Sitting in the office of Scholastic Coach Magazine, Dan Pepicelli never thought he would one day help lead the Clemson Tigers to the NCAA College World Series semifinals. However, the situation of the magazine’s office in Cooperstown, N.Y. — the same town hosts the Baseball Hall of Fame — was indicative of what laid in store for him.
Yet, Pepicelli’s time at Clemson, and subsequent position as the head coach of Cornell baseball, would not have been possible without a volunteer stint at a local school which started it all. Following his time as a volunteer coach, he was called upon to be an assistant coach at Hartwick College and was later promoted to head coach.
“You always want to be a player, and then that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I got to work as a volunteer assistant coach while I had what I would call a real job. Then Hartwick College offered me my first coaching job and I have just loved it ever since.”
Pepicelli’s next coaching experience came in the form of head coach of St. John Fisher — a school about double the size of Harwick. He spent nine years with the Cardinals before moving to Clemson — about 10 times the size of St. John Fisher.
The Tigers’ run to the semifinals came in Pepicelli’s first year as pitching coach, and it was the furthest the team went during his tenure in South Carolina — but it would hardly be his last appearance in the tournament. While he began with the Tigers in 2010 as a pitching coach, in 2013 he was promoted to associate head coach. The Tigers reached the NCAA tournament all six years he was a part of the organization.
Despite his success with Clemson, Pepicelli gives credit where credit is due when it comes to who made him who he is today. His competitive nature has been rooted in his personality his entire life. His father was a stock car racer and his brother still races today. His wife was also an assistant coach for Syracuse women’s soccer — where she was a two-time captain during her college years — before the Pepicellis packed up shop and moved to South Carolina.
The word “quit” is not in Pepicelli’s vocabulary.
“Competition has been part of my family since day one,” he said. “I don’t remember it any other way. You compete, you don’t quit. Be hard and aggressive. My father is still that guy. [My parents] moved up to the area, from Clemson to Ithaca, following us around. Competition is very big in our house. Soft did not play in my house.”
As the youngest of three boys, Pepicelli said his brothers were a significant driving force in making him the man he is today.
“My two older brothers are why soft did not play in my house,” Pepicelli said, chuckling. “My brothers were of the tough love variety.”
While Clemson is a great gig for any baseball coach, Pepicelli said he was highly drawn to the vacancy in Ithaca because of his comfort level in upstate New York. Born and raised in the area, Pepicelli played for Mohawk Valley, SUNY Cortland and SUNY Oneonta. For Pepicelli, upstate New York is home.
“I kind of always had Cornell in the back of my mind,” he said. “I love this area. A couple years ago when I had just become the associate head coach at Clemson I bumped into [then Cornell coach Tom] Ford out recruiting and said, ‘Hey if an opportunity ever opens up at Cornell, I would be interested in coming back this way.’ And it happened.”
Family was also a major factor in his decision. Moving around with his wife and two kids — a daughter and a son — was never easy.
“That’s the toughest part, it’s the kids,” he said. “You develop roots and we were rooted in the fan base at Clemson pretty well. We were in a season ticket section there next to the dugout. Everyone knew the kids and my wife. … When you uproot and move someplace else that process has to start all over again. And it’s nerve wracking enough for adults but you always worry about kids.”
Along with the comfort that characterizes the area, Pepicelli has always admired the work ethic that goes into making an Ivy League athlete. Although Clemson had a much more storied program with consistent appearances in the NCAA tournament, Pepicelli chose Cornell.
“I really had a thing where I really wanted to work in the Ivy League,” Pepicelli said. “The challenge of people trying to balance academics and the athletic part of it and the type of kid that does that just always appealed to me. What I love, and I think gets underestimated, with Ivy League athletes is that, yes, the academic workload is hard and they take academics first here, but that should no way discount how hard they go when it’s time to practice. The effort level that they put in is second to none.”
The “never-say-die” attitude is very present in Pepicelli’s career. His first few seasons at St. John Fishers saw his team notching around 15 or 16 wins, but by the time he was done, the team was consistently hitting at least 20 wins, even advancing to the Division III tournament in a 28-win season.
In his 20 years of coaching — both as a head coach and assistant — Pepicelli has recorded an impressive .565 win percentage. Fourteen of his 20 seasons have been above .500.
Even in his first year with the Red, Pepicelli had his sights set on capturing the Ivy League championship. Although that may not be plausible at this point in the season, he still wants to keep up the momentum generated by matching last year’s win total with five games left to play.
“I fully believe we can win championships here, there’s no question about it,” he said. “I think this place is sitting in a perfect position. I wanted to come in and win that championship this first year. We’re off the mark a little bit, but I want to take two, three years to do it. I’d like to see how good we can get by next year.”
Along with the fierce competitive nature that has defined him his entire life, Pepicelli credits his successes as a coach to what he’s learned with Clemson in the Athletic Coast Conference — a college baseball juggernaut.
“Working with [Clemson head coach Jack] Leggett was phenomenal,” Pepicelli said. “I learned a lot from him. I can’t emphasize enough how great it was to go against all these constant battles against FSU, UVA, UNC. Just the efficiency in the coaching was so good that I would just pay attention and write down — I wrote a lot of things down, I always have — I pay attention to how you win and how you lose. Sometimes you get whooped up on and you have to pay attention to what just happened to you.”
At Cornell, in recent years, baseball has not reached the same level of popularity as sports like hockey and lacrosse, but Pepicelli believes that with years of winning comes years of attention. And he’s trying to create just that.
“I think Cornell is a school that likes winners,” he said. “When we do our part and win the way I think we’re capable of doing, then you can see the kind of attention you can generate and how people accept you. It’s that way everywhere. [At] Clemson, we had a great fan base because we won a lot.”
Pepicelli also noted that he was hired as the head coach just about a week before school began, which did not give him a whole lot of time to get acquainted with the school before the year got underway. However, he said he has already seen a great deal of improvement and maturation among his squad.
“I’ve really liked the way they’ve worked,” he said. “I think they’ve worked incredibly hard. We’ve had good days and bad days and times we’ve really struggled at our depths. I think that’s a part of any coaching transition, just to make sure that it happens so it doesn’t disrupt the recruiting process, but in terms of development, they’re going to naturally get better just because of how hard they’re working and I definitely see that.”
Pepicelli has also made the interesting choice to create a council of nine players — pulling from each school year — as his leadership core instead of selecting captains. He said this allows the coaching staff to get more input from the team and create a more cohesive unit.
“It will always be that way,” he said of his unconventional leadership structure. “We take representatives from each class and put them on this leadership council and it’s letting them know what my vision is and hearing how it’s going, what their thoughts are.”
A major source of pride for Pepicelli is his establishment of a two-way system with his players. He wants them to be heard, and in return believes this makes his message more clear.
“I drive them pretty hard,” he said. “I am trying to set the bar higher and higher every time, but there has to be a relationship of trust. Honesty can’t be a one-way street. I have to be able to tell them what I think and what I want and push them and challenge them sometimes, and if you’re truly a good leader, I think you need to be able to listen in return.”
Aside from the X’s and O’s of baseball, Pepicelli has taken it upon himself to act like a role model to his team and hopes that they learn much more than just how to field a grounder or turn two.
“I think the days of people responding just out of fear is not a motivation anymore,” he added. “It’s not what I’m interested in doing. I’m trying to change their lives for the better. To me, I want to feel that I am motivated to play for a guy not play for a guy because I’m scared to death of him.”
In a school that thirsts for team success, Pepicelli hopes to change the program and make Cornell a more baseball-minded home. He has high hopes for this program and believes that nothing should stand in the way of attaining that goal. He hopes his dedication plays out in the end.
“Working with the players and coaches I’ve been able to work with since I got here has been fantastic,” he said. “What I love about the job is still here. It’s stronger than ever. It’s why I wanted to be in the Ivy league. Because to be a part of so many incredible guys, to be their leader, it’s awesome.”