Cal Athletics

Will Mike Neu replace David Esquer as Cal's head baseball coach?

Who will succeed David Esquer as Cal baseball's head coach? We give you the run-down on some of the leading candidates.

For the first time in modern history, California will have new head coaches for baseball, football and basketball headed into a new school year. It's now been officially announced that 18-year Bears skipper David Esquer has been named the head coach at his alma mater, Stanford, replacing his retired mentor, Mark Marquess. Who replaces him? We've got a few names, including one that's a runaway favorite. The stakes for this hire are high. With Cal in dire financial straits, sport cuts are a distinct possibility, if not an outright certainty. If cuts are made, they will have to be across the board, and that means running into Title IX. If women's sports are cut, there will have to be an even larger cut among men's sports, putting programs like baseball (36-40 participants), rugby (59 roster spots as of 2016-17), and crew (61 male participants) in jeopardy. 

This hire has to be able to create enough donor excitement to lift the term endowment into a permanent endowment, win enough to keep donor money and ticket revenue coming in for the foreseeable future and understand how to deal with the recruiting landscape, in terms of academics. This hire also has to accept the job with the knowledge that it may not last very long.

"[We're] Trying to slow the locomotive down," said former Cal pitching coach and current Miami Marlins scout John Hughes, part of the Cal Baseball Foundation. "Too many people want answers right now and we will move quick but not fast. [The] Foundation has a voice but we have to discuss our target points on what we want from the next head coach. We are formulating that process now and will continue throughout the weekend. That's what I got. There are rumors and speculations out there but nothing has gone that far."

With that said, on to the speculation.

Mike Neu | Head coach, Pacific | Age: 39

Cal Athletics

Former Cal pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Neu is a personal favorite of American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame manager Bob Milano, who skippered the Bears for 22 seasons. Milano himself has told BearTerritory that he and Neu have a close relationship, and that Neu even chides him for not recruiting him when he was coming out of junior college. Neu is by far the frontrunner. A source familiar with the search has said that in response to an inquiry by those directing the search, current Cal players issued an almost universal response: They want Mike Neu.

Neu is very interested in the job, and has, according to sources familiar with his thinking, been waiting for this opportunity ever since he got into coaching. This has been his ultimate goal.

An alumnus of Napa (Calif.) Vintage, Neu closed out the 1999 College World Series for Miami, before moving on to the professional ranks, spending time in the Major Leagues with the Oakland Athletics and the then-Florida Marlins. He spent time as an associate scout for the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves, which gives him a rich talent evaluation background -- crucial in recruiting.

Neu served as pitching coach at Diablo Valley College for two years, and then as head coach from 2009-11. As head coach, Neu went 87-41 with two conference titles in three seasons. His 2011 team ranked No. 1 in California with a 2.13 team ERA.

Neu then spent four seasons at Cal, rebuilding a program decimated by recruiting shockwaves that spun out of the cut in 2010. By his final season, 2015, Neu's pitching staff put together a 3.03 team ERA (fourth in the Pac-12). He recruited Daulton Jefferies (compensation round A, MLB Draft) and Pac-12 Player of the Year Brett Cumberland (compensation round B, MLB Draft), as well as rubber-armed four-year starter Ryan Mason (13th round of MLB Draft) and eventual second-round draft pick Lucas Erceg, who he plucked from obscurity to become one of the top third basemen in the Pac-12. Erceg spent two seasons at Cal, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2015 before having to transfer to Menlo College due to academics. In four seasons in Berkeley, Neu produced two Freshman All-Americans (Jeff Bain and Erik Martinez), a first-team All-Pac-12 pitcher (Jefferies) and eight different pitchers picked up in the MLB Draft (including Bain, who transferred to Cal Poly-Pomona this past season).

Neu also recruited current Cal No. 1 starter Jared Horn, three-year starter Matt Ladrech, weekend starter Joey Matulovich, junior closer Martinez, 10th-round pick Denis Karas, 24th-round pick Preston GrandPre, right fielder Jeffrey Mitchell and two-way star Tanner Dodson.

Neu left Berkeley after the 2015 season to take over as the head coach at the University of the Pacific, taking Cal alums Noah Jackson and Mike Reuvekamp as assistants.

Neu has guided the Tigers to a 40-65 record over the last two seasons. Pacific was 88-180 over the previous five seasons. It's not a stellar record, but Neu hasn't been able to recruit the class of player he was able to at Cal, given the fact that a Pac-12 school is better equipped than Pacific to recruit against other West Coast baseball powers. For instance, Cal, being a Pac-12 school with national television reach and a world-class education, has more pull for a kid with offers from, for example, Cal State Fullerton, St. Mary's, UC Irvine, Santa Clara, UC Santa Barbara, Gonzaga or San Francisco. When it comes to 'mid-major' baseball on the West Coast, Pacific is at the bottom of the barrel.

At Berkeley, Neu would be a recruiting machine, and he recruited a large portion of the current roster. 

At a time when sport cuts are a real possibility in the very near term, Neu would still want the job, and more than that, he could give the program's supporters something around which to rally.

Neu could very well heal the still-festering divide in the program's support base, which began to fracture after Esquer parted ways with Milano's preferred successor, Dave Lawn, and further deteriorated after Esquer fired hitting coach Jon Zuber -- who played for Milano -- after the 2009 season. 

Athletic Director Mike Williams is aware of Neu's reputation, and has expressed his fondness for Neu on several occasions. A returning Neu would be able to unite the fractious baseball donor base and perhaps help to push for a renewed effort to establish a permanent endowment. Before the season, several sources with direct knowledge of the Cal Baseball Foundation's finances said that the current term endowment could only last for three more seasons.

According to one source Neu has spoken with, the 39-year old coach has a clause in his contract with the Tigers that allows him to leave Pacific -- buyout free -- to take the Cal head coaching job, and only the Cal head coaching job. Neu is highly regarded among not only his peers, but among college baseball experts, as one of the top young coaches in the profession. He was the recruiting coordinator that put together the 2015 team that was a hair away from advancing to the Super Regionals for the first time since 2011. Beyond that, he's coached at Cal before, understands the fundraising and academic landscape and is more than familiar with the current roster. Beyond that, Neu is one of a handful of former Major League players who currently serve as college head coaches, including Wayne Graham (the 81-year old Rice head coach), Darin Erstad (Nebraska), Steve Bieser (Missouri), Scott Bradley (Princeton), Tracy Woodson (Richmond), Brian Schmack (Valparaiso), John Stuper (Yale), Steve Rodriguez (Baylor), Jeff Duncan (Kent State), Jason Beverlin (Bethune-Cookman), Danny Heep (Incarnate Word) and Andy Stankiewicz (Grand Canyon).

Andy Checketts | Head coach, UC Santa Barbara | Age: 41

Bruce Thorson / USA TODAY Sports

Checketts is another one of the top young coaches on the West Coast, having compiled a 204-139-2 record at UC Santa Barbara. He's guided the Gauchos to three postseason appearances in his first six seasons. UCSB went 24-32 this season, missing out on the Tournament, after reaching the College World Series in 2016.

Like Neu, Checketts began his coaching career in the JuCo ranks, coaching Riverside Community College pitchers in 2001, and helping the team to its second state championship. He then moved to UC Riverside for six seasons as pitching coach and recruiting coordiantor -- again, very much like Neu. He was on George Horton's first staff at the revived Oregon program, and recruited nine pitchers who would go on to become Major League Draft picks in his three years in Eugene.

After 2011, Checketts signed on to be the head coach at Santa Barbara, and immediately had to let one his best recruits go -- Chris Paul. The Aliso Viejo (Calif.) Laguna Beach shortstop had originally committed and signed with the Bears, before the school cut the program (only to see it revived after a 2011 CWS run), and was released from that Letter of Intent. He signed with the Gauchos, but once the program was reinstated, Paul asked Checketts out of his LOI, and Checketts relented, lamenting the loss of a potential All-American.

Checketts hasn't missed a beat, going 28-28 his first season in Goleta and then winning at least 34 games each season from 2013-16. In his first recruiting class, he brought in Dillon Tate, who was picked fourth overall in the 2015 draft by the Texas Rangers.

Having worked within the UC system, Checketts understands the kinds of bureaucracy he'd have to deal with, and the academic requirements he'd have to work within. He's an ace recruiter and has won at a high level in the Pac-12.

Eric Valenzuela | Head coach, St. Mary's (Moraga) | Age: 38

Valenzuela, a former pitcher for Pepperdine, was recruited to Malibu by Esquer as a transfer from Arizona State, where he reached the College World Series in 1998. 

Valenzuela started his coaching career at St. Mary's, before moving on to San Diego from 2004-09, serving as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. During his time with the Toreros, San Diego reached the NCAA Tournament three times, won two West Coast Conference regular season championships and won a program-best 44 games in 2008.

Yet another young pitching coach with recruiting chops, Valenzuela's 2006 class with the Toreros was ranked in Baseball America's Dandy Dozen. Baseball America also ranked the 2007 class as the No. 1 incoming group in the nation. Three of Valenzuela's pitchers at San Diego earned All-American status in 2007-08, including Brian Matusz -- the WCC Pitcher of the Year in 2008 -- who beat fellow future big leaguer Tyson Ross in the 2008 Long Beach State Regional.

Three of Valenzuela's pitchers (Matusz, Josh Romanski and A.J. Griffin) were named to Team USA.

Valenzuela then moved across town to serve as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at San Diego State under the legendary Tony Gwynn from 2010-13.

Valenzuela's 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes ranked in the Top 25 nationally, according to Baseball America. In 2013, the Aztecs pitching staff was the best in the Mountain West, as San Diego State won its first MWC Tournament title since 2000, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.

Valenzuela took the job at St. Mary's in 2014, and after going 16-39 in his first season, finishing ninth in the West Coast Conference, the Gaels have won no fewer than 28 games in a season. St. Mary's has gone 98-72 since that first campaign under Valenzuela (going over .500 in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever).

In 2016, the Gaels won their first outright regular season conference title, their first WCC Tournament championship and went to their first NCAA postseason, earning Valenzuela the WCC Coach of the Year.  Saint Mary’s had one All-American (Corbin Burnes) in 2016, and six all-WCC players, including three first-teamers during that 2016 season, and four of Valenzuela's players were drafted in the 2016 MLB Draft, matching the most in program history. It was the first time four Gaels went in the top-20 rounds, with three going in the top-10 for the first time since 2012.

St. Mary's is a very different animal from Cal. Basketball is the biggest draw on that campus, and there is no football program. It's a small, private school, and other than his time at San Diego State, that's all Valenzuela knows. Dealing with a large, unwieldy bureaucracy at Cal would be entirely new, though the academic requirements would be somewhat familiar for him.

Reggie Christiansen | Head coach, Sacramento State | Age: 41

Christiansen is coming off a WAC Tournament title and a trip to the Stanford Regional, the second time in three seasons he's guided the Hornets to the postseason. A disciple of John Smith, who led Sacramento State to the Division II World Series in 1986 and 1988, Christian replaced Smith eight years ago, and has gone 220-195 with the Hornets.

A 2012 and 2014 WAC Coach of the Year and MLB Northern California Scouts Division I Coach of the Year, Christiansen and the Hornets have won the eighth-most games among Division I teams in California over the last six seasons. His 200 wins since 2012 are more than the Bears and USC. Sacramento State and Cal State Fullerton are the only Division I California schools to have won at least 30 games in each of the last six seasons.

Christiansen's players have earned one All-American nod (Rhys Hoskins), five Freshman All-American honors (including pitcher Parker Brahms, the 2017 WAC Freshman of the Year) and two WAC Player of the Year awards.

Christiansen has two WAC Tournament wins under his belt (putting the Hornets in the NCAA Tournament twice, the first appearances ever for the program), with senior Justin Dillon winning the WAC Tournament MVP this season.

Sacramento State's 2017 pitching staff set a Div. I program record with 412 strikeouts. Sacramento State's .250 opposing batting average and six shutouts were both the third best in program history, while the staff led the WAC in ERA, WHIP, opposing batting average, strikeout to walk ratio and hits allowed per nine innings.  

In 2015, his pitching staff ranked third in Division I with a 1.09 WHIP, and third with 2.07 walks-per-nine. That team ranked 12th nationally in hits per nine (7.70) and set single-season school records for earned run average (2.97 - 18th best in Div. I), opposing batting average (.235) and fewest walks allowed (124).

Before arriving in Sacramento, Christiansen spent 2005-08 as the head coach at South Dakota State, where he transitioned the program to Division I, and served as the team’s hitting coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach.

Prior to his arrival at South Dakota State, Christiansen was the hitting coach at Kansas under Ritch Price for two seasons, coaching first base coach and overseeing the outfielders. In 2004, the Jayhawks hitters led the Big 12 with a .316 team batting average, the fourth highest in program history, while setting a school record with 697 hits. Kansas also shattered the school home run record during the Christiansen era, slugging 74.

Christiansen played at Menlo College from 1994-98, served as an assistant there through 1999, and became the head coach for one season in 2002.

Rich Hill | Head coach, University of San Diego | Age: 55

University of San Diego

Update 6/17: A name that's surfaced since Esquer has left has been Rich Hill, the head coach at San Diego. Hill profited from Neu's departure from Cal, plucking left-handed pitching commit Chris Murphy from the Bears' recruiting class and bringing him to the Toreros, where he earned Freshman All-American honors.

Hill started his college career as a second baseman for San Diego State from 1981-82, and then transferred to Cal Lutheran for 1983-1985. He served as the head coach for the Kingsmen from 1988-93, winning two Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and making two Division III College World Series appearances.

Hill then headed up north to take the job at San Francisco from 1994-98, before taking over the Torreros in 1999. At San Diego, he's gone 552-366-3, winning two West Coast Conference West Division regular season titles (2002, 2003), three WCC regular season titles (2007, 2008, 2010), four WCC Championship Series titles (2002, 2003, 2007, 2008), one WCC Tournament title (2013) and made eight NCAA Tournament appearances. San Diego was the No. 8 national seed in 2007, hosting a regional and becoming the first WCC team to ever be a national seed, and the first WCC team to host.

With an 884-590-3 career record, Hill is the most veteran name that's emerged so far, having been a collegiate head coach for 30 years, with 26 winning seasons. The Toreros haven't made the postseason since 2013, but he's produced big leaguers like Kris Bryant (2013 Golden Spikes winner) and Brian Matusz (2008 National Pitcher of the Year), with three straight first-round picks in Bryant, Conner Joe and Kyle Holder. For 11 years, San Diego has either been ranked or received votes in the national polls, and they've been the preseason favorite to win the WCC for the nine of the last 10 years. 

Hill has produced seven Team USA members since 2007, and coached the 2015 team that included Jefferies, and posted series wins over Cuba and Taiwan. Top Stories