TAMPA — It was set into motion the day before J.D. Urso was born, really. Joe Urso’s first son laughs at the idea he would ever play baseball anywhere but for his father at the University of Tampa.
That didn’t stop his dad from trying to convince him to go someplace else, however.
Now, J.D. is a sophomore shortstop at UT coming off a season in which he was named Sunshine State Conference freshman of the year, and his dad — who has led the Spartans to five Division II national championships — is learning to be an even better coach.
“(Coaching J.D.) has given me a different perspective,” Joe said. “It’s a challenge. You don’t want to look like he is getting different treatment. I have to try to not be too tough on him, because you always have a tendency to be tougher on your own kids.
“But it’s also made me see it from all angles, all areas now. You tried to understand it from each player’s perspective as well as your own coaches. ... This has helped me see that better.”
Joe interviewed for the job at UT the day before J.D. was born in September 2000. He flew back to California, where his wife, Julie, went into labor.
“It was meant to be,” J.D. said with a laugh, “but it took awhile to get here.”
In the nearly 23 years in between, Joe was building a reputation as a good talent evaluator, an excellent coach and one who could develop talent.
If the five national titles aren’t enough to prove that he is among the elite in the college game, look at his record. In his first 22 seasons, he led the Spartans to 16 Sunshine State Conference titles and 11 NCAA South Regional championships.
Among professional scouts, he has a reputation for excellent player development, which is backed up by the 74 players he has had taken in the MLB draft.
Joe’s reputation for player development and the close-knit family atmosphere he has built around the team has made the campus in downtown Tampa a destination for players transferring from big Division I programs or graduating from junior colleges.
That ability to develop players is what makes Joe’s program, with the help of associate coach Sam Militello, stand out. They both used their experience playing and coaching in professional baseball as a foundation for their program.
“It’s very important to me to develop that kid and watch him get better every year,” Joe said. “It’s something that is a lot of fun to watch. The four years that I did coaching with the Angels after playing, and Sam, those four years that he coached with the Indians and Rays after he was done playing, is where we learned all this.
“When we first got into college baseball, a lot of people said you can’t do it this way. They said college is all about winning, where the minor leagues are all about developing, and we said, ‘No, we can do both.’ And we’ve proved that to be true.”
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Even with his own son.
Joe was pushing J.D. to go to junior college because his professional, educated scouting eye saw a physically underdeveloped player who would struggle at the Division II level. He was blunt with him.
“Sometimes the truth isn’t what you want to hear, and he always told me the truth,” J.D. said. “And the fact of the matter was, at the time I wasn’t good enough talent-wise yet to play at this level. I wasn’t physically mature enough to compete at this level.”
That reality — and an extra year because the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — gave J.D. the motivation and foundation to work on his body and game. Last season, he hit 363 with a .428 on-base percentage and slugged .535 with four home runs and 11 doubles. He drove in 40 runs and stole three bases.
In 20 games this season through Saturday, he was hitting .370 with a .444 on-base and .617 slugging percentage. He has two homers and 28 RBIs.
He credits his dad with all of his growth as a player.
“The reason for all that success, in my opinion, is because he is the best communicator I’ve ever been around,” J.D. said. “He’s able to just read every player on our team. He knows what everyone needs to be great. There are kids that have to have a little tough love. And there are some who tough love doesn’t work for them. They need a pat on the back for constant support. And he’s just so good at knowing what type of kid he is dealing with, reading the personality, and just getting the most out of every personality we have on our team.”
Joe worried at first about coaching his son, but after two decades of success he’s discovered it has only made his program stronger.
“It’s definitely made me a better coach,” he said. “It started as a challenge to coach your own kid. But he led the league last year, so that certainly makes it a little easier on a coach and a dad. I have to be careful. The tendency is to be harder on your own kid, but it’s been a really great experience.”