Slippery Rock University baseball coach Jeffrey Messer achieved a career milestone on March 14, winning his 1,000 game leading the Green and White.
Messer fresh off his 34 season as head coach at The Rock, said the milestone was not something he consistently thought about.
“I am not really a numbers guy,” said Messer, laughing. “Don’t get me wrong, I am very fortunate about getting the win, but I think some of the first year players on the team were more excited about me getting the win, more than I was.”
Growing up, Messer was a three-sport athlete— playing baseball, basketball and football.
“Basketball was probably my ‘first sport’ going up,” Messer said. “I was recruited for all three sports coming out of high school but ultimately felt that baseball was the direction I wanted to head towards.”
Messer attended Springfield College in Massachusetts and graduated in 1980 with a degree in physical education.
From there, he played professionally in Holland for a year before returning to the United States.
“I thought about returning back to Holland to play ball for a couple more years,” Messer said. “But I kind of realized that my future was not in playing professional baseball. I decided to go into coaching and was hired at West Field State College for two years before taking up a position at Oklahoma State University for one year. From there, I saw that the head coaching position at SRU was open and the rest is history.”
Messer took over leading The Rock in 1986, leading the team to a 24-16 record (.600).
Since then, Messer has only finished under .500 in two seasons— in 1994 (21-24) and in 2016 (13-36). Messer attributes his almost unparalleled success to the players.
“I’m just the coach,” said Messer, modestly. “We wouldn’t have had any of these wins without the guys on the field. We’ve had some tremendous talent come through; obviously you look at the guys like [Matt] Adams and [Lou] Trivino who are in the majors, but every year we have guys come into the program working hard each game.”
Messer said if anything, the 1,000 wins say a lot about the quality of the program he and the rest of the coaching staff have established.
“After we got the win, I was getting tweets, texts and ‘instagrams’ from former players congratulating me on the milestone,” Messer said. “It really caused me to go through some reflection about this program over the years.”
Arguably one of the best “things” about achieving 1,000 wins is being able to do it while his son was present, Messer said.
Billy Messer, Messer’s middle child, is The Rock’s assistant coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach. Billy Messer, a 2010 graduate from The Rock, arrived to serve under his father in 2013.
Prior to joining the Green and White, Billy Messer served as the Director of Baseball Operations at the University of Virginia for two seasons before realizing he wanted to coach at the Division II level, Jeff Messer said.
“Division II plays at high intensity, don’t get me wrong,” Jeff Messer said. “With Division I, you are gone all summer long. I think [Billy] realized that he wanted to work for a Division II program, especially one like SRU because of the family-like atmosphere.
“In addition to being the head coach at The Rock, Messer taught for 23 years in the university’s physical education department. Teaching had always been a personal goal of his, Messer said.
“[Teaching] is something that I always wanted to do,” Messer said. “I enjoyed my time being a professor at Slippery Rock but there just came a point where I felt like I wanted to go ‘straight baseball.'”
Around 2002 & 2003, when Jack Critchfield Park, the current home of Rock baseball, opened, Messer was in discussions with SRU President Robert Smith to quit teaching and coach baseball 100 percent of the time, he said.
“When the new field was built, there was just so much more responsibility that I decided to dedicate all of my time to baseball,” Messer said.
“Most of the schools in the area were beginning to hire baseball coaches as full-time positions, so that is the route SRU decided to take once the new stadium was officially built and ready for use.”
Messer quit teaching and took up coaching full-time in January 2008. Over the course of his time at The Rock, Messer said there were times where he was offered the head coaching position at Division I schools.
“I won’t name the schools but I had a number of different offers made available to me,” Messer explained. “There were weekends where my family and I would go and look at houses near where the universities were. But when it come down to it, Slippery Rock was very tough to leave. I just could not see myself coaching anywhere else.”
SRU athletic director Paul Lueken attributed Messer’s career longevity to his ability to adjust to the times.
“[Messer] has been able to adapt to the changes of the game,” Lueken said. “The players that came to play baseball here in the ’90s are not the same players that he is coaching this year. His ability to acclimate himself to the changes are not as easy as it would seem.”
Messer said there have been some noticeable changes to the game of baseball since he started coaching, but the specifics are still the same.
“Baseball is baseball, that much has not changed,” Messer said. “My general philosophy really hasn’t changed either, both on and off the field. I would say the biggest challenge for us still remains to find guys who are hungry to play baseball and who are able to compete while going to school at the same time. I don’t know that we have done anything differently from day one to day ‘now,’ with the exceptions of the restrictions that the NCAA puts on us when it comes to the amount of time allotted for practice each week.”
Despite baseball playing an important part of a student-athlete’s time, Messer said he still places academics as the number one priority.
“When I was teaching I obviously put a high emphasis on academics,” Messer said. “I even would have some of my players in class but now, ironically because I am not teaching, I would say I put an even greater emphasis on academics because that’s really what the students are here for.”
Throughout Messer’s career, he has seen his fair share of talented players come through the program.
Matt Adams, who currently holds the program record for batting average (.473) and slugging percentage (.754) and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in round 23 of the MLB draft, currently plays for the Washington Nationals while Lou Trivino, who held the record for strikeouts (217) until last season once Alex Pantuso surpassed him, was drafted by and currently pitches for the Oakland Athletics.
“I have been very fortunate to coach some of the talent that has come through our program,” Messer said. “I think it says a lot about the expectations and quality of our team.”
Messer said he does not have any timetable on how long he will continue coaching at The Rock.
“My wife would like to think I have another 1,000 wins left in me,” said Messer, laughing. “As long as I continue to enjoy coaching and as long as the university still wants me here, I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.”
Director Lueken said once Messer does decide to step-down, there will be no way to replace him.
“You can’t just replace a guy like [Jeff],” Lueken explained. “When he does decide that the time has come to retire, it’s going to be really tough for the university and the community.”
Lueken said Messer’s coaching career at The Rock says a lot about the quality of the coaches that the university brings in. Lueken, who has been the athletic director since 1994, has not had to fill the baseball head coaching position during his tenure at The Rock.
“I’ve only had to help fill one football coach after Coach Mihalik retired and have never had to replace a baseball, track/cross country, volleyball or tennis coach,” Lueken said. “It really says a lot about the quality of our athletics at the school.”