Coaches Corner: Tom Fleenor

In January of this year, Fire Ants Head Coach Tom Fleenor (right) took on the task of building a brand new program at USC Sumter. No stranger to building programs, Fleenor spent the last seven years taking USC Upstate from a perennial cellar dweller in the Peach Belt Conference to three straight 30 plus win seasons as the school’s recruiting coordinator. His classes included two Peach Belt Freshmen of the Year, an All-American, a Peach Belt batting champion and three players that signed professional contracts. One of those players is currently in Double-A with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. All told, Fleenor has coached over 50 players that have gone on to professional careers.   


DP-How many years have you been in coaching? What got you into the business?

I have been coaching for fourteen years. The main reason I coach is because I don’t want a real job! I realized my senior year in college that I could not imagine myself doing anything else, but baseball.


DP-What is the most rewarding thing about being a baseball coach? 

Making a difference in a kid’s life. I truly love that part of my job. It does not even have to be something baseball related. If I can somehow get, or keep, a kid pointed in the right direction in life, that makes my job totally worth it. 


DP-What does the term “coach” mean to you? 

Mentor, father figure and even a friend. Some coaches do not think you can be all three, but I emphatically believe you can as long as you can decipher which situation requires what role.


DP-What is something you wish everyone knew about your profession? 

That it’s not as glamorous as some would think. Most coaches don’t make much money and they spend a lot of time away from their families. I’m lucky enough to have a wife that has stuck by me through thick and thin, but a lot coaches are not so fortunate. 


DP-We all know there is very little money in coaching at the college level yet the time involved is mind-boggling, why do you do it? 

It’s kind of like finding the right woman. You don’t really know why it is that you can’t be without her, even though she might drive you crazy sometimes, but you keep coming back. A person just knows that it’s what God intended for them to do. 


DP-You are highly regarded as a recruiter in the profession, what makes you good at what you do? 

I just try to be myself and it seems to work. I am basically just a kid at heart and I am passionate about what I do. The kids tend to pick up on it. They are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for when it comes to judging a person. I truly enjoy coaching the kids and I think it shows in the way I recruit them as well.


DP-When you hear the expression “old school baseball”, what does that phrase mean to you? 

No batting gloves, playing the short game, hustling at all times and simply playing the game the way it was meant to be played. The “old school” game was not the gorilla ball that kids see on Sportscenter every night. Today’s game is all about who can throw 90 and who can hit the ball into the trees. The object of the game is to score more than the other team and putting the team ahead of your own individual goals, plain and simple. 


DP-What is the definition of a “student-athlete”? 

There is a commercial for the NCAA that says it all: Most of them will be going professional in something other than sports. A college education provides an individual the opportunity to have a good life. I tell almost every recruit I talk to that college is about the next 50 years, not the next four. Let’s look at it this way–there is a reason why they are not referred to as “athlete-student”. The “student” must always come first. I bet you didn’t know I could be that deep!


DP-What MLB feat in history do you wish you’d been inside the stadium to witness and why? 

Hank Aaron breaking the homerun record at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I think Aaron is a great human being that took a lot of flack in his day as he approached the record just because he was black. You have to be a class act to not respond to racist idiots.


DP-What is your most memorable experience as a baseball coach? 

Watching my 17 month-old, Bradley, throw out the first pitch at one of my Northwoods League games back in 2001. He stood about six feet away from home plate and threw a perfect strike to his daddy with 1000 people in the stands. 


DP-Who has made the greatest impression on you as a baseball coach and why? 

Mike Policastro (currently the head coach at Cleveland State Community College), my college coach and Phil King, my best friend’s father. Coach Poly was a so-called players’ coach, but he had a real New Jersey/Italian mean streak as well. He was a great guy to play for and he remains a good friend to this day. I think I got most of my coaching style from him as far as how I deal with the players. Phil King was not my baseball coach, but he was more of my life coach. He was a tremendous player in his day (football and baseball at Furman) and an even better man. I am changing my number this year to 23 (Mr. King’s high school number at Clinton) in memory of him. 


DP-Who are the best three players you have ever coached against? 

It’s hard to name just three as I coached against the best of the best when I was at Ole Miss. The ones that stick out are David Eckstein (Florida), Brad Lidge (Notre Dame), JD Drew (FSU), Casey Fossum (Texas A&M) and Tim Hudson (Auburn).


DP-What does it mean to be a good teammate and is that important? 

Your teammates have to know they can count on you to be there for them. Not just to get the big hit or make the crucial pitch, but to be there to pick you up when things are not going well. It’s a long season and nothing can destroy a team faster than a few individuals that think it’s all about them. Play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the one on the back. So, yes, I obviously think it is important.


DP-What do you see as the biggest difference in high school-aged players today versus ten years ago? 

It depends on what area of the country you are in, but the players today don’t seem to enjoy playing as much as we did. I will be completely honest when I say that I would not have even thought of going to the prom rather than go to a game. That sort of stuff happens now and it blows my mind. I probably could not have gotten a date anyway!


DP-Now switching gears, think back to your days as a baseball player, please list any notable accolades: 

I am the only guy ever to take off one of my cleats and try

to stab an umpire with it (just kidding, a little Happy Gilmore reference). Seriously though, I was a high school all-county player in Orlando, FL and I was a three-time All-Conference, two-time All-District player in college. I think I got the absolute most out of my average ability.


DP-What is your greatest high school thrill? 

I played on a national-ranked (7th) high school team. We had won 19 games in a row before we got beat in the playoffs. I was crushed, but looking back, it was an unbelievable experience. 


DP-What is your greatest thrill, or two, beyond high school?

That’s an easy one. My two children Bradley (7, L/R) and Anna-Grayce (4) are my greatest thrill.


DP-Who were the three best players you played against? 

Chipper Jones (Deland Post 6), Johnny Damon (Dr. Phillips High School) and Jason Varitek (Lake Brantley High School). Varitek and Mark Bellhorn (Oveido High School) were both on my summer league team. They were probably the second and third best players on the team…after me of course!  


DP-Who has made the greatest impression on you as a person and why? 

Obviously, Mr. King again, and my mother. My mom is the funniest person I know and she doesn’t really even have to try to be funny. She taught me that laughter can get you through anything that life throws at you. On the professional side of things, my mom is a real over-achiever. She has made a good life for herself by never giving up. She started as a director of a day care center making about $10, 000 a year to now, where she handles customer service for the entire eastern United States for the same company. The school building that she started at was just recently dedicated to her in recognition of 20 years of service to the company. Her biggest attribute is that she treats people the way she would want to be treated. I firmly believe that is why she has been so successful and more importantly, so respected by her peers.


DP-Who is you favorite athlete outside of baseball?

Tiger Woods (He is the man and his wife is really hot too!)


DP-Who is your favorite MLB pitcher and position player and why? 

John Smoltz and Will Clark. I know that Will “the thrill” is no longer playing, but I loved his intensity. He played the game very hard, but he also had a flashy side to him as well. John Smoltz is an incredible pitcher, an awesome person and he plays for the greatest team ever!


DP-Who is your favorite MLB team? 

I think I just answered that question, but for your slower subscribers it’s John Smoltz’s team.


DP-What is your favorite sport to play other than baseball? 

It’s got to be golf even though I am not very good. I play for the fellowship (yeah, right).


DP-What is your favorite sport to watch other than baseball? 

Wait a second, there are other sports? I guess it would have to be pro or college football. I love the pro game if one of my fantasy players is in it, but I will watch ANY college football game at any time.  


DP-What are some of your hobbies? 

I think my biggest hobby is relaxing. By the time I finish what is I need to do with this job, and messing around with my kids, I am spent. All I want to do at that point is pop in a movie and chill with my wife.


DP-What is something people don’t know about you? 

I used to buy my wife (girlfriend at the time) gifts in college that I knew she would not like so she would turn around and give them back to me. One year for Valentine’s Day I bought her a Vanilla Ice poster. That thing looked sweet on my dorm room wall. Ice, Ice Baby!! 


DP-If you could have dinner with three people in history, who would they be and why?     

It depends on who’s paying.


DP-Where do you see yourself in ten years? 

Taking the Fire Ants to the World Series for the fourth or fifth time!


DP-Your thoughts on what Diamond Prospects can do for kids in South Carolina: 

It’s amazing for what it has already done. I can honestly say that I have driven to watch a lot of kids play just because I read something about them on DP.  It gets more kids noticed by more schools and being “found” by a college is 90 percent of the battle.


DP-You have had to build a baseball program from scratch. Give us an idea how you have done it. 

Very simply, I got in my car and drove everywhere there might be a player that could help our program off the ground. This is the first spring I can remember in my life when I have not had a team to coach or play for, so I have had plenty of time to get out and see games. My family was still living in Spartanburg until the school year was finished so there was no reason for me to go home at night. As the spring wore on, more and more people would approach me about the players that were signing with us so the word spread quickly that we might be a decent team right away. I owe a great deal of that exposure to Diamond Prospects because it probably did more for the recruiting class we put together than anything I did. DP’s coverage of our signees opened the eyes of many a kid that might not even have come for a visit if they had not read about who we were signing.


DP-Why should kids consider coming to play at USC Sumter? 

I really believe in what we have to offer. A kid can come here to better his situation in two years and attract some big-time attention. My goal is to find a four-year school for every kid that comes through our program as long as that future program fits the player’s ability level, and vice versa. 

Sumter is a great baseball town. The Legion team here (P-15’s) is probably the best one in the state and the fans come out in droves to watch them play. I am hoping that the Fire Ants will attract the same type of support or close to it. 

Educationally, I think our school is the best in the state when it comes to two-year institutions. Our kids will receive a tremendous education from extremely qualified faculty. The school is not easy, but the kids will be much more prepared when they take the next step to a four-year college as a result. And we have all of the support they will need to ensure that academic success with tutoring, study hall twice a week and our Opportunity Scholars Program (OSP).

Oh, and also, because I am an awesome coach! At least that’s what my mom tells me.


DP-Give a high school player who is reading this article one piece of advice. 

Do not let other people out-work you no matter what you think of your talent level. If you think you are good already, work to become great. In the classroom AND on the field. Go Fire Ants!!


DP-Thanks a ton for your time and congratulations on your recruiting class and getting off to a great start. For our readers, hopefully Coach Fleenor’s energy and passion for his profession was clear!


For more info on USC Sumter and Fire Ant Baseball, click here.