Kingston: USF baseball will be 'elite'
TAMPA -- His betrothal to baseball occurred in the throes of adolescence. During the Nintendo era, Mark Kingston traveled from Virginia to Winter Haven for the acclaimed Doyle Baseball Academy, and was smitten.
He never looked at another pastime again.
"That's when I fell in love with baseball," Kingston, 44, said Thursday afternoon, shortly after being formally introduced as USF's sixth coach. "That's when I fell in love with Florida."
In a sense, Kingston renewed those vows Thursday, on the Donaldson Deck of USF Baseball Stadium. The ultra-successful Illinois State coach, whose team was meteorologically precluded from taking outdoor batting practice until opening day this past season, cast a glance around him and said USF can and should be an elite program.
"Obviously the facility we're standing in is as good as it gets," Kingston told an audience of reporters, administrators, boosters and fellow Bulls coaches. "The city we're in is as good as it gets. The coaches and the amateur baseball in our city and this state are as good as it gets. Those are big, big factors for somebody in my position to try to lead a program."
The married dad of three said he'll lead with a daily emphasis on player development and approaching the game with the professionalism of his boyhood idol, Don Mattingly. A nationally lauded recruiter, Kingston said he won't shy away from the shadow cast by the in-state triumvirate of Florida, FSU and Miami, the latter of which he served as an assistant for two seasons.
"There's three teams from the state of Texas in the College World Series. And there are about five or six that could've gone," said Kingston, a former University of North Carolina first baseman who spent five seasons in the minors.
"The state of Florida's gonna be the same way. ... How do we attract those type players? You create a great program, you create a great culture that they want to be a part of. It's that simple. ...You talk about how you're gonna help them develop, and if you back up your words with the
right program and with the program that players want to be a part of, the players start coming in."
It's a blueprint that has served Kingston well in previous stops hardly considered baseball bastions before his arrival.
Of the program-record six Illinois State players taken in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft last week, only three were drafted out of high school, Kingston said. In six of his seven seasons as Tulane's recruiting coordinator, the Green Wave boasted signing classes ranked among the nation's top 25.
In all but one season, Tulane made the NCAA regionals, with the 2005 club reaching the College World Series.
"I think it's very clear to all of us that Mark Kingston stood out at the very top as the most compelling leader for USF baseball," said USF athletic director Mark Harlan, who signed Kingston to a six-year deal that will pay him $140,000 annually.
"Not only do we share a first name, but we share a vision and a passion for what this program can be. Mark possesses an outstanding track record of converting that vision and passion to success on the field everywhere he's been."
The vision, Kingston said, starts with speed and power on offense.
In the era of BBCOR aluminum bats -- which lessens the trampoline effect of the ball off the barrel -- Kingston said run manufacturing is critical. The club he inherits ranked seventh in the American Athletic Conference in runs scored (266) and last in home runs (nine) and slugging percentage (.321) in 2014.
"I think if you want to take a realistic look at (USF's) roster right now, just from an outsider's perspective, you say 'That team can really pitch,'" said Kingston, who inherits the top two starters from '14 including first-team all-conference right-hander Jimmy Herget.
"Something we need to improve and work on hard is our offense. Obviously from a speed and power standpoint, it needs to get better."
The work commenced before rush hour began Thursday on Fowler Avenue.
After his press conference, Kingston made tracks for Fort Myers, where the Perfect Game National Showcase -- one of the nation's premier player-evaluation events -- was taking place.
"No time to waste," he said.