Baseball remains a nomad’s life, filled with countless days on the road.
That’s why coaching a team in his hometown was such a meaningful time for former Boise Hawks manager Gary Van Tol. And that’s why he jumped at the opportunity to re-establish the Boise State baseball program.
The Broncos on Tuesday officially announced Van Tol as their first baseball coach since disbanding the sport in 1980, turning over the reins of the upstart program to the Boise resident.
And Van Tol is already bringing a wealth of new ideas to Boise State, including proposing an artificial blue turf field for the program.
“This opportunity doesn’t come around often, especially in a city that you call home and that you want to raise your family and your children in,” Van Tol said. “That’s special. That’s special for me. That’s really the only opportunity I would even consider looking at it with my situation with the Chicago Cubs.
“The fact that it became a reality, I don’t know if it’s really hit me yet.”
Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey declined to reveal the terms of Van Tol’s contract before it’s approved by the State Board of Education, likely Dec. 20-21. But he said the proposed deal is for five years starting in December.
Van Tol brings 17 years of college baseball coaching experience and 10 years at the professional level to the Broncos. He started coaching with the Boise Hawks as a volunteer in 2008 before managing the club in 2013 and ’14, leading the Hawks to the 2013 Northwest League Championship Series and to the playoffs in 2014.
That provided Van Tol the envious opportunity to manage a team and sleep in his own bed. But when the Cubs left Boise for Eugene, Van Tol followed. He managed Eugene in 2015, then declined an offer from the Cubs to move up to a full-season club to remain close to his family.
He told the Idaho Statesman in June he hadn’t seriously considered the upcoming Boise State position. But when he returned home this summer, he had two days to decide if he was all in on the rebuilding project before the Broncos’ application deadline.
Van Tol, 50, has coached at nearly every level of baseball, leading junior colleges (Treasure Valley in Oregon and Centralia in Washington) and assistant coaching at Division I programs (Gonzaga and Portland) before joining the professional ranks. But Boise State marks his first head coaching job at the Division I level.
He inherits extra challenges as Boise State tries to found a program in time for the 2020 season, including building a stadium, fundraising, hiring a coaching staff, setting a schedule and recruiting.
Apsey said he’s confident the Broncos found the right man for the job.
“You probably have to do all of those at the same time, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves,” Apsey said. “If I know Gary Van Tol, he’s halfway down the road in all those areas already.”
ANOTHER BLUE FIELD?
Van Tol and Apsey said an artificial-turf field — infield and outfield — will be a necessity for the planned on-campus stadium.
The NCAA college baseball season starts in February, long before grass starts growing in the Treasure Valley. That will force the Broncos to warmer climates for most of their early-season schedule, but an artificial turf would allow Boise State to avoid some of the issues caused by rain and snow.
Van Tol even floated the idea of imitating the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium.
“I’m all for blue,” he said. “If people are up for that, why not? Maybe kind of a burnt-orange infield. I think that would really make a statement.”
ON-CAMPUS STADIUM A ‘DEAL-BREAKER’
Van Tol called Boise State’s stadium decision a potential “deal-breaker.” The school decided to walk away from a proposed Downtown Boise baseball stadium for the Hawks and build its own park.
Boise State plans to build a baseball stadium north of the intersection of Beacon Street and Grant Avenue, Boise State President Bob Kustra said Nov. 17.
“It was an important decision when I heard the announcement come out,” Van Tol said. “... That definitely got me more excited than I could be before that announcement came out.”
Van Tol had experience sharing a stadium with the University of Oregon while he managed the Eugene Emeralds. He said battling the weather and scheduling field time is complicated with two tenants. It’d become even more complicated with a proposed professional soccer team with an overlapping schedule sharing a Downtown stadium.
Van Tol said Boise State having its own field will allow the Broncos to use the field more freely, host camps and host community events.
“With the (NCAA) time restrictions, if the players want to go out and take some ground balls and hit without the coaches around, they’ll be able to do that. That’s a big deal,” Van Tol said. “Plus, you can build it the Bronco way. People are going to know when they come into the facility that it’s Boise State’s facility, which I think is special in the end.”
FUNDRAISING WILL BE KEY
Boise State is taking a financial gamble by bringing back baseball, so fundraising stands high on Van Tol’s list of priorities.
Boise State plans to spend $1 million per year on baseball, with another $1 million needed for women’s athletics to comply with Title IX requirements.
The median baseball program at a university with an FBS football program lost $926,000, according to NCAA data from 2015.
After devoting himself to developing talent full time as a professional coach, Van Tol knows fundraising poses a different challenge. But Aspey said it’s not all on Van Tol.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily about him going out and finding money. It’s creating and maintaining the relationships with the people that care about baseball here,” Apsey said. “He’s got those contacts and those relationships already.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but for him to be able to go out and tell the story about what he wants this program to be, I think that’s going to fire people up. Because it fired me up when he told me about it.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Van Tol becomes the second member of his family to join the Boise State athletic department. His wife, Christina, is the senior associate athletic director for internal operations.
Apsey dismissed any notions of favoritism. He said Christina was never involved in the coaching search and that Van Tol will report to him as he builds the program.
“Fortunately for Christina and Gary, they’re not going to work together much, obviously,” Apsey said. “He can’t report to her, and she was not involved in the search in any way. In fact, I kind of felt bad for her. She was ignored for the last three weeks pretty much going down the hallway.”
NO RECRUITS UNTIL 2019
Van Tol said he won’t bring in his first recruiting class until the fall of 2019 before the program begins in the spring of 2020.
That may seem like a long way off. But as the founder of the Idaho Cubs, a developmental youth baseball program in Boise, Van Tol knows high schoolers make their college commitments earlier and earlier each year.
“We do have some time to reach out to some people and identify and evaluate talent, starting in the state of Idaho,” he said. “That will be our No. 1 priority, and then we’ll branch out from there.
“This is an easy place to recruit to. I’m not going to have to put on my best sales hat to get somebody fired up to come to Boise.”
BUILDING A SCHEDULE
Van Tol said assembling a schedule might form his toughest challenge. Many programs already have begun setting their 2020 schedules, and Boise’s geographic isolation makes Utah, BYU and Utah Valley the closest Division I opponents for midweek games.
“That’s not an hour’s drive,” Van Tol said. “But we’re going to have to be prepared to do some of those things, get on a bus and get on the road and go and play some quality opponents. We’re going to put together a schedule that people are going to be excited about.”