With the start of the season beginning this Saturday down in San Antonio against Prairie View A&M, the fans got to see the 2007 Notre Dame team up close before the real fun kicks off. Schrage invited former Irish player and two-time World Series champion Craig Counsell and Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. The new Irish skipper kicked off the speaking duties and the fans in the Joyce Center North dome could tell how much it meant for him to be there.
"I'm so excited to be at Notre Dame," Schrage said. "I told people on the day I got the job that it's a dream job. I meant that. It's a job I always hoped to have and worked hard to have. I'm very humbled to be here. The turnout here is overwhelming and I'm looking forward to leading this group."
Schrage assumed the Irish job after Mainieri left to be the head man at LSU. Schrage led Evansville last season to their second-best year in school history and one win away from an NCAA Regional Championship. After getting the job, he took some direction from athletic director Kevin White.
"I wanted to rush out onto the recruiting trail," Schrage said. "He told me to find out a little bit about Notre Dame and really know what the spirit of Notre Dame is about. I thought that was good advice."
To immerse himself in the culture, he read the book "Spirit of Notre Dame" by Jim Langford. Schrage quoted a few passages from it to the crowd to help them understand his view of how important being a part of the Irish family is to him. This year, he'll have his work cut out for himself. Notre Dame lost three of its top four pitchers to graduation or to the professional ranks on a team that went 45-17-1 in 2006. Schrage wants to improve on last year's NCAA Tournament appearance and help his players become better by the time they depart South Bend.
"We want them to achieve three goals when they leave," Schrage said. "First, we want them to receive a diploma. Second of all, earn a championship ring. That's something special and they'll have for the rest of their lives. Third, to have them feel good in their hearts about the time here at Notre Dame. If we do those three things, we've done our job as head coaches."
Counsell took the podium next. He will be entering his 11th year of baseball in the major leagues. Counsell's stats aren't impressive. He has a lifetime average of .260. But it's the other parts of his game the define that type of player he is. Counsell, known for his defense and smarts on the diamond, has won two World Series titles, one with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the other in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Consider what Leyland, who managed Counsell on the 1997 Marlins team, said about how important his former player was to winning.
"I think there's a fine line between enough stars and too many," Leyland said. "I really do. Craig wasn't a star but we don't win championships without players like Craig Counsell. You can talk about the stars and the names on the back. But they don't always play real good. We wouldn't have won the World Series in 1997 without Craig Counsell. We would have been good but not won the World Series."
Counsell, a 1992 graduate, credited the environment at Notre Dame with him becoming the player and person he is today.
"The thing I liked about Notre Dame was that you got to surround yourselves with people that always challenge themselves and want to make themselves better," Counsell said. "I think that's why I blossomed in this atmosphere because you surround yourself with those people and understand where hard work can take you. You realize you can outwork people to outdo talent differences and realize what it means to be surrounded by quality people. That's what it's like to be at Notre Dame."
Leyland, though, stole the show. The Tiger skipper spoke for almost 20 minutes and had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He sprinkled a variety of jokes into his monologue. The best one might have been when he referenced getting pulled over earlier in the afternoon while traveling to the banquet. The officer told Leyland he had been waiting for someone like him all day.
"Well, I got here as fast as I could," Leyland quipped back to the trooper as the audience roared with laughter.
Leyland's Tigers made an incredible turnaround of around 70 games from 2005 to 2006. Detroit beat the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics to reach the World Series last season. They eventually lost to the St. Louis Cardinals but the reversal of fortune has earned Leyland praise from many corners of the sports world. He mentioned the inspiration of the late Kirby Puckett as the model of a great teammate and how that changed the Tigers from an average team with good players into a championship caliber squad. Leyland, who talked to both the baseball and hockey teams this afternoon, mentioned another aspect to winning programs.
"I talked to two of your athletic teams today and how I told them to develop a swagger," Leyland said. "Not cockiness but a confident swagger. I think that's very important. You respect all your opponents but you fear none. I told my team in spring training when you watch the New York Yankees or any of the good players, you take a little longer to watch them and there's something special about them, just like there's something special about the place I'm speaking at tonight."