NORMAN — Pete Hughes left his “dream job” at Boston College and took over Virginia Tech's baseball program in June 2006 because he wanted his wife and five children nearby, and the close-knit, collegiate atmosphere in Blacksburg made that much easier than the big city.
Hughes' all-consuming role as a baseball coach is trumped only by his family-man identity. The two intertwined over the years as Hughes' players became like extra family members, a cycle he expects to continue with his new job at Oklahoma.
Within two months of that first season at Virginia Tech — after the deadliest mass shooting in United States history shocked the Blacksburg campus — the baseball team became a symbol of normalcy and strength. That might not have been possible if not for Hughes, who kept his players together with regular meetings, meals and fellowship in his home.
“We've been so proud of the coach,” the mother of one baseball player told NBC News a few weeks later. “He took care of them.”
Hughes welcomed Virginia Tech's players into his home because that's what you do for family.
“That's what's so special about being a coach and a coach's family, is that you're part of the campus experience,” said his wife, Debby Hughes. “Our boys are like little brothers to all of his players.”
Pete Hughes grew up in the Boston suburbs, the son of a schoolteacher and a nurse who raised him to always put family first. That credo shaped the way Hughes lives as a father, husband, leader and baseball coach.
“He's a great family guy and would fit in anyplace,” said Barry Gallup, an early mentor who hired Hughes at Boston's Northeastern University in the early 1990s.
“The three best things about him are his leadership, people skills and that he's a family person. That's the way he coaches his baseball team.”
Gallup's claim to fame came in the early 1980s, when he was a Boston College football assistant and recruited Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. But Gallup also made a tremendous impact on Hughes' career.
Football to baseball
Gallup became Northeastern's head football coach in 1991 and hired 23-year-old Pete Hughes as an assistant.
“I was gonna be a football coach all the way,” Hughes said. “That was it. That was the track I was on.”
When Gallup took Northeastern's athletic director job a couple years later and the baseball program needed help, he asked Hughes to join that staff in addition to his football duties.
“Peter was an outstanding football coach,” said Gallup, who has since returned to Boston College as its assistant athletic director for football operations.
“He probably could've been as successful a football coach as he was a baseball coach.”
On Gallup's gridiron staff, Hughes worked with several up-and-comers in the coaching profession. Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marone, Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop all worked with Hughes on those early-1990s Northeastern staffs.
Hughes, though, decided a baseball coaching career was a better fit for his personality, and more in line with his career and family goals.
He figured baseball provided a quicker path to his dream of being a head coach. Plus, baseball coaching seemed more secure, which was important because he wanted a big family.
Things worked out just as Hughes hoped. In 1997, he was hired to lead the baseball program at Trinity University, an NCAA Division III school in San Antonio.
Turning around a program
After two successful seasons, he left to take over at Boston College. He inherited an Eagles squad with a long history of losing; Boston College won an average of just 13 games over the 35 seasons before Hughes arrived.
Over Hughes' eight-year run, though, Boston College went 250-181-2. The program could've been his forever, but as his five children grew up in a home 50 miles from campus, he realized working at a big-city university wasn't compatible with his family goals.
“The turning point was when we came to Virginia Tech and saw the neighborhoods that were practically walking and biking distance from campus,” said Debby Hughes. “That was everything to us. He could not only coach his team, but he could go to our boys' games after practice. Our boys could go to his practice on their bikes.”
But for as much as the Hughes family needed Virginia Tech, the Hokie players would come to rely on their new coach even more, and for a far graver reason than winning baseball games.
Team as family
Three months into his new job at Virginia Tech, the Hokies traveled to No. 1 Florida State for a mid-April weekend series, returning home early Monday morning, April 16.
Hughes was still in bed that morning when Seung-Hui Cho shot the first of his 32 victims in the horrifying massacre that shook the Virginia Tech campus — and the entire nation.
Virginia Tech shut down for a week after the tragedy, allowing most students to go home and be with their families.
“The whole community was turned upside down, but it was baseball season,” Debby Hughes said. “They sort of had to continue on playing, just feeling numb.”
So the Hughes family opened their home to the Hokie baseball players, who ate dinner there every night that week.
“Our home was like their home base,” Debby Hughes said. “Instead of sitting in their dorm rooms, just feeling awful, they could all come be together at our house and just feel some comfort.”
Virginia Tech didn't return to the game field until Friday, April 20, when it hosted Miami in the first post-shooting event on campus.
From those painful days through his seven seasons in Blacksburg, Hughes continued to foster close, familial relationships with his players, and it led to remarkable success on the field.
Virginia Tech recorded 30-win seasons in Hughes' last five years there and reached the postseason twice. This summer, he was hired to replace Sunny Golloway as head baseball coach at Oklahoma, a place he said was perfect for his family because of the community.
Hughes also likes that the Sooners don't need much rebuilding, unlike in his previous jobs.
“I am motivated to win a national championship, to get to the highest pinnacle of my profession,” Hughes said. “That's what spearheads everything, next to the welfare of my family. That's why I made this move.”