Note: The following appears in the February issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
By Rachel Eagleton // Athletic Communications
At 31 years old, Monte Lee started living his dream as a head coach. By 38, he had landed his dream job and his dream location…Clemson, S.C.
“This is a place where as a young assistant who breaks into the coaching world climbing the ladder this is the last step on the ladder. It doesn’t get any better than Clemson University.”
However, before he landed a spot at Clemson, Lee had to face many adverse situations, including a down-to-the-wire recruitment.
“I didn’t get recruited by a lot of schools out of high school,” said the Lugoff, S.C., native. “I only had two scholarship offers. One was a smaller Division II school, and then College of Charleston offered me during playoffs of my senior year.”
When he finally had the opportunity to play, Lee took it for all it was worth, starting all four years. After his senior season, Lee was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 39th round.
“They gave me $1,000 to sign and sent me to New Jersey. Before then, I had never been above the Mason-Dixon line. I had never been anywhere, really.”
Even though playing professional baseball was always a bucket list item for Lee, he knew his calling was somewhere else…coaching.
“I always wanted to coach. I never thought about doing anything else. Everything I did in the game, like listening a little more than some of the other players, was because I wanted to coach.”
But before he landed a spot at Clemson, Lee learned the ropes from many mentors, including hall of fame coach Tim Wallace.
“I started my coaching career working for Tim Wallace at Spartanburg Methodist College. Tim is in the Junior College Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Coach Ray Tanner then took me on at South Carolina for six years. I had a really good experience working for Ray.”
Not only did Lee get the opportunity to work under great coaches, he had the opportunity to coach men who would go on to play professional ball. He did all of this while growing as a leader.
“I got to coach a lot of guys who went on to play in professional baseball and had a lot of success there. With coach Tanner going into the hall of fame this year, I had a chance to work under two hall of fame coaches before I became a head coach.”
Lee was growing under those coaches when he received his first opportunity to become a head coach at College of Charleston beginning in the 2009 season. However, he had a bit of a learning curve to overcome due to his age.
“I became a head coach at 31 years old, so I was very young when I took the position at College of Charleston. I think that has helped me a lot, because I have had to learn as I go. I had to make myself ready for the opportunity.”
After learning the ropes as he went along, Lee believed that he was ready for another chance to excel. When the offer to become head coach at Clemson was extended, he almost had to pinch himself.
“When I started coaching a number of years ago, I don’t know if I could have envisioned myself at a place like Clemson, because so few people in my profession get this opportunity. It is really a dream come true, and I hope to be here for the rest of my career.”
However, it was not lost on him that in order to take the job at Clemson, he had to leave the place that built him, his alma mater, College of Charleston.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me to leave, because I knew there were only a select few schools that would make me consider leaving my alma mater. If I had my preference, it would have been a place like Clemson because I am from South Carolina and have lived and coached in this state my whole life.
Clemson’s long legacy of tradition also helped Lee make his final decision.
“If you’re from South Carolina, everyone knows the tradition of Clemson baseball. Everyone knows where Clemson is and the success that this program has had over the last 50+ years.”
The job is made a little sweeter by the fact that Lee watched Clemson baseball, the program that he now runs, as a kid growing up.
“If you’re from South Carolina, there are no big league professional sports. Clemson is the New York Yankees, Clemson is the Boston Red Sox. When you grow up in this state, it is either Clemson, USC or the Atlanta Braves if you’re a baseball fan.
“Every kid, including myself, growing up in this state knows Clemson baseball.”
Now that he has arrived, Lee is looking forward to the many gamedays to come at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. He has begun forming a bond with his players by adjusting to their particular playing styles.
“I think the No. 1 thing that coach (Jack) Leggett did a really great job of is recruiting young men of great character and teaching them the right way to do things.
“I want to provide an environment where our players look forward to coming to the field every day and are excited about getting better. I want our players to enjoy the process of becoming better as individuals and as a team.”
Lee hopes that fans who come to see the Tigers play this season are ready to see a show, but not too many changes.
“I don’t necessarily want to change things a whole lot. There have been two men who have led this program since 1958, Bill Wilhelm and Jack Leggett, and they had a lot of success.
“One thing the fans should expect from the team is that our guys are going to compete as hard as they possibly can, pitch by pitch, inning by inning and game by game. As long as we play as hard as we can for our fanbase, that is what they will see out of our team.”
As far as Lee goes, he is a self-proclaimed cheerleader when gameday comes around.
“I believe that as a coach, if you do your work in practice and teach the players how to play the game the right way, then the game will show that.
“I believe that I am a really good practice coach, and when it comes to games, I am a really good cheerleader.
However, to be the cheerleader who he wants to be on gameday, Lee knows there is one key to success…recruiting.
“We want to recruit players who exemplify what we look for in players and young men, and build our program around those players.
“I think everyone understands what the expectations are here…to compete at a national level and to put a roster together of players who can get you to Omaha.
One thing that has helped a tremendous amount with recruiting is the new baseball facility that opened in the fall.
“We truly have one of the best facilities in the country with the player area. It is unbelievable. It has such a ‘wow’ factor when we are talking to recruits.
“It helps the players understand what it means to be grateful for what they have and the program they are a part of.”
Lee credits his predecessors, Wilhelm and Leggett for starting a tradition of great recruitment and setting him up with a consistent, successful program and team.
“These players practice the right way. They go to class and do a great job academically. They are great citizens on campus.
“We don’t have a lot of off the field issues or academic issues. We don’t have any respect or work ethic issues or effort issues in anything they do.”
Other than being great players on the field, Lee’s team has helped ease him into his new program.
“Our guys are very respectful and they do things the right way. They make me very appreciative of the opportunity I have been given to coach at a program like Clemson.
“The transition has been an easy one for me in that regard, because the players are very coachable when they do things the right way.”
While his own transition was underway, Lee was worried about the transition of his family. However, thanks to the Clemson family, their transition was just as smooth as his own.
“I have two girls in high school and one girl in middle school, and I was concerned about moving them at that age, but they have transitioned very well.
“The people here are what make this place so special. As soon as we arrived here, we had other coaches reaching out to us and inviting us to come eat with their family. My wife and daughters were able to transition very easily because of the support here.”
Lee is excited to meet each member of the Clemson family as the season begins this spring. A sign in his office reminds him every day how special this moment is.
The sign, given to him by Doug Kingsmore himself, states, “If you lead a good life, go to Sunday school and say your prayers, when you die, you go to Clemson.”
Lee is convinced he must have done just that.
Monte Lee’s Jersey Reminder…In His Own Words
In 2000, I was with the Cardinals taking batting practice with my team at spring training. As players, we were always scared to death of seeing the infamous golf cart. Joe Pettini would drive around on the golf cart during spring training, and if he stopped at your field, he was picking up a player to release him. He was basically like the executioner. We called him the “grim reaper.”
Every time we would see him driving by on the golf cart, everyone would stop and watch it go by. If he passed your field, you could take a deep breath because you lived another day.
One particular day, I was taking batting practice and was getting ready to step inside the cage and hit, and I saw the golf cart come up on the field. He told me he had to bring me in to see our minor league coordinator.
I knew at that point that my career was over. I will never forget that feeling riding in on the cart holding my bat and my glove and thinking to myself, “This is the last time I am going to hold my bat and glove.”
I had been playing this game every day for my whole life, working as hard as I could, but then it was over. You don’t really have time to prepare for it. They walked me in the room, released me and sent me home with my jersey. I hung the jersey in my office, because it is a daily motivator for me.
I tell my players, “When your career is over, you have to look in the mirror and tell yourself you did every possible thing you could to make the most out of their career.”
Every day that they get an opportunity to put their uniform on, they should cherish it because one day it could be taken from you, whether it be injury, the end of a college career or the end of a pro career.
But when it happens, it happens fast. I look at that jersey as a reminder of how lucky you are to put on a uniform every day.
April 19, 2019
April 18, 2019