On Nov. 28, 2017, Gary Van Tol was named the head baseball coach for Boise State. The first season is set for spring 2020, and it will be the first time Boise State has taken the field since the program was discontinued in 1980. Van Tol brings 27 years of coaching experience to Bronco baseball, 17 as a college coach and 10 as a professional league coach. Since the day he was hired, Van Tol has been making plans and taking action to get the program off the ground. From developing his philosophy to establishing groundwork for a new stadium, Van Tol is prepared to take on this challenge and build the best team possible.
The following Q&A has been edited for content and clarity.
What was your path to coaching baseball?
I grew up in Canada, so the winters were long and the summers were short. I grew up in a small town, and I was really fortunate because a lot of my buddies were athletes. So that kept me out of trouble, but hockey was my first passion and my dream was to play in the NHL. I did baseball in the summer to stay busy and stay in shape and I had a couple opportunities to go to the states and play junior college baseball, but hockey was going very well at the time so I decided to focus on that. I left home when I was 16 to go play junior hockey.
I was getting ready for training camp the next year when the head baseball coach at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon called me and said, “I know you’re not playing, but if you have any second thoughts, we would love to give you a shot.” I went into Rick Baumann’s office, the head coach and athletic director who is one of my mentors now, and I said “give me 10 days. And if you don’t think I have a shot at playing then I’ll go back to Canada for training camp for hockey.” He was kind of surprised because the only reason I came to the states was to pursue a baseball career. He told me I had a shot to make the team and contribute, so I called my hockey coach and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back.
And the rest is history, as they say. I played two years there then got a scholarship to play at Gonzaga for the last two years. I was selected to play for Team Canada, so I played for them for three years after that, then signed a pro contract in the Netherlands for two years. In the meantime, I was finishing my masters degree at Gonzaga. My undergrad was in communications and my masters was in athletic and physical education administration.
Why did you apply for this position?
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a program from scratch in a community that my wife and I wanted to raise our family in and at a school and athletic department where we knew a lot of people. You can coach your whole life and never land in a position where all the stars are aligned, that’s why I was intrigued to throw my name in the hat. I was in a great position with the Cubs Organization and loved my time there.
There was a lot of interest all around the country for obvious reasons because of the opportunity to start a Division I program from scratch in a great community with great support, tradition and culture.
How did you feel when you found out that you got the job?
Humbled. You put yourself in that position where you’re only going to get one of two phone calls. The interview process took a while. Because of it being a new program, the athletic department needed to take its time to make sure that it had everything in line. I heard there were over 100 applicants and some very qualified guys.
When Curt Apsey (Boise State’s athletic director) called me and offered me the job, a lot of thoughts went through my head of all the years, the grind, all the sacrifices, all those days away from your family, and you kind of reflect. I was overwhelmed and thrilled that I was the guy at the end that they offered the job to. It was a cool moment for me, my wife (Christina Van Tol, Boise State senior associate athletic director for internal operations and senior woman administrator) and four kids.
This is a special place where we are looking to be for awhile. There was a while where we were moving every couple of years, but now I think we have found home. The people here really make it what it is and we both get up every day and we get to do something that we love to do together.
Having a chance to work with student athletes at this time in their life is a unique opportunity and to try and make a positive impact in their journey is really the reward. That’s another reason for me to come back to the college game because (the athletes) are what make it different from the pro game. You are evaluating high school players, recruiting them and building a relationship with them before they even come to school, Then once they get to school you get to coach them and that could be as long as 5-6 years at times.
This is the first BSU baseball team since 1980; is that a lot of pressure for you?
I welcome that pressure, which I always have. There’s a strong winning tradition and culture at Boise State, not just in football but all the programs. I want to work at a place like that because no one is complacent and kicking their feet up thinking that the world will come to them. I feel obligated, by being offered this position, to put together a well-respected program. Of course everyone’s goal is to win championships, but I want to create a program that people will be proud of, that is strong and developing not only professional baseball players, but professionals in every line of work that will go on and represent Boise State with class and professionalism.
Those expectations are big, and I have to just remember to breathe and take a step back because there’s so much that I want to do, but you can only lay one brick at a time. With our first season being in 2020, we have some time, but the time is now. We’ve got to build a new facility, raise money and right now I’m solo. I’ll be able to bring a staff in around June or July. People are fired up in the community, every day I’m getting an email or a phone call about it … The most important thing is that this isn’t about me, it’s about Boise State and being a Bronco. I want as many people as I can to have input. I welcome any help and comments from anybody that has something to share, like what color our turf should be on the field. I want to know what the students want; for example, I’m thinking of creating a student section along the visiting side. I want there to be a special place for students on campus. That’s part of the experience, and it’s going to be important for our players. Listening to what people are saying is important to me because at the end of the day, I’m only going to be here for so long and we have an opportunity to really build something special that will be here for a long time
What is your coaching style?
It has changed over time. I look at things a lot differently now after my years of experience. It’s about the player. You need to instill rules and regulations and have expectations and goals, but at the end of the day, you want to empower the players. This is my 28th year in coaching, and I’m always searching for ways to do a better job and I know I still have a lot to learn. I plan to communicate my expectations, make sure everyone understands them and is in agreement and then help each individual player mold his path because everybody is different. I see the value of understanding that even though we play as a team, we all have to buy into helping and serving the guy next to you.
People who don’t know me ask what I do for a living and I tell them that I predict the future and seek the truth. In my line of work, I go watch a high school player and I have to predict who they’re going to be as an athlete 3 years down the road.
Is this program going to be involved with the club team at all?
The club team will run as a club team and we will run independently. But, if there is somebody on the club team that is qualified to compete a D1 level, I will let them try out. And if there is somebody going to school here who has the skill-set to compete at this level, I would love to find out. This may change, but I would like to have a tryout for anyone who is interested in making the team for the guys that haven’t been discovered yet. Baseball is such a late developing sport that a lot of kids don’t even reach their full potential because nobody is offering an opportunity for them to continue to play. We would like to have that opportunity for guys on campus. As far as a partnership or something with the club team, I don’t see that happening.
Do you have any plans to help cover the costs of the team?
We will do whatever we have to; it took a lot of time to think through with the powers to be at Boise State. I know and understand that there’s a lot of work to be done. We are getting word out to people about season tickets to get a headcount of how many people are seriously interested in purchasing them, and that will help us to determine how big to make the stadium.
There’s no question that there are potential donors out there. There’s a passionate baseball community in town and they’re fired up and will pay for a ticket. It’s not going to bury the university, the decision wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t possible. The people here are serious and they are going to do it right and fund it. The ultimate goal would be getting it to be self-sustaining.
Anything else that Bronco Fans should know?
At the end of the day, we are looking for the right players. Those are the guys who really want to be here, that really feel what this place has to offer. We are going to play hard with energy and give it our best effort. I think people are going to appreciate the time and money that they spent to come out whether we win or lose and know that our guys are playing the right way and respecting the game. We are going to represent the school and community and be another piece of the puzzle that adds to what this university has to offer.