CHAPEL HILL — As Scott Forbes headed to the bus to begin the Tar Heels’ trip to Omaha, Neb., he summed up his pitching coach philosophy.
“Not a guru-type here,” he said. “Every pitcher needs to be different and has their own style, so that’s how we do it.”
Forbes has been the Tar Heels’ pitching coach for eight seasons, six of which have ended with trips to the College World Series. He has mentored four first-round draft picks, including current New York Mets star Matt Harvey, and this year’s staff ranks in the top 20 nationally in ERA (14th, 2.78) and WHIP, walk plus hits per innings pitched (19th, 1.20).
This year’s ace – ACC Pitcher of the Year Kent Emanuel – is a walking testament to Forbes’ philosophy.
For three years, Emanuel had been stellar, and Forbes hadn’t changed much, since nothing was broken. But then last week, Emanuel struggled for his second consecutive start, lasting just 21/3 innings Saturday against South Carolina after giving up four runs.
These struggles caused Emanuel to do two things he had never done: watch himself on film and throw a bullpen session off of flat ground.
“I’ve been on Kent for three years,” Forbes said with a laugh about the flat ground sessions, which every other UNC pitcher throws. “But Kent’s very athletic, and you don’t want to mess up a kid that’s doing so well.”
The film session, which was a mutually agreed upon decision, revealed a mechanical flaw. Emanuel was driving too much off his back leg, he said, trying to do too much. That caused him to cut his strides short and push the ball, resulting in the wrong angle.
When Forbes needed a pitcher to record the last two outs of UNC’s 5-4 victory Tuesday against South Carolina, he turned to the re-tooled Emanuel, who needed just two pitches to send the Tar Heels back to the College World Series.
“He lets the pitchers be themselves and works with the pitcher instead of making everyone work in his style. I really liked that,” Emanuel said of Forbes. “As a recruit, I knew he wasn’t the cookie-cutter type.”
Forbes played for Mike Fox, the current UNC head coach, when he was a catcher at Division III N.C. Wesleyan. It wasn’t Forbes’ on-the-field skills that wowed Fox – “He wasn’t a very good player,” Fox said with a laugh – but rather a few of his personality traits.
Forbes had a fiery competitiveness, with a little bit of a temper, and a willingness to call teammates out, Fox said. He also hated losing.
“And I thought those are pretty good coaches’ traits, potentially,” Fox said. “His best trait is that he has such a great rapport with the players. He’s in phenomenal shape physically, so he gets back there with them. There’s the line between player and coach, and he walks that line just perfectly.”
After coaching one year with Fox at Wesleyan, Forbes, then 23, came to UNC as a volunteer assistant coach when Fox took the head coaching job in 1999. He held that position for four years, doing a little bit of everything on staff. He watched Roger Williams, now the pitching coach at Louisville, handle his pitchers and noted how Williams only spoke when something needed to be said.
While he wasn’t on the field, Forbes, along with his wife, was busy making ends meet, driving from Mebane to Durham to open his gym at 5 a.m. before leaving at 9 a.m. to go substitute teach. He left Chapel Hill to become a paid assistant at Winthrop in 2003 and took a job as East Carolina’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator before the 2006 season.
But two weeks after he accepted the Pirates’ offer, Williams left UNC for Georgia, opening up a spot on Fox’s staff. Despite never holding the title of pitching coach, Forbes was offered the job by Fox.
“I wanted to reward Scott’s loyalty to me and helping me by volunteering here for four years and basically working for nothing and working as hard as he did,” Fox said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I won’t let you down.’ And I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ And he certainly hasn’t.
Forbes’ name has surfaced in recent coaching searches, and he does want to be a head coach someday, he said. But only under a certain set of circumstances.
“I only want to be a head coach at a place that’s like North Carolina where you put a product on the field and feel like, hey, we can go to Omaha. And those schools are few and far between. If that door opens, fine, but if not, I love it here.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley