Barely into his fourth decade, Rob Vaughn has already lived a baseball lover’s fantasy.
He was a starting catcher at Division 1 Kansas State University, helping lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament.
He was selected in the 30th round of the 2009 amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox and played professionally for two years.
He then coached at the collegiate level, first at his alma mater and, for the past five seasons, as a top assistant at the University of Maryland.
Everything changed dramatically in June, however.
The crazy fantasy became a stunning reality when, weeks shy of his 30th birthday, Vaughn was named the eighth head coach in the history of the University of Maryland baseball program.
He suddenly was one of the youngest head coaches in Division 1, he was taking over a team that had become a perennial Big Ten title contender and he was replacing his mentor, John Szefc, who left in 2017 for Virginia Tech after turning around the Terps’ program.
“I think in the back of your head, you always hope it is gonna happen,” Vaughn said of being a head coach. “When you lose a guy like Coach Szefc, and he moves on, I think there’s a side of me that really hoped that was gonna happen. There’s a bit of a dreaming side of it, too.”
Within 24 hours of Szefc’s departure, Vaughn had met with Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson about the position. Within days, an offer was made. An official announcement of the hiring occurred within two weeks.
“I kinda went in there (to Anderson’s office) just thinking it was gonna be to lay out kind of my vision and see what happened. I had no idea it was gonna be such a quick turnaround and a move that quick,” Vaughn said. “It was pretty special, a pretty surreal moment, that’s for sure.”
Szefc led the Terps to their most successful, five-year stretch in school history, so Vaughn doesn’t need to make drastic changes or rebuild a program. He simply needs to build on that momentum.
But he also brings his own stamp – and he’s infused Maryland with a youthful energy. Junior outfielder Marty Costes said Vaughn’s contagious exuberance starts at practice. They are no longer painstakingly boring chores – practices are more like baseball parties on the field.
“They are energy-driven,” Costes said. “We get the ballpark music going. I’d say it’s a fun time. It’s definitely different than in the past, because we haven’t had as much of a scene in terms of practices. It’s kind of been a little stagnant in the past. But I love the way it’s run now.”
Vaughn isn’t afraid to dust off his glove or bat, either. Prior to the start of the season, Vaughn had his team play an intrasquad scrimmage. However, one of his players was out with the flu.
Vaughn, who primarily had been focused on working with the Terps’ hitters while an assistant, didn’t hesitate to pick up his glove and field balls at third base.
“He likes to hop in the cages with us,” Costes said. “I respect him for it. Sometimes, if we’re hitting bad enough, he’ll get in there and take some hacks himself. I always love that.”
Costes, a former standout at Archbishop Curley, is open to constructive criticism. After all, it’s Vaughn who helped turn Costes into an All-Big Ten first team selection in 2017.
“He definitely gives the whole group confidence and gives us a solid plan,” Costes said. “He and (Assistant Coach Matt Swope) work so hard together. I’ve developed over these years all thanks to them, to be honest.”
Good luck getting Vaughn to take credit for any of Maryland’s past successes. He’s humble, a self-proclaimed student of the game. He’s also quick to admit he’s got a lot to learn. He cites head coaches Matt Deggs (Sam Houston State), Andy Sawyers (Southeastern Missouri State), and Szefc as being huge influences on his coaching style.
“I think one thing that can get lost here is who you are,” Vaughn said. “You can spend so much time trying to be Andy Sawyers or Matt Deggs or John Szefc that it’s not authentic, and it’s not real. And if it’s not real, your players will see right through that.”
Building a family atmosphere
For Vaughn, baseball is more than a job; it’s family. It’s not uncommon to see Vaughn’s young son, Wyatt, around Maryland’s facilities. The one-year-old brightens everyone’s mood no matter how intense the practice.
“It’s a lot of fun when he brings his kid out,” Costes said. “Little Wyatt – he seems so happy around him and everything. I’m glad he’s doing well with his family. They seem pretty happy with his transition.”
With so much changing around him, Vaughn is focused on being the same guy every day.
“I think that seeing Vaughn move into the head coach position really hasn’t changed him much,” Costes said. “He interacts with the hitters the same, but still brings the group together as one instead of a hitters’ group or a pitchers’ group.”
Vaughn admits he was concerned that becoming a head coach wouldn’t allow him to engage as much with his players. However, he embraces the opportunity to build upon the winning identity established by Szefc.
“I was afraid that when I did become a head coach I would be pulled in so many different directions that it would take me off the field more than I wanted to be off the field, and it really hasn’t,” Vaughn said. “I’ve been able to manage that to where it hasn’t affected me being out there with the guys.”
Taking chances, learning from mistakes
Vaughn brings a fearless and aggressive brand of baseball to Maryland – emphasizing a care-free style of play that has little regard for failure.
“I want our team to be completely unafraid to crash and burn – period,” Vaughn said. “I want to play with a lot of aggression, and I want to play with a lot of freedom.”
As a catcher at Kansas State, Vaughn took command of games and of his team. He still commands that kind of respect from his players – just in a different role.
“We still look up to him as the Alpha,” Costes said. “It’s always been like that for the hitters. Vaughn hasn’t had to do much in terms of putting his foot down to the team, because he’s always been respected.”
There’s a relatability factor that comes with being a young coach. Vaughn listens to the problems his guys face, and he understands the challenges of being a collegiate athlete. It really wasn’t that long ago when he fought through similar issues.
“Baseball’s a tough game, and it’s hard on these young men that are going out there and getting judged by media, judged by professional scouts, judged by everybody based on the numbers that they put up on the field. But my goal is a lot more process-oriented than that,” Vaughn said. “I want to go out every single day and play with freedom, play with a lot of love for each other, and just go lay it all out there.”
The culmination of cold February practices came to a head in Knoxville, Tenn., last week. Vaughn captured his first victory in a 4-0 shutout over Tennessee in the Terps’ season opener.
Vaughn, though, knows this is just the beginning; there’s still a lot of work to be done with a Terps squad that is now 2-2, following a loss Wednesday at William & Mary.
“I firmly believe that if we can go play free, play without failure in the back of our head and just go do it for the love of doing it – to me that’s what I want out of this year,” Vaughn said. “I really believe that by doing that we’ll look up in May and June and be somewhere that we’ve never been before.”