His players often roll their eyes long before he spits out the “F-F” in Buffalo and takes off on another lecture about his beloved Bills. How they were just another small-market team before gaining attention and building something special. How a community rallied around them.
Look at them now, he says. They reached four Super Bowls and took their place in the national spotlight. They took a step back and fell on hard times, but their fans never stopped loving them. Now, they’re going in the right direction. They could be a dangerous team. They could be a playoff team. This could be …
Is anyone listening?
Joe Raccuia laughed Monday while explaining how his hometown football team helped him drive home the message to his Radford (Va.) University baseball team. The former Canisius High star has been the head coach of the Highlanders for eight seasons, none better than this one.
“You can’t imagine the references that I have used about the Bills to my team, and it’s because I can only relate to them,” Raccuia said by telephone Monday. “I only pay attention to them, where they started from scratch and having a very loyal fan base. It’s a very loyal group that cares about them.”
It should be no surprise that Raccuia sent his players back on the field Sunday after completing a sweep of Charleston Southern for a Sabres-style tribute to the 500-plus fans who watched their eighth straight win. The players wanted to thank the fans for supporting them, for cheering, for being there, for noticing.
Raccuia can feel the community riding a familiar wave with his team after improving to 36-14, after a record-breaking, 31-win season last year, and Radford’s first Top 25 ranking in school history. The 23rd-ranked Highlanders were 17th in RPI, ahead of 11 ACC schools including superpower North Carolina.
Radford has won 23 of its last 26 games and leads the competitive Big South Conference with a 17-4 record. It could earn a No. 1 seed in its region when the NCAA Tournament begins later this month. The roster includes former Williamsville North star Kyle Zurak, a middle reliever at Radford.
The fan base, which has grown exponentially since Raccuia arrived, can sense something special brewing. A few years ago, it was barely on the university’s radar. Now, there’ a distinct buzz that comes with winning, a buzz he remembers all too well from the late 1980s while growing up on the West Side.
Raccuia’s surname might seem familiar. His brother is Ron Raccuia, who founded ADPRO Sports and represented numerous players, including Bills running back Fred Jackson. His company also started small before evolving into a local giant that has naming rights to the Bills’ practice facility.
“I always bring up the Freddie Jacksons of the world, a no-name guy who stuck it out and what good a leader he is,” Joe Raccuia said. “I tell my players, ‘I know him as a person. I know what kind of guy he is.’ I can relate to Freddie Jackson, who nobody knew, who went to Coe College and is a good family man, a good community guy.”
Raccuia left Buffalo in 1992 to play college baseball. He started at Edison Community College in Florida, transferred to Radford in 1994 and was captain his senior year. But even when he was a kid, while living in a region obsessed with professional football and hockey, he wanted to become a college baseball coach.
Too often, kids stay in one place and never pursue their dreams. He followed his passion and turned baseball into his life’s work. He paid his dues as a volunteer assistant coach, recruiting coordinator, assistant coach. He was the head coach at Marist for two years before returning to his alma mater.
Radford is tucked away in the southwest part of Virginia, college football country that revolves around nearby Virginia Tech. In the years before Raccuia arrived to rescue the program for which he played, the baseball program was an afterthought with no scholarships and facilities desperately needing updates.
His diligence paid off when he started reaching into the community and tapping into alumni to raise money needed for a lighted baseball stadium. Unlike the previous one, the new ballpark includes dugouts large enough for his team.
It gave him something to show. The new stadium, better facilities and the maximum number of scholarships allowed for Division I have worked wonders for recruiting. Gone are the days in which he was trying to convince players to play in a rundown stadium while offering little financial relief.
Raccuia took over a 10-win team and won 24 games in his first season. The Highlanders have won 31 or more games in four of the last five seasons, including this one. They would have had six straight 30-win seasons if not for 2010 and 2012, when they won 29 in each.
In 2008, about 100 fans showed for games. These days, he’s counting upward of 700 spectators when the students are in school. People he didn’t know and never saw gained interest. Baseball became the cool event on campus in the spring. The atmosphere took on a life of its own.
“It’s been a pretty good ride at home,” he said. “You’re seeing a lot more fraternities and sororities at games, a lot more hecklers, a lot of different things I never envisioned. It’s been really cool.”
Oh, yes, home.
Raccuia returns for the holidays and keeps up with friends from his childhood. He has made peace with the likelihood that he’ll never move back. He wished the climate suited his sport, wished it could work here the way it does there. Buffalo will always be home, which is why he couldn’t resist asking this question:
“So what’s up with Mike Babcock?”