Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Brian Levin Steps Into Justin's World

At the NPF season-ending awards banquet a couple of weeks ago, the Coaching Staff of the Year award went to Brian Levin and Dustin Combs, the staff of the Akron Racers. Of all of the awards handed out that night, none was more deserved. No matter how odd it may seem on paper for a team that finished at .500 to be given such an award, the 2014 squad under Levin's leadership improved leaps and bounds over even the 2013 team.

Levin, a first-year NPF'er, came to Akron after finishing his fourth season at the helm of the Missouri-St. Louis Tritons. Holding the school's wins record with 148 in his career, Levin inherited a young yet talent-filled Racers roster this off-season. With rookies making up more than half his roster, Levin's squad bested the Pride and Bandits several times throughout the course of the year.

In the league playoffs, the Racers shocked many by eliminating the favorited-Bandits in two games and advancing to the Championship Series. Though enduring back-to-back losses at the hands of the Pride, the Racers played two close games and made the Pride work for their victories, something that isn't an oft occurrence for the star-studded team from Florida.

After a 100% turnover rate for coaching staffs last off-season, Levin made his case to stick around Akron for a second season. If he returns at the helm next season, I expect the Racers to be even stronger contenders for the title. As you'll see in the interview below, his desire to stay is there, so I think there's a very good chance we'll see him in the home dugout at Firestone Stadium next season.

I had the opportunity to ask Coach Levin his thoughts on some things, including his coaching style, what he most looked forward to coming into this NPF season, and more.

How long have you been involved with the game of softball? How did you first get involved with the sport?
My start was in baseball.  I played baseball in college and semi-professionally in the St. Louis area. I was actually introduced to the game of fastpitch in 1983 by my wife. She played in high school and college. I watched her play in high school which really got me hooked on the game. I began playing men’s fastpitch in the summers during my last two years of college.

If you could, just give a brief overview of your career; your “coaching resume”, if you will.
My college softball coaching career is relatively short to be honest.  I started coaching softball in about 1995 when my daughter started playing. I coached her youth teams. We expanded into a club/travel team, then into an organization. I volunteer coached in high school with the local high school softball and baseball teams. I spent 20 years in the military with 17 of those in Special Forces so my time was limited as far as trying to be a head coach.  I wanted to be a college coach and when I was nearing retirement I got my Master’s degree in sports management.  I called Jay Pyron, the head coach at Murray State at the time to ask if he needed any help and he contacted me to talk. He gave me an opportunity to coach with him at Murray State and I really owe him a lot for giving me that chance. I got the head coaching job at the University of Missouri-St. Louis a year later. To be quite honest, I have been coaching and mentoring young people for over 20 year.  My military career as an airborne instructor and special forces team sergeant was all about teaching young adults technical and tactical skills that will keep them alive, and those young adults had more on the line than winning softball games. My military coaching experiences along with my knowledge of the game of softball has helped me become successful thus far as a college coach.

How did you first hear about the NPF? Before your current position came about, was coaching in the professional league something you’d considered or desired to do?
I was aware of women’s professional softball for some time.  Growing up in the St. Louis area we would hear about the Hummers when they were a member of the International Women’s Professional Softball Association back in the late 70’s.  The league then evolved into the WPSL and eventually what it is today.  My daughter was a regular at Club K in Nashville taking pitching instruction from Cheri Kempf.  So I know Cheri and Gaye Lynn from those days.  When Cheri left to take on the commissioner position of the NPF, I followed her progress with the league.  Coaching in the league was not even a thought until I started to have some success as a college coach.  I like to think I strive to be the best I can, so pursuing an opportunity to get into the NPF and coach the best players in the world is a dream come true.  I really admire the longevity and commitment to promoting the game of softball that the Akron Racers have shown.  The owner and administration are top notch and that is where I concentrated my interest.  When I got the opportunity to speak with Joey Arrietta and her staff we really shared a lot of the same values and vision.  

How would you describe your coaching style?
Well, I am a firm believer in discipline and structure and I will hold players accountable for their actions.  That being said, I am not an authoritarian type of coach, I feel I am a more of a cooperative coach.  Players today want to be heard, they want to know that you care about them as people.  It is my belief that if I truly care about the athlete as a person, they will go to great lengths to do what I ask of them.

With the league as small as it is right now, do you see the opportunities for growth in the future?
The NPF is a tremendous product.  The players are the best in the world at what they do.  Although it is unfortunate that the sport is out of the Olympic games right now, it is very fortunate for the NPF because it is the only place players can go to play the game at the highest level of competition.  The women in the league understand that they are pioneers.  They are in the perfect time and place to promote the league so that youngsters will have the opportunity to dream of playing the game they love and making a living at it.  I believe the league is in a perfect position for expansion.  Getting the product to the consumer is the biggest obstacle.  TV is really the best way to get it out to largest number of people; that is evident by the success of the WCWS. 

Even with it just being a “summer job”, is coaching in the pros something you’d be interested in doing long-term?
I don’t look at it as a “summer job”.  I look at it as an opportunity to win a championship at the highest level.  It is a privilege to be given the opportunity by the Akron Racers to be a coach in the NPF.  I would love to be successful enough that the Racer organization would what me around long term.

What is something you were most looking forward to about coaching in the NPF this summer?
That would have to be the challenge of coaching such gifted players.  This is much different than college in the fact that most of these players are very technically sound.  In college, I spent a lot of time on the technical aspects of the game, teaching the techniques and procedures necessary to become proficient at their skills.  The pro player already has most of those skills established, so as a coach you can concentrate your efforts on the tactical part of the game, implementing a system and trying to perfect it so that you can compete every day at your team’s highest level.  That is a challenge that any coach would consider to be the ultimate coaching experience.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever given or been given?
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Coaching is a people business, and you have to develop a two way street of trust with your players.   

Who would you say is your “hero” and how does that person inspire you in your work as a coach today?
Well, there are several. First off, my wife. She has sacrificed so much when I deployed and now when I am gone every weekend, but she remains supportive, loyal and is my best friend. I would say next would be my parents. My dad was my coach growing up and pushed me to do my best.  He taught me the need to be disciplined, always do the right thing and pay attention to details. He always told me I would make a good coach. My mom was always there to support us and never got any credit for the sacrifices she made. I would also have to add my father-in-law. He had muscular dystrophy, and was in a wheel chair most of his adult life.  Not one time did I ever hear that man complain about life. He helped me to understand the need to dream and look at the glass half full.

Let’s say you were stranded on a deserted island and could take three things with you. No boats, no phones. What would you carry along? 
- My Bible, which has a picture of my family in it. I count that as one. That would help me stay grounded in my moral convictions and keep me focused to survive because my wife and children are my life line.
- A machete or knife-edged instrument.  Through my training, I know you have to have something to help you make shelter.
- Flint or some type of fire starter. A fire would aid in protection from critters at night and provide a light source, along with help to boil water and cook food.

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