Paul Kostacopoulos felt like the luckiest kid on earth while growing up in Middletown, Connecticut.
That’s because Peter Kostacopoulos, his father, was the baseball coach at Wesleyan University. The elder Kostacopoulos led the Division III school to 400 wins in 27 seasons and his son was a fixture at Andrus Field.
“Most kids don’t get to go to work with their dad when they are 10 years old,” Paul Kostacopoulos said. “I went to practice, hung out in the locker room, rode the bus to road games. I loved it.”
The younger Kostacopoulos announced his retirement Tuesday after spending 34 years as a collegiate baseball coach, the last 18 at the Naval Academy. Having a role model who was a career coach was the reason he chose the profession.
“My dad made the biggest influence on my life and it’s not even close. I looked up to him on so many levels,” Kostacopoulos said. “Spending so much time with my dad, I recognized when I was relatively young that coaching was a pretty neat thing to do.”
Paul Kostacopoulos retired with a record of 1,027-704-7 spanning stints at Providence, Maine and Navy. He had been one of only seven active Division I college baseball coaches with more than 1,000 wins.
“What an unbelievable run for Coach Kosty. Any coach who has 1,000 wins must be doing something right,” said Bobby Applegate, who served seven seasons as a Navy assistant.
Applegate is currently head coach at Colorado State-Pueblo and credits Kostacopoulos with helping him prepare to lead a program. Kostacopoulos set a shining example through his work ethic and commitment to Navy baseball.
“I want to thank Coach Kosty for giving me the opportunity to coach alongside him and represent the Naval Academy baseball program. It was a great privilege to have a front-row seat to a man that has done so much for this game,” Applegate said. “Coach Kosty has left a lasting legacy at Navy and each of the programs he has managed. He has made a significant impact on baseball throughout the Northeast for almost four decades.”
Kostacopoulos played at Providence for coach Don Mezzanotte, then spent two years as his graduate assistant. When Mezzanotte abruptly retired in 1989, Kostacopoulos was improbably promoted to replace him.
Kostacopoulos was 25 years old at the time and remembers well the day he was hired by athletic director John Marinatto.
“[Marinatto] held up his index finger and said, ‘You have one chance.’ I was young and inexperienced, so I had to prove I deserved to be a head coach,” Kostacopoulos said.
Kostacopoulos led Providence to 220 wins along with a Big East Conference championship and berth in the NCAA Tournament in 1995. He was named the American Baseball Coaches Association Northeast Coach of the Year twice during a seven-year tenure.
Kostacopoulos left his alma mater to take the same position at Maine, which he led to a 284-195 record and two America East Conference championships. He was named America East Coach of the Year twice during a nine-year tenure.
“I thought this would be a special opportunity. When you first walk onto the yard, there is a sense of excitement. It’s somewhat awe-inspiring and you realize the power of the place,” Kostacopoulos said.
Leaving a legacy
Navy baseball endured five losing seasons under coach Steve Whitmyer, posting a combined record of 26-69 in 2004 and 2005. Navy lured Kostacopoulos away from Maine in 2006 and he immediately led the Midshipmen to their first winning season in a decade.
Jonathan Johnston was a senior catcher in 2006 and remembers Kostacopoulos establishing a completely different culture.
“Coach Kosty came in and set the standards high. He brought a winning mindset and the credentials to back it up,” Johnston said. “He knew what it took to win and that is why we turned it around that season. I’m just so thankful for the new staff enabling the seniors to go out on a high note.”
Johnston went on to play in the Oakland Athletics minor league system then got into coaching as an assistant at UNC-Asheville under former Navy assistant Scott Friedholm. He is now manager of the Bradenton Marauders, Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and stays in close touch with Kostacopoulos.
“Kosty is a big reason why I got into coaching and has been very influential on my career,” Johnston said.
Friedholm played for Kostacopoulos at Providence and spent nine years as his assistant at both Maine and Navy. Those two communicate regularly and Friedholm praised his mentor for building lasting relationships with players. He noted that more than 50 former Providence players are part of a text chain featuring their former coach, who actively participates.
“Kosty has impacted an awful lot of lives over the years,” said Friedholm, who just completed his ninth season at UNC-Asheville.
Navy won 30 games or more in three straight seasons after Kostacopoulos took the helm. Friedholm said his mentor resurrected the program the old-fashioned way, through hard work and attention to detail.
“Kosty has always been a stickler for the fundamentals, which I really appreciated. That never changed over 34 years. He preached doing all the little things like running the bases, making relay throws, holding runners,” Friedholm said. “Kosty stressed playing smart baseball and limiting the amount of mistakes made in a game. He stressed taking advantage of the mistakes made by the opposing club.”
Kostacopoulos compiled a 523-373-5 record and directed Navy to six NCAA Tournament appearances. The five-time Patriot League Coach of the Year is the second-winningest head coach in program history behind the legendary Joe Duff, who led the Midshipmen to 595 wins from 1962 to 1993.
Navy recorded 30 wins or more in 10 of 18 seasons under Kostacopoulos, who led the program to six Patriot League regular season championships. In 2016, the Midshipmen set a single-season school record with 43 wins, including an upset of St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament.
That team, which featured such standouts as pitcher Luke Gillingham, shortstop Travis Blue and outfielder Steve Born, still holds a special place in the heart of Kostacopoulos.
“It was one of those magical seasons in which everything went right. It was a group of players who just clicked and always seemed to find a way to win,” Kostacopoulos said.
Under Kostacopoulos, Navy had 87 All-Patriot League picks, 16 All-Americans and 13 freshman All-Americans. His players garnered six Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, four Patriot League Player of the Year and two Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors.
Additionally, nine Navy players from the Kostacopoulos era were chosen in the Major League Baseball Draft. Two pitchers — 2008 graduate Mitch Harris and Oliver Drake — made it to the majors. Noah Song became the highest draft pick in program history when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox.
Nine Navy players under Kostacopoulos were picked in the Major League Baseball draft, all arriving in Annapolis as unheralded recruits. They were developed into professional prospects by Kostacopoulos and his staff. Mitch Harris was a corner infielder when Kostacopoulos became coach. He was converted into a starting pitcher and wound up playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Coach Kosty saw something that others, including myself, didn’t,” Harris said. “Coach Kosty always challenged guys to take their game to the next level. I became a No. 1 starter because he pushed me and would never allow me to slip.”
Kostacopoulos thrived at Navy for being able to find under-the-radar prospects and transform them into productive players after a few seasons in the program.
“Being successful at the Naval Academy involves so many different things and it starts with finding players who are committed to three primary components: They love baseball, have a willingness to be challenged academically and are committed to serving in the military,” Kostacopoulos said. “There will always be a development component at Navy. We need to recruit players who are willing to work hard at learning their craft and develop over time.”
Kostacopoulos is proud that Navy qualified for the Patriot League Tournament in 11 of the last 12 seasons and managed to post winning records in 14 of his 18 seasons.
“I take a lot of pride in what we did during the regular season. I tried to instill a team-wide mentality of grinding through every day and bringing our best in every game,” he said.
Navy struggled the past two seasons, posting an overall record of 42-53. Bucknell swept Navy in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament. However, the disappointment of the 2022 campaign is not why Kostacopoulos elected to retire.
“It wasn’t any one thing. When you decide it’s time, there are a lot of factors that go into the decision,” he said. “I’m almost 59 years old and have been coaching for parts of five decades. It just seems like this was the right time to do something different.”
Kostacopoulos will move into an administrative role within the Navy athletic department. He is grateful athletic director Chet Gladchuk offered an opportunity to remain at the academy.
“I will miss coaching tremendously. I will miss preparing a team, miss being part of big wins and miss the interaction with the players. I learned as much from these midshipmen as they did from me,” Kostacopoulos said. “At the Naval Academy, it’s important to realize you are just one small part of the collective group of people that influence these young men.”
Navy will conduct a national search for a successor and the job will no doubt attract many attractive candidates. Jeff Kane, who spent nine seasons as an assistant under Kostacopoulos, figures to be among the applicants.
“It’s certainly been an honor to work alongside a head coach who has been as successful as Kosty,” Kane said. “There is nobody more competitive, nobody who expects more out of players and coaching staff. Kosty sets the bar really high for the players and staff and pushes people to meet those expectations.”