Unlike the specialization of today’s young athletes, Hughes never had a dull moment growing up athletically.
A two-sport athlete at Boston College High School, Hughes played football and baseball for the Eagles, an accomplishment he feels shaped who he is today and was a major reason he chose Davidson College.
“That’s why I went to college,” Hughes said. “I couldn’t see myself going to college for four more years and not doing what I’d done my whole life. After making an academic decision, which my parents told me to make, playing two sports was the second criteria, and that was it.”
A four-year starter at quarterback and a three-year starter at third base, Hughes graduated in 1990 with a degree in sociology/anthropology. His next step — coaching — kicked off a wild ride through his 20’s and 30’s.
“(I knew I wanted to coach) from day one,” Hughes said. “It was going to be football though. I was going to be a college football coach — that’s what I was going to do.”
Hughes took his first job in 1990 as an assistant football coach at Hamilton College, a small school in upstate New York. To make extra money, Hughes also served as a baseball assistant during the spring, bringing his annual salary up to $4,000.
“That’s what drives me nuts with all these guys saying, ‘I’d take that job, but I can’t afford it,’” Hughes said. “If you want that job, and you want to be great at it, you just figure it out. We don’t talk about money — we do what we always do, which is figure it out.”
A year later, Hughes became a graduate assistant at Northeastern in Boston, Ma. Head coach Barry Gallup, who would become the athletic director, approached Hughes asking if he would assist with the baseball team. Hughes would go on to become the full-time defensive line coach for the football team, a position that required hours and hours away from home recruiting.
At 23, Hughes was the youngest assistant coach in the Division I-AA ranks. Gallup kept Hughes’ recruiting area local, which provided stiff competition from some of today’s highest-profile coaches.
“I’m recruiting with Chip Kelly (head coach, Philadelphia Eagles); we’ve got the same area, same hotels and are going to the same schools,” Hughes said. “Doug Marrone (head coach, Buffalo Bills) slept on my couch for two years at Northeastern. I worked with Joe Philbin (head coach, Miami Dolphins) at Northeastern. These are the guys I ran with.”
During his time at Northeastern, Hughes began thinking about a future for himself and his family. He married his wife, Debbie, during his final year at Northeastern, and the two knew they wanted to have a big family. College football, for all its big salaries and high profile games, was not conducive to the life Hughes wanted.
“There’s not very much job security,” Hughes said. “I was working a ton, and I could never rationalize these guys that work so hard and only do it 10 Saturdays a year. I want to work hard and work crazy, because I think I can outwork anybody and play 56 times.”
Hughes interviewed for the baseball head coaching position at Harvard as well as Williams College. At Williams, Hughes got his first big break — a relationship with athletic director Bob Peck, which materialized into a head coaching position at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex.
With his wife nine months pregnant, the Hughes family boarded a plane 10 days later for Texas.
“My whole plan was, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go, turn the thing around and get another job, and I’m leaving,’” Hughes said.
After winning a school-record 33 games in 1998, Hughes had an opportunity to return to his home state of Massachusetts. Boston College came calling, and Hughes was ready.
“There’s no way I’m not getting this job.”
Hughes is a Boston guy through and through, and make no mistake, Boston College was a job he desperately wanted.
“When you grow up in New England, there’s only one school — it’s Boston College,” Hughes said. “I was going to be the next Doug Flutie.”
The Eagles, a program in the basement of the Big East, were either going to drop the program or get serious. Hughes thought he was the perfect fit for the job.
“I’m an excitable, enthusiastic, young head coach with Boston roots,” Hughes said. “I must’ve called every connection I knew to flood Gene DiFillippo’s office with phone calls.”
Hughes interviewed for the Boston College position on July 3, the day Hughes’ childhood neighbor Jay McGillis died of leukemia. McGillis played football at Boston College under now-New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.
“There’s no way I’m not getting this job,” Hughes said.
Despite his confidence, Hughes pulled out all the stops in securing his job in Chestnut Hill. He went as far as waiting for Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo to arrive at work around 6:30 a.m. two days after his official interview.
“I jump out of my car, ‘Coach, I just want to say if you hire me that I’ll exceed your expectations. Morning,’” Hughes said. “Then I get in the car and drive away.”
Hughes turned the Eagles into a respectable program in his eight years there, averaging 31 wins a season. He found success despite scholarship limits, poor facilities and the New England climate, which is not conducive for college baseball.
The next step of his journey pulled Hughes from one commonwealth to another — a transition he’s made seamlessly.
Building another program
Boston College gave Hughes an avenue to rise through the national spotlight, ultimately allowing him to interview at Virginia Tech in 2006.
“I think he believed that he had a better chance of getting to Omaha in Blacksburg than he did in Boston,” said Jon Jaudon, director of athletics for administration at Tech.
In his six years at Tech, Hughes has propelled the Hokies to as high as No. 12 in the country and has put dozens of players into professional baseball. Following in the footsteps of Hartman at Tech, Hughes has taken the Hokies to the next level.
When he interviewed at Tech, Hughes had no intention of taking the job. The draw of raising a family in the Blacksburg community was a big factor for Hughes, who has five children ranging from the age of seven to 15. The main factor in Hughes ultimately taking the job was a chance to win.
“I’m negligent as a parent if I get into a situation as a coach where they don’t want to win, because I’m going to get fired in three or four years,” Hughes said. “I had to figure out if they want to win; they did, and professionally, I’m motivated by getting to the highest level of college baseball, and I thought I could do that here more so than at Boston College.
Hughes, along with Jaudon, took his ideas of what baseball at Tech could be to Athletic Director Jim Weaver.
“(Hughes) and I agreed on a vision for our program, and we sold that vision to Jim Weaver, and Jim Weaver supported that vision,” Jaudon said. “That vision really centers around providing our student athletes the greatest opportunity to advance their skill level in baseball.”
The Hokies made that product worth investing in, gaining national recognition during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Hughes built the Hokies into winners, but still finds himself behind the eight ball in the recruiting game. When he couldn’t sell wins and losses, he sold the community with the help of football coach Frank Beamer.
“Coach Beamer has gotten us more recruits than any other coach on our recruiting staff here,” Hughes said. “When we couldn’t sell wins and losses, we hired the right people that went out and recruited like crazy, and we sold ourselves.”
Along with Jaudon, Hughes has seen great improvements to the facilities. Before last season, English Field was renovated to be completely artificial turf, allowing the Hokies to practice in all weather conditions. Prior to the start of the 2009 season, the Hokies built an indoor hitting facility as well.
“At Boston College, I was sick of coaching indoors,” Hughes said. “Seventy percent of my coaching life was indoors in a bubble. I want to recruit kids to come south of the mason Dixon line. I want to go outside and practice.”
The upgrades and athletic department support are all to chase one goal: the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“Every year that is our goal we set for the team — Omaha,” said Chad Pinder, third baseman. “We do take it game by game, but that is our goal as a team — to get to that little place in Nebraska.”
Hughes has the tools in place to be successful. With an administration backing him, the Hokies are all in to go to Omaha.
“In 10 years, I want to be wearing Chicago maroon and burnt orange, and I want to be an Omaha team consistently,” Hughes said. “We’re close, and our guys understand how close we are.”