Competitive fire still burns brightly for North Florida head coach Smoke Laval
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Few college baseball coaches enjoy sarcasm more than the University of North Florida's Smoke Laval. He throws out one-liners on a whim, often in the middle of practice or during a visit to the pitcher's mound.
It's usually something totally out of left field, like "Put a tent on that circus," or how his definition of a perfect world combines Pamela Anderson and a beach. Laval is liable to say anything to lighten the mood.
But if there's one subject where humor is totally out of bounds, it's how his coaching tenure ended at LSU in 2006. Laval was fired by his legendary predecessor and athletic director, Skip Bertman, after LSU missed the NCAA tournament. That down year offset leading the Tigers to two College World Series appearances in four seasons and having the best SEC record (88-60-1) among all league coaches from 2002-06.
"I still can't talk about that now," Laval said. "At the time, it took me by surprise. Let's just say it was awkward."
While Laval enjoyed three follow-up years as a national scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, the LSU exit gnawed at him.
He itched to get back into the college game, and the right situation happened by accident.
Laval came to a UNF home game in 2010 to cross-check a couple of Kennesaw State draft prospects. He ran into Lee Moon, the UNF athletic director who once offered him a head coaching job at Marshall while he was an LSU assistant.
Moon wasn't sure when former UNF boss Dusty Rhodes would retire, but since Laval and Rhodes were good friends, he hired him as a head coach-in-waiting. A year later, Laval took over the Ospreys after Rhodes retired.
Finally, after five up-and-down seasons, Laval, 59, has a chance to follow in the footsteps of UNF's basketball program, which recently won their first Atlantic Sun regular season and conference titles. Laval's team (42-14, 16-5) must win the A-Sun tournament, which begins Wednesday against Kennesaw State in Fort Myers, to secure the school's first Division I NCAA bid.
"Smoke always says we're not a Cinderella story," said UNF junior shortstop Kyle Brooks. "He believes we're supposed to win. We came out with a fire this season."
The Ospreys, decimated by injuries last year after a 40-win season in 2013, again overcame medical issues and a slow start to put together their best Division I season. UNF (42-14, 16-5), thanks to a record-setting year by star outfielder Donnie Dewees and closer Corbin Olmstead giving up one earned run in 20 appearances, is the No. 1 seed in the A-Sun tourney.
Even better, the former Jacksonville University catcher that nobody has called Raymond in 40 years -- he got the nickname "Smoke" at Gulf Coast Junior College -- feels rejuvenated again.
"I'm from Pittsburgh and there used to be a catcher with the Pirates named Smoky Burgess, so a teammate started calling me Smoke and it stuck," said Laval. "My mother was always afraid to ask me how I got that nickname. At clinics, I joke about the nickname and [it being tied to] marijuana."
UNF's season could have gone to pot when the Ospreys got off to a pedestrian 6-8 start. But once Brooks returned to his leadoff spot after a three-week bout with mononucleosis, and Dewees went on a record 31-game hitting streak, UNF won 36 of its next 41 games.
Laval knows something about taking a mid-major baseball program to new heights. He did it at Louisana-Monroe in the 1990s, leading ULM to three NCAA tournament appearances in five years before returning to LSU.
All he wants at UNF is the chance to finish his college coaching career on a better note than how he left LSU. For Laval, winning the A-Sun tournament is the next logical step to legitimizing the Ospreys' baseball portfolio.
"It's not about my ego, or an 'I'll show you' [to LSU]," said Laval. "We had two 40-win seasons in three years and I'm happy about that. I just want these players to see a work-in-progress pay off."
If nothing else, Smoke Laval is showing college baseball that the coach LSU kicked to the curb still has the fire to compete and win.
As Laval says, and not jokingly: "Even in Go Fish, I want to beat my grandson."
This article was written by Gene Frenette from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.