After spending three years with current ASU head baseball coach Tracy Smith as the pitching coach, Brandon Higelin received the worst Christmas present possible from his boss in 2016.
When the Sun Devils had returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic in the middle of December, Smith told Higelin that he would no longer be on the ASU staff.
“We got back from the trip to the Dominican, and he informed me then,” Higelin recounted to me. “It all went well. I was very appreciative of Coach Smith giving me the opportunity to coach out at Indiana with him and the opportunity to work with him at Arizona State.”
“I have decided to make a change on our staff with the pitching coach position,” Smith said at the time. “As head coach of Sun Devil Baseball, it is my role to constantly assess where we stand in all facets of the game and make decisions that provide the best opportunities for success. I simply thought we could be better with our pitching coach position and all that it entails. There is no specific ‘negative’ event that led to this decision.”
So when the news came down, Higelin reached out to someone he had met a few times in San Diego several years ago, Arizona head coach Jay Johnson.
“It was right before Christmas — I want to say I was in an airport — and he texted me and said ‘Hey I’m not going to be at ASU anymore, I’d like to talk to you about’ his situation,” Johnson remembered. “It had nothing to do with Arizona, maybe just looking for any advice I had and I said sure we can do that.”
“It was only in the context of ‘Hey, what do you think?’,” continued Johnson. “You know, next move, do you have any advice, and that’s what we were going to talk about.”
“I really, really respected him and called him to see what the best route to go was,” Higelin explained. “Was it to go watch games or that type of thing?”
It just so happened that Jimmy Van Ostrand had just left the Arizona program for a job in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system, leaving the Director of Player Development job vacant at the time.
“As I was on the flight, I started thinking that Jimmy was leaving, that if there wasn’t a perfect spot for (Brandon), why not bring him down here, keep him in Division-I baseball, keep him in the Pac-12, and use him as a resource,” said Johnson.
“And then my wheels just spun, and I was like ‘Hey, why don’t we do this?’,” he joked.
“So when I (talked to him) he brought this up,” Higelin added. “And I’m happy to be here.”
Higelin was in San Diego after being drafted by the Padres in 2005, then spent four years in the organization’s minor league system including some time with the nearby Lake Elsinore Storm.
This coincided with Johnson’s time as an assistant at the University of San Diego, which is how the two met originally.
“I was lucky enough to get to know Coach Johnson back during his days at USD through a mutual friend of ours,” Higelin said of their relationship. “I had a chance to go to breakfast and pick his brain then, and it’s an awesome opportunity to work for him and (Coach Dave Lawn and Coach Sergio Brown).”
Higelin had just retired from his pro ball career at this point, and was looking to get into the college coaching game by heading off to a summer collegiate wood bat league.
“I was just about to leave and go manage in the Northwoods League,” explained Higelin. “So I was just kind of picking his brain about things and how he goes about recruiting since he did such a good job and just trying to learn about the differences of college ball compared to professional ball.”
“We met maybe two or three times, but I’d heard a lot about him and our mutual friend thought we’d have a very good working relationship probably because we’re similar in how we go about teaching and things like that,” Higelin continued. “So that’s kind of how the relationship started.”
Despite meeting in person just two or three times several years ago, Higelin still had the trust in Johnson to call him when all of the sudden he found himself without a job.
“First time I ever met him you could tell he was just a very genuine guy,” said Higelin. “And never being in this situation before I called him and a few other coaches that I had known that recruited me out of high school and just tried to find out what was the best way to stay relevant in college baseball.”
He had a chance with a professional organization, but after discussions with Johnson, Higelin found it best to make the two-hour trip to Tucson to stay at the college level.
“He just said ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to stay in college?’,” added Higelin. “Coach Johnson was just trying to see what I really wanted to do, and at the end of the day, I love being in the college game and having a big impact on kids’ futures, so this is where I wanted to end up.”
The whole process took “a few days”, but Johnson officially offered Higelin the job after talking with the current Arizona staff. So with the offer on the table to keep him relevant, Higelin had some serious life decisions to make.
“I’d never had a break — never any time off — so it was more of a matter of do I want to vacation for a couple months or do I want to start working again,” Higelin said through a smile. “It was just one of those things where my gut was saying that I needed to coach because I’d be bored, so once he told me I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
And so began the moving process to the Old Pueblo.
“I had to break a lease at one place and get a moving company,” Higelin remembered. “Luckily my mom helped me with that and I came out here and moved. Called a couple of apartment complexes, see which one had a washer/dryer, and picked the first one that did and went sight unseen.”
And now with two weeks left in his first regular season in Tucson, and a trip back to Tempe coming up on Thursday, the old Sun Devil has no regrets about joining the “rival”.
“It would be unbelievable to work for Coach Johnson forever,” Higelin stated emphatically. “He’s awesome to be around at all times, but at the end of the day, I always keep two feet in the day and don’t worry about what’s next.”
He’s also gained a new appreciation for the profession, and has learned from a pitching coach legend in the Arizona dugout.
“Here I get to watch more video and spend a lot of time around Jay and around Chief (Marc Wanaka) and see how they go about teaching hitting,” explained Higelin. “And help anyway they need help.”
“He’s so open and willing to help anybody, which is awesome to see,” Higelin added about learning from Coach Lawn as well. “I’ve picked up a lot of different ways to go about coaching, and it’s stuff that I’ll take on with me as I continue to coach in college baseball.”
All of this will hopefully vault Higelin up the ranks in the college game, which seems to be what he wants to be doing again eventually. But he’s in no particular hurry to move on from Arizona.
“I’ve learned so much from (the ASU staff) and being able to come here and seeing how a different college program runs their stuff and being able to see how other coaches do their things will only make you a better coach.”
“Everything happens for a reason, and everything happened for the right reason for me to be here.”
“For right now I’m just two feet in and can’t be any happier to be here at The University of Arizona.”