By Ryan Faulkner, @ryanfaulk03
“We don’t want to quit, and we’re not gonna run from a fight. We’re going to jump into the fire and fight our way through it.”
Campbell head coach Justin Haire will be the first to admit that the Fighting Camels’ slow climb to the top has been difficult at its best and near-impossible at its worst.
Yet today, they stand ranked as a top-25 team in the country for the first time in program history,
Haire deserves much credit for the success enjoyed by the Camels in recent years. But his journey began long before arriving at Campbell as an assistant coach in 2008, with special attention placed on the relationships he formed along the way.
Falling in love with the game
Haire—the fifth of six children—was born into a large and loving family, constantly surrounded by people who supported him.
But perhaps the most impactful of these relationships was that which he shared with his father, who introduced him to the great sport of baseball at a very young age. Haire’s father taught him how to read the box scores printed in local newspapers, and the pair made frequent trips to Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, former home of the Reds. It was also Haire’s father that first introduced him to Willie Mays, his favorite player growing up.
“My dad’s true love was always baseball,” Haire said, noting that it was this that sparked his own passion for the game.
This “passion” turned to skill when Haire started high school, where he played under Ohio coaching great Mark Maus. Haire fell into his role as the team’s go-to catcher with ease, before graduating and playing four seasons at the collegiate level.
Haire said that his relationship with his father never wavered, no matter what roster the young man found himself on or how well he performed on the field.
“I wasn’t a great college player. There were times I played a lot, and there were times I didn’t play at all,” Haire said. “But my dad was always super supportive of me and my college career.”
After college, Haire said he wasn’t sure if he would be able to make a professional career out of coaching baseball. He was hired as a pitching coach for one season at Sterling College, a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA), but struggled to see it as a long-term option.
At the time, he made just $295 a month, not always having enough money to even buy groceries or pay for his phone bill.
Thankfully, the strong relationship between him and his family persisted further, and his parents encouraged him to keep chasing his dreams, regardless of the monetary struggles that presented themselves at the onset.
“[To be a successful coach], you need support,” Haire said. “Not just moral support, but sometimes some financial support, too, to help those dreams come to fruition. My parents were always part of that.”
With this renewed motivation, Haire pushed forward.
Becoming a Camel
After a brief stint as an assistant coach at Ouachita Baptist, Haire received a call from Greg Goff in 2008, who had just been hired as Campbell’s new head coach. Unsure of what the future held for him, Haire packed his bags and moved to Buies Creek, North Carolina, and started as an assistant coach for the program he now helms today.
“We call it ‘development without a distraction.’ We want to be a baseball factory.”
In 2008, Campbell was not exactly known for its baseball program. The Camels had posted an 11-45 record the season prior and won only two conference games all year. Haire said that, although they were not impossible fixes, Campbell had some hurdles that would need to be overcome before the team could begin winning ball games.
“It was just not a very good program,” Haire said.
The task of revitalizing a program that had fallen to the wayside was further complicated by the university’s location, situated in a town with a population of just over 2,000. Instead of a cause for fear or frustration, however, Haire said he saw an opportunity to actually use this as an advantage that could further develop the baseball team and its players.
“We’re in the middle of tobacco and cotton fields, and there isn't even a Main Street. There’s no bright lights or big cities. We embrace that,” Haire said. “We call it ‘development without a distraction.’ We want to be a baseball factory.”
And the upsides didn’t end there. Haire compared Campbell’s facilities in 2008 to those of a “solid high school,” which might have deterred some coaches, but instead excited him. Having come from a school without lights, Haire was just thankful to have a well-lit ballpark with a functional scoreboard.
Campbell’s $9,000 recruiting budget, another figure that most baseball powerhouses would have scoffed at, was life-changing for Haire. He said it was “just a matter of perspective” in finding smaller victories and compounding in a way that builds toward the program’s long-term success.
“You just start with a plan, a vision, a hope, and a dream,” Haire said. “You start trying to stack some small wins, get better players, coach those guys up, and travel the country.”
Tangible growth quickly followed, as a change in leadership within the university’s athletic department in 2011 came with a bigger budget, a facility revamp, fundraising opportunities, and a new overall vision for Haire and the rest of the coaching staff.
The stars finally aligned in 2014, when Goff and Haire led the Camels to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990. The team went 1-2 in the Columbia Regional and was easily eliminated by South Carolina, but this nonetheless marked a turning point for Haire, who had never been on the coaching staff of a Tournament team before.
As always, Haire attributes the success of Campbell’s 2014 team to the close-knit and relationship-oriented dynamic of the players on the roster. Some of those athletes, like then-ace Heath Bowers and now-Tampa Bay Rays relief man Ryan Thompson, still maintain constant communication and involvement with Haire and his family even today.
“If you’re talking about relationships and teams that change you as a coach, that team changed everything,” Haire said. “We’re still very close.”
Climbing the ladder to become top dog
Though he didn’t know it, the end of the 2014 season actually signaled the beginning of Haire’s career as a head coach.
The world of collegiate baseball quickly took notice of Campbell’s upward trajectory, and within a week of the Camels securing their first-ever win at an NCAA regional game in Columbia, news broke that Goff would be leaving the program in favor of a head-coaching gig at Louisiana Tech. Campbell immediately announced—on the very same day—that Haire would take over as the new leading skipper in what the university’ athletics program called a “seamless transition.”
Looking backward, the word “seamless” might have been an understatement. Under Haire, the Camels started the 2015 season with a program-best 17-2 record before the new captain went on to become the winningest first-year coach in Campbell history.
Much of this success, according to Haire, was because the “core beliefs and values” built by Goff remained in place, allowing Haire to focus more on letting his “personality shine” in developing the team’s offensive schemes.
Just three years later, the Camels easily won the Big South Conference regular-season championship before sweeping the Big South Tournament, earning the Camels their first NCAA Tournament berth under Haire.
After a 90-minute rain delay halted Campbell’s momentum and burned their last viable arm, the Camels dropped their elimination game to Duke. Haire said it was heartbreaking to know that, had the pitching rotation been in better condition, the team could have easily won the game.
“We literally just ran out of quality bullets out of the bullpen,” Haire said. “We stood in the office when we got back, man, and it felt like we had gotten our hearts ripped out.”
This was a wake-up call for Haire, who learned one of his first “big lessons” as a head coach: the importance of managing the bullpen.
“We just decided right then that, for us to be able to get where we want to go, we have to develop arms at a better clip and at a higher rate,” Haire said. “We’ve dedicated a lot of time, energy, money, and education to doing a better job with those arms, day-in and day-out, and we’ve certainly seen some of the fruits of that labor come home.”
There’s no debating that Haire and Co. succeeded, as Campbell has recently become known for its ability to develop young hurlers. Just one year later, righty Seth Johnson became the program’s first-ever first round pick in the MLB Draft.
Success on the mound was not Haire’s only newfound attention after the 2018 regional loss, however, He also adopted what he calls a “Hard-to-Kill Mindset” at the plate, which emphasizes capitalizing on each batter’s individual strengths and using that to put pressure on the other team. “Doing the unconventional” became a team staple, he said.
“From an offensive standpoint, this has been a rallying cry for us,” Haire said. “Getting our guys to train hard at knowing what they’re good at and what their identity is within our offense is really important for us.
“No one is coming to save you. It’s you versus whoever is out there [on the mound].”
And save themselves, Campbell did. By relying solely on each other, the Camels have since won four Big South regular-season titles and three Big South tournament championships. Haire has thrice earned Big South Coach of the Year accolades, with the most recent award coming off the team’s first 40-win season under Haire’s leadership in 2022.
Within his conference, Haire has become unstoppable.
Reemphasizing family connections along the way
These highs were not without their lows, however.
Haire, who has always emphasized the importance of family across everything he does, had his life flipped upside-down when his mother passed away in 2019. Haire said the last game that she saw the Camels play in-person was winning the conference championship earlier that year.
In typical Haire fashion, however, he would not be discouraged. Instead, he and his father both took this loss as an opportunity to further strengthen the bonds between the rest of the family.
“My dad retired, sold their house, bought an RV—he had never driven an RV in his life—and has traveled the country with us to almost every game over the last two years.” Haire said. “It’s pretty amazing to have the old man tag along. It makes the ride a lot more fun.
“I’ve got four kids now, so he gets to see them grow up, they get to have their grandpa around, and I get to have my dad in his season-ticket seat every game. It’s really, really special.”
In some ways, Haire’s family-oriented take on life has come full circle. He now does for his children what his father did for him: mentor, guide, and introduce them to life on the turf diamond. But this time around, it is a multi-generational affair, assuredly with no shortage of Willie Mays references to boot.
Looking forward, to 2023 and beyond
Today, the Campbell Camels stand confidently in their identity. Branded by resilience and strengthened by the bonds they share with each other, the team has arguably never been stronger.
It’s us versus everyone else, man, and I think our coaching staff buys into that.”
“We know exactly who we are, and we’re not trying to be anybody different,” Haire said. “As you’re trying to go against the grain without a ‘name brand’ attached to the front of your jersey, you have to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. It’s us versus everyone else, man, and I think our coaching staff buys into that.”
As of presstime, the Camels average over 10 runs per game and are top-10 in the nation in run production. They also lead the country in on-base percentage, standing at nearly .500, thanks in no small part to their over-.300 team batting average.
Haire said the team's dominance thus far has been the result of offseason adjustments which benefit from top-to-bottom experience on the team’s roster.
“Our coaching staff did a better job this preseason of really trying to hammer down on some of the things that make us who we are from an identity standpoint,” Haire said. “We’ve also got some veterans in the lineup every single day that have been through the fire, having been to two or three regionals.”
The Camels open conference play on Friday, March 17, with the first of a three-game series against Winthrop. Their schedule remains difficult, however, thanks to the scheduling of perennial powerhouses like East Carolina for the majority of the team’s midweek matchups.
Rather than looking too far into the future, Haire said he is focused on taking things one step at a time. That is how personal development is best accomplished, after all.
“You literally never know what’s going to happen,” Haire said. “You’re just trying to play the game that’s right there in front of you.”
And, of course, Haire’s family—his father, his brothers, his children, and his players—will be by his side.
“Baseball can weave generations together,” Haire said. “I’m super fortunate for that.”