Do colleges need a third paid baseball assistant? Here’s what Tennessee volunteer coach Ross Kivett does

Mike Wilson

Ross Kivett planned to play baseball forever.

So when the career crossroads came and the Detroit Tigers released him in June 2017, he kept chasing forever. Kivett headed to Traverse City, Michigan, to play independent ball after five seasons in the minor leagues.

Tennessee's Ross Kivett is in his second season as a volunteer coach.

His tenure on Lake Michigan lasted five games.

A coach from his All-America days at Kansas State called. Sean McCann, now the Tennessee video coordinator, told Kivett he would hear from Vols coach Tony Vitello about an opportunity in Knoxville.  

Three phone calls later, Kivett ended his playing career in August 2017 to join the Tennessee staff.

He’s the volunteer assistant coach, a role common throughout college baseball. He’s not considered a full-time employee. He does not receive benefits. He has received a handful of paychecks from Tennessee since he was hired.

“I wish it was different,” Kivett said. “I think eventually it will be. You just hope to stay in it long enough to see the change.”

Volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett has been at Tennessee since August 2017. He has been paid a handful of times by UT since due to NCAA rules about his position

Paid position denied

This is the world Kivett and other volunteer assistant coaches live in. He is the fourth coach on the staff, behind Vitello, hitting coach Josh Elander and pitching coach Frank Anderson.

The NCAA allows three full-time roles on baseball and softball staffs.

The member conferences had an opportunity to change that legislation in April. The SEC proposed an amendment to allow — not require — institutions to employ four full-time staff members and do away with the volunteer coach role. It failed by a vote of 36-25  with three conferences abstaining.

The SEC voted overwhelmingly in favor. The Pac-12 and the ACC voted yes.

The Big Ten and Big 12 voted no. Their decisions — worth four votes each — could have swung the proposal.

“There are not many times when you can look at something and say, ‘This is exactly what is right and this is what is wrong,’" Vitello said. “This is just what is right. It is impossible to argue for the sport of baseball that it is not the right thing to compensate someone who is working full-time. …

“It is literally disrespectful to label it a volunteer.”

Tennessee volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett earns most of his money by working camps for the Vols.

Vitello knows. He started as a volunteer assistant at Missouri in 2003, when he made roughly $3,000. Elander has, too. He was the volunteer at Arkansas for a season under Vitello before coming to Tennessee.

“You get in your car and come to the office when the other guys are on a fancy vacation,” Vitello said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow that you are putting in the same amount of work and maybe even more, but you are not getting to live the same way.”

Kivett credits Vitello and his assistants with taking good care of him.

He is one of the fortunate volunteer coaches. But that doesn’t lessen the sting of the vote. 

“You can give other sports’ coaches plenty of cash to stick around or extend them, but you can’t pay a third assistant a minimum with salary and benefits?” Kivett said. “That is the cry from everyone. No one was asking for head coach money. They just want to be able to support their family or live life a little bit more comfortably and feel some security. It stinks.”

How Kivett is paid

The 27-year-old Kivett is paid in three ways, one of which comes through Tennessee.

He coordinates Tennessee’s camps, drawing three checks annually — one each from winter camp, spring camp and summer camp. The summer camp check is the largest. He gets it in September after six months without a true payday.

He also trains young local athletes and travels to coach private camps in the summer.

He estimates he made $35,000 in 2018, the bulk of which came from UT camps.

Tennessee volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett, right, chats with Pete Derkay during a game against Missouri on May 5 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Among Kivett's duties is coaching first base during games.

That’s well-off in the volunteer assistant world. Smaller schools and conferences don’t have the camp revenue that Tennessee does.

“How depressed do you think those guys were?” Kivett said of the vote. “Some of those guys have families. I am lucky enough where I am not doing that and can live comfortably off the checks.

"You don’t do this for the money. You do this to keep going and have an impact on kids’ lives.”

A week after the vote failed, Kivett made his usual 10-minute drive to campus. He rents a room near West Knoxville for $400 from Chris Turpin, a connection made through UT director of operations Chad Zurcher.

“The roommate and living situation was my biggest impact of the last year,” said Kivett, who was paying $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment near campus previously. “I was getting killed on it.”

Kivett was the only coach on campus on this  particular day apart from a brief appearance from Vitello. The full-time staff members were recruiting off-campus, which Kivett cannot do as the volunteer assistant. That’s one of the biggest detriments of the current rules, both for the program and the volunteer’s attempts to advance into a full-time role.

He was in charge — not a Tennessee employee but still the leader of the baseball program for the day.

Vitello trusts Kivett. He likes his energy and competitive nature, so he targeted him for the volunteer role.

“There’s not really justice in this whole thing,” Vitello said. “Just because you do a great job doesn’t mean you’ll move up.”

A day in the life of a volunteer

Kivett arrived about 10:30 a.m. after a late-night return from Arkansas. He reached out to academic coordinator Meghan Anderson as players’ schedules shifted during finals week. Between emails, he texted players to set up workouts later in the day.

He went downstairs to meet with McCann and a trio of student assistants. They updated scouting reports on the Arkansas players from the weekend, comparing notes, tendencies and abilities for an hour.

He grabbed a “volunteer lunch” from the clubhouse — a bag of black bean chips, some apple slices and a bag of vitamins.

“I don’t really eat lunch, which is the volunteer life,” Kivett said. “ … You are basically living off popcorn and Cheez-Its, but it’s not too bad.”

Tennessee volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett throws ground balls to Trey Lipscomb and Andre Lipcius on April 29, 2019.

He barely finished eating when he noticed third basemen Andre Lipcius and Trey Lipscomb working on the field. He joined them and put them through drills. Backhand. Forehand. High choppers. Slow rollers.

"You have to do it full go and not worry about it," Kivett said. "You have to give your full self to your players."

Kivett continued into non-roster work — live at-bats between UT pitchers and hitters that aren’t currently playing. He tracked quality at-bats and ball-to-strike ratios, sometimes changing the count to create adversity — a word he yelled often.

The players left, but Kivett stayed into the night to study baserunning video from the Arkansas series.

“This job doesn’t seem flattering, and it probably isn’t to the outside world,” Kivett said. “It hurts when you are called a glorified manager or a graduate assistant, especially when you have played at a high level and were a self-proclaimed good player back in the day.

“If you tuck your pride, you have a good chance of making it in this game.”

Tennessee volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett leads non-roster work at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on April 29, 2019.

For the kids

This will be the shortest day Kivett has this week. His daily tasks include contacting schools for scouting reports, setting up recruiting visits for coaches, lining up the video room for bullpen study and studying infield video — the position he works with the most.

He’s ready to help at any time and often returns to campus late at night when a player texts him to take extra swings or field ground balls.

“You, as a volunteer, might be eating dinner and you get a text asking if you can do it,” Kivett said. “You won’t tell anyone no. Your job as a coach is to support the kids.”

On game days, he assists players with their preparation. He does defensive work, fielding routines with infielders, batting practice and baserunning warm-ups.

During the game, he organizes defensive positions and coaches first base.

Kivett works daily to fill summer camps, describing that as "the bloodline" of his financial situation.

“If that financial burden is released, we essentially become a four-headed monster with our players," Vitello said.

Kivett loves what he does. He gets to come to the ballpark every day. He knows if he does the job the right way, maybe he can “sit in the big office” eventually.

But he has gone two months since his last school paycheck and won’t see another for four months. He figures it is a role you can hold for three or four years, if the situation is right. His is good, relative to many in the volunteer assistant world.

But if it were different — if it were a paid assistant position — everything would change.

“I’d stay here forever,” Kivett said.