NORTH EAST, Md.: When mentoring young athletes to reach their full potential, it is vital to have a coach who believes in every word or bit of advice they offer. Jimmy Belanger is a true enthusiast of the game of baseball, and the intricate nuances of his coaching style illustrate his commitment to the team.
Belanger recently completed his first season as the pitching coach for the Clemson University baseball team, where he turned a group of young men into one of the best pitching staffs in NCAA Division I baseball. The Tigers finished the 2023 season with a 44-19 record, their best since 2018. Clemson had a 4.30 ERA, 19th in the nation, and the 604 strikeouts were fourth most in their school history.
“It was easy to trust him early on,” said Clemson redshirt junior closer Ryan Ammons. “He demands excellence as he has an absolute love for this game. He has an absolute love for pitching. And it’s easy to get behind a guy like that when you believe what he’s saying.”
Belanger has loved the game of baseball from the time he played Little League. That intensity carried him through his scholastic career at North Babylon High School in Long Island and with the Bayside Yankees, an AAU travel team. While he had the intensity, he lacked the control to progress to the next level.
It was through a chance meeting during a summer tournament in Delaware with the Bayside Yankees that Belanger met Brian August, a then assistant coach at Cecil College. Having recently graduated high school, he was in a state of limbo for his next steps when August invited him to tour Cecil College’s North East Campus.
“I had some small division I schools in the Northeast looking at me, but nothing serious. I realized that I needed to go to a two-year school academically and needed to grow up like most high school kids need to do,” said Belanger. “Attending Cecil College definitely helped me in my development as a pitcher and as a student. Doing something like that, especially where I was in my development, drastically helped me grow physically and mentally.”
Belanger played the 2005 and 2006 seasons for Cecil College and graduated with an associate degree in general studies. Attending a community college opened doors for Belanger as the University of Louisville recruited him.
“If not for playing at Cecil College, I would not have been at the level of Louisville or West Virginia. I wouldn’t have had the schools talking to me if not for those two years,” said Belanger.
“Jimmy has always possessed the drive, knowledge, and skill to be successful with some of the best baseball programs in the nation. You could see that in him when he began his collegiate career at Cecil College, and he has nurtured and grown that passion for the game as a coach,” said Cecil College baseball coach Charlie O’Brien.
Belanger pitched two seasons for Louisville, which went to the College World Series his junior season. Following two years as a player at Louisville, he received his first coaching opportunity with the Cardinals while completing his bachelor’s degree in 2009.
“I always had the desire to coach, and that was the perfect opportunity to get a feel for it. I have always been one of those guys who knew all the players on the other team and knew what they could do,” said Belanger about his knack for scouting the opposition.
The following year he landed his first full-time assistant coaching job at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., where at 22, he found he was responsible for developing and creating a system for young players.
“I had a chance to grow there, and head coach Dean Ehehalt put a lot of confidence in a very young coach. He pushed me in a lot of ways to better myself, and we had a lot of success,” said Belanger.
During his three seasons with Monmouth, the Hawks reached the NEC tournament in 2010, won the NEC regular season championship in 2011, and won more than 30 games the following season. Belanger worked with Nick Meyers, who was named 2011 NEC Pitcher of the Year and the NEC/NJCBA Player of the Year, and pitcher Pat Light, who was drafted 37th overall by the Boston Red Sox in 2012.
“What I learned from my time at Monmouth is you cannot walk into a situation where there is a lot of potential talent and think you are better than them. What I have learned in my coaching career is that the guys want to know you care before they want to know what you know,” said Belanger.
When former Louisville assistant coach John Szefc took the reins at the University of Maryland, he contacted Belanger. While Belanger needed to create a plan of action for every situation on the field, at Maryland, Coach Szefc took a hands-off approach. This allowed Belanger to build upon what he had accomplished at Monmouth and put into play systems that he felt worked best for each situation. As the head pitching coach, Belanger provided feedback on the pitching rotation with insight into who was struggling and who was excelling. The Terps went on to win their first regional championship in 2014, only to repeat it in 2015.
In 2017, Belanger took a position with the University of Kentucky to be closer to family as he and his wife Tiffany were expecting their first child. Once again, Belanger created an environment of success in the bullpen as the Wildcats set school records for strikeouts and opponents’ batting average.
With all his successes, one of the top collegiate baseball programs of all time came knocking. Florida State University offered him a position as head pitching coach, a huge opportunity for a man from a small Long Island community. He spent three seasons mentoring many of the most talented pitchers in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Under his guidance, FSU led the ACC in strikeouts per nine innings (11.4), strikeouts-to-walks ratio (3.19), and ERA (3.45).
Now at Clemson, he is once again applying his love of the game toward guiding the young men who compete in order to create an environment of success in the bullpen.
“Whenever you take over a new spot, the players have to know you care about them and have their best interest in mind. Once they know that, they will listen to whatever you say,” said Belanger.