Saturday’s dreary weather that shortened the San Jose State baseball season finale to five innings symbolized the state of the program under Dave Nakama. The Spartans followed that 6-0 shutout by San Diego State with a 7-3 walk-off loss to the same team in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament on Wednesday, after blowing 2-0 and 3-2 leads.
San Jose State finished the season 17-39 (7-23 MW). In four years, Nakama’s cumulative record here is 66-162 (.289). This record puts Nakama on par with other bad coaches in school history. In their first four seasons, men’s basketball coach George Nessman went 37-86 (.301), and football coach Fitz Hill went 14-33 (.298). Hill’s tenure lasted just four years but left a negative longtime impact because of a poor Academic Progress Rate that limited scholarships and hampered recruiting for several years after his departure. Unlike Nakama’s teams, Nessman’s teams showed some improvement in win-loss records beginning with his third season, but Nessman left San Jose State in 2013 with an eight-year record of 86-161 (.348) and APR sanctions.
Nakama was the first coaching hire of Gene Bleymaier as San Jose State athletic director. Having become AD in May 2012, Bleymaier faced his first job search duties two months later, when longtime baseball coach Sam Piraro retired. Associate head coach Mark O’Brien took over the team, while Bleymaier conducted a search for a new long-term coach. Ultimately, Bleymaier hired Nakama, then an assistant coach at Washington, in September.
Retrospectively, the choice to hire an outsider was the wrong one. O’Brien was a team captain for Spartan baseball as a student-athlete and later head coach at Santa Clara for a decade, with a 258-289 record from 2002 to 2011. Nakama had no ties to San Jose State but had was a head coach at Division II San Francisco State and Mission College, a junior college in Santa Clara. At San Francisco State, Nakama went 55-109 in three years. How was that not a red flag for Bleymaier in the candidate evaluation? This is probably a reason: At Washington, Nakama coached under Lindsay Meggs, who played baseball at UCLA in the early 1980s, overlapping Bleymaier’s final year as an associate AD there.
Try not to laugh after reading this quote by Meggs in Nakama’s official biography: "Coach Nakama is not only a great teacher, but he is also a great motivator, and that's why his players overachieve. Dave brings out the very best in all his players both on and off the field. If you want to go to a regional, get your degree, and develop the skills needed to play professional baseball, you want to play for Dave Nakama."
What kind of overachieving and bringing out the best in players does Nakama have to show? Among his recruits, there have been just two postseason all-conference selections: second baseman Ozzy Braff (second team, 2015) and centerfielder Dillan Smith (second team, 2016). Meanwhile, Air Force and UNLV, both of whom have losing records in conference play, have a combined five players in this year’s MW first team!
Contrast Nakama’s win-loss record with his predecessor’s, also. A former infielder for San Jose State, Piraro delivered outstanding results for an otherwise underfunded program. While the football and men’s basketball programs, normally the most prominent sports programs in any college, struggled in the 1990s and 2000s, baseball flourished. In 25 seasons as head coach, Piraro led San Jose State to over 800 wins, three conference or division titles, and two NCAA tournament appearances, including an unexpected run to the College World Series in 2000.
Spartan baseball under Piraro shared an “anyone, anytime, anywhere” attitude originated by the Fresno State football teams of Pat Hill. Why? Both teams had a significant number of victories over challenging, favored opponents. Some examples for Spartan baseball:
- In the 1990 Spartan Classic held in San Jose, the Spartans won the tournament, including over Power Conference opponents that finished the season with winning records, like Minnesota, Oregon State, and Washington. San Jose State finished the 1990 season 43-17.
- In 1994, a San Jose State team that went 29-26 swept Stanford in the two-game, home-and-home season series. With a 36-24 record, Stanford won the Pac-10 South Division that year and made the NCAA Tournament.
- On May 6, 1997, San Jose State upset Stanford, then ranked #2 in the nation, 14-5 at home. Stanford finished the season 45-20 and tied for third place at the College World Series that year. San Jose State, despite a 38-21 finish and WAC West Division title, did not make the NCAA Tournament.
- Even Piraro’s last two teams that had losing records had some wins over quality out-of-conference opponents. In February 2011, San Jose State visited #2 UCLA and won two games in a three-game series. However, San Jose State finished the season 23-37; UCLA 35-24 and in the NCAA Tournament. In 2012, a season where San Jose State finished 22-29, the Spartans upset ranked Stanford teams twice. Stanford went 41-18 and made the NCAA Tournament that year.
In contrast, San Jose State has won just two games over ranked opponents in the Nakama era, both within the Mountain West Conference: on Apr. 13, 2014 at #17 UNLV and Apr. 26, 2015 at #22 Nevada, who had become ranked the day after a 27-2 beatdown of San Jose State. This year, the team has had three isolated wins over conference leaders Fresno State and New Mexico, as well as a home win over a mediocre Stanford team.
Looking beyond wins and losses, has the team shown anything outstanding statistically? Here are the answers, beginning with Nakama’s first season in 2013:
- 2013: Batting average .286, slugging percentage .354, on-base percentage .354, ERA 6.30
- 2014: Batting average .263, slugging percentage .333, on-base percentage .337, ERA 5.63
- 2015: Batting average .241, slugging percentage .306, on-base percentage .323, ERA 6.81
- 2016: Batting average .267, slugging percentage .350, on-base percentage .334, ERA 6.10
Clearly, the answer is no. Nakama has destroyed the reputation of a program that Piraro worked hard to build over two and a half decades. The program gets little respect from fellow coaches, based on the paltry number of all-conference players among Nakama’s recruits, as well as the program being picked to finish last in the conference in the past three preseason coaches’ polls. It will also be harder to recruit quality players to the team, with Nakama’s horrendous track record, combined with a lack of permanent facilities during the South Campus renovations.
Also, with the university breaking ground on the Spartan Golf Complex, other sports’ facilities should expect donations to follow the construction of the golf facility. There is no evidence that Nakama has attracted such donations. Besides, why would donors give their hard-earned money to a baseball program that has fallen from grace and has an uncertain future? Under Piraro’s watch, the baseball program had new on-campus facilities built: Blethen Field in 2001 and the Stephens Family Hitting and Pitching Center in 2012.
Three consecutive last place finishes in the Mountain West, a four-year winning percentage less than .300, and no visible progress in other significant aspects show that the time for a change in the baseball head coaching position is long overdue, if not just necessary. Fans must hold Bleymaier accountable for his hire and demand a change. An effective means of accountability would be withholding of donations, so that the administration understands that taking action is in its best financial interests.