The 2006 college baseball season is getting down to the wire, and some coaches at top programs are feeling the heat. At the same time, there are some young, talented head coaches who are putting themselves in positions to move on up. It's likely that a number of coaching positions will become vacant, so with that in mind, I'll take a look at which ones are most likely to open up and who the best candidates are to step in and take over.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Smoke Laval, LSU
Winning five CWS titles in a decade and becoming ‘the’ team of the 1990s, LSU fans have good reason to have extremely high expectations.
If you look at what Laval has done since he succeeded former coach/current LSU athletic director Skip Bertman and compared it to the other 290+ coaches in Division I, you’d think that he hasn’t done all that bad. An SEC title in 2003, an SEC West title in 2005, regional championships in ’02-’04, and back to back CWS appearances in ’02 and ’03. Not bad at all, right? But those results do not suffice in Tiger Nation.
As of now, LSU is barely holding on to the final spot in the SEC tournament, with a half-game lead over Mississippi State and Tennessee. As is, barring some sort of miracle, the Tigers will likely not host a regional for the first time in a long, long while, which alone might be enough to spark riots in Baton Rouge. That fact alone might be enough to send Smoke packing. If he doesn’t engineer a 90s-like postseason run, his time might be done. If LSU had not had a midseason turnaround and fought their way to the SEC West title last year, his time may well have been up then.
Laval was Bertman’s hand-picked successor and he and Skip go back to Smoke’s days as an assistant at LSU from 1984-93, so his patience might likely be a little longer than another AD's might be. But you’d have to think that even he would know when it might be time to overlook personal ties and make a change.
Ron Polk, Mississippi State
Unfortunately, there comes a time when even legends run out of gas.
Since Polk’s return from Georgia in 2001, things have not been particularly rosy in Starkville. But the beginning of this season gave Bulldog fans a reason to have high expectations. They started off 18-0 and rose to #1 in the country. Entering their third SEC series at Alabama, the ‘Dawgs stood at 21-1 and 4-1 in SEC play. Since then, State has been 12-19, 7-14 in the SEC, with losses in six of their last seven conference series. Entering the final weekend against Mississippi, they will need a series win against the archrival Rebels and a little help from Florida in order to be able to defend their SEC Tourney crown.
The Bulldogs have not been to Omaha since 1998. They have not been to a Super Regional since 2001, and they’ve not hosted one since the inception of the Supers in 1999. They haven’t hosted a sub-regional since 2003. And, to top it off, they missed the NCAA's in 2002, and they also missed out on Hoover in 2004, where they had been a mainstay for the past couple of decades. They did win the SEC Tournament last year, but that was only after a subpar regular season where they finished under .500 in the SEC. This year’s finish will make the fourth time in the five seasons since Polk’s return that the Diamond Dawgs will have finished below .500 in the conference. What further sours the ‘slide’ the MSU program has taken in recent years is the improvement the rival Rebs have experienced under the youthful Mike Bianco.
True enough, it’s the players who go out on the field and dictate whether or not the team wins or loses, but at the end of the day, the responsibility ultimately falls on the guy who’s getting paid to win, the coach, and you have to look at the cold, hard facts. The fact is that the Bulldogs have been doing ‘just enough’ for the past several years, and ‘just enough’ is not good enough anymore.
There’s no questioning what Polk has done for the MSU baseball program. Ultimately, it’ll be up to Polk to leave when he gets ready to, but at the same time, he’s been around long enough, knows himself well enough, and cares about the fans and the program enough to know that if it was in his best interests to let someone new take the reins, then he’d make the right decision.
David Esquer, California
Esquer has been in Berkeley for seven seasons now, and considering how well he has recruited and some of the talent he has had on his team, his record should be just a little better than barely over .500. He’s had top picks such as Conor Jackson and Trevor Hutchinson on his teams, and his current club boasts talented players like Brandon Morrow, Chris Errecart, and others, but it’s been simply another average season for the Bears, just like most of the other six seasons have been.
After beginning the year ranked in the top 25, the Bears have floundered around the .500 mark and currently stand at 25-25, 9-12 in the Pac-10. They were predicted to fare well in the Pac-10 and make the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2001, but unlike last year, when they were unfairly snubbed by the committee, they’ve played themselves out of tournament consideration.
Esquer’s best season was 2001, when the Bears went 34-25 and made their only regional appearance in his tenure. And last year, they went 34-23 and as mentioned above, were snubbed by the selection committee. Outside of those two seasons, he’s been six games under .500, with losing seasons in 2000 and 2004.
Yes, there is the fact that he has to compete with the draft and with UCLA, USC, Stanford, Cal State-Fullerton, Long Beach State, and others for top recruits, but California is a state rich in baseball talent, and he’s shown an ability to pull in consistent top-ten recruiting classes. Even though Cal is not nearly at the high level of some of their state and conference sisters, it definitely has many, many selling points that make it attractive to big-time recruits. Under the previous coach, they had scattered success, appearing in six regionals and making three trips to Omaha in 20 seasons, and Cal does have two CWS championships (in the first CWS in 1947, and again in 1957), so there is some history to the program.
Why all that talent doesn’t translate to wins falls on a lot of factors, but once again, there’s the issue of accountability. Of course, you do have to take into consideration that playing out West means that your schedule is usually among the toughest in the nation, but that reason becomes an excuse after so long. Seven seasons of mediocrity might work for some other programs, but for an elite school in an elite conference, that’s far too long.
There’s potential in the Cal baseball program, and it may well be up to another coach to tap into it. However, if history is any indication, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Esquer get another season or two.
COACHES ON THE RISE
Here are a couple of guys who might be coming to a big-time school near you in the near future. They’re young, they’ve got solid resumes, and they’re proven winners.
John Pawlowski, College of Charleston
The former Clemson assistant’s name is at the top of the list for the vacancy at Virginia Tech, and as a Virginia native, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him go after the job. It actually could be viewed as a step down, considering he’d be making the move from a top-20 or 25, consistent winner to an ACC cellar-dweller. He could very well wait for other opportunities to come open in the offseason, and he could opt to stay in Charleston for another year and continue building a power there, but there are reasons for him to look towards Blacksburg.
It’s definitely a step up in competition from the Southern Conference to the ACC, and that’s an automatic selling point to potential recruits. Second of all, he can look to the success that Brian O’Connor has had at Virginia, turning that program around and making it into a contender in a few short seasons. There’s baseball talent to be found in the Atlantic coastal area and in the Northeast, and a coach who’s proven himself to be a consistent winner can draw that talent in. Outside of that, only so many elite openings come open after every season, so if he has a desire to move up on the coaching ladder, pickiness may not be in his best interest. And, as good as Charleston might be and could be, they’re still behind South Carolina and Clemson in their own state.
It’d be quite a task to rebuild a program and turn it into at least competitive, but after the success Pawlowski’s had at Charleston, if he could be lured to Virginia Tech, there’d be reason for optimism.
Joe Hudak, Winthrop
Hudak and Pawlowski are very similar. They’re both in their early 40s, and just like Pawlowski, Hudak spent time as an assistant at a top program (Mississippi State). In his decade in Rock Hill, Hudak has worked wonders. Winthrop is a perennial favorite in the Big South Conference, and they’ve made several regional appearances in his tenure. This year, the Eagles have already reached 40 wins and are in the discussion for one of the #1 seeds come selection time.
He’s recruited top-notch players to Winthrop, like Daniel Carte, who was a second-round pick in last year’s draft, and Kevin Slowey, who was among the nation’s leaders in wins and strikeouts last year. This year, the Eagles should have a few high draft selections as well, with two-way star Heath Rollins and hot-hitting Jacob Dempsey leading the way. And just like Pawlowski has done, he’s quietly had success in the shadow of the bigger programs in the state.
When Ron Polk does leave Mississippi State, may it be after this season or in three, four, or five years, expect Hudak to be near the top of the list of candidates. He fits the necessary criteria (can win, can recruit, knows the program and what it’s about), and if, as many suggest, Polk has a hand in who gets a shot at the job, he’ll be looked upon favorably for being a former Polk assistant.
John Cohen, Kentucky
Cohen, at 37, is the youngest member on the list, but make no mistake about it, he carries quite a pedigree, dating back to his playing career. He starred at Mississippi State from 1987-90, and after spending two years playing in the minors, went on to Missouri to be an assistant for the Tigers in 1992. He moved on to Northwestern State for his first head coaching job in 1998, succeeding Dave Van Horn, and he led the Demons to two Southland Conference regular season titles in his four seasons there. Cohen then spent two years as an assistant under Pat McMahon at Florida, and in 2004, he took on the task of trying to rebuild a dormant Kentucky baseball program.
And in his third year, the ‘Cats have taken off in a big way. They’ve been the story of the year in college baseball, exceeding 40 wins already and recently ascending into the top five in the polls. They’ve already clinched the SEC Eastern Division crown, and if they can take care of business against Georgia this weekend, they'll win the SEC overall title and likely earn a national seed in the process.
Cohen has benefited from a mixture of junior college players and high school talent, and he’s even ventured to Canada to recruit some of his players. Whether this year is just a flash in the pan for Kentucky or if UK is on its way to becoming a consistent winner in the SEC remains to be seen, but Cohen’s coaching abilities are under no doubt.
He’s moved his way to the top of the list of hot young coaches, and he’ll be mentioned for any high-profile jobs that may come open after this season. It’ll be tempting, but he may well spurn those offers in order to continue his progress at Kentucky. But, if Mama comes a-callin’ from Starkville in the next few years, and you can bet his name’ll be on speed dial, it might be hard for him to turn that opportunity down.
Mitch Gaspard, Northwestern State
Why does he go here? Northwestern State’s last three coaches were Jim Wells, Dave Van Horn, and John Cohen. All three are now having great success in the SEC.
Gaspard, who played at LSU in the mid-80s, has won 40 games twice in his five seasons and, like Cohen, has also captured two Southland Conference titles. They know how to breed some good coaches down there in Nacogdoches, and Gaspard should soon find himself following that same pipeline to a bigger program. He should be on the shortlist when the LSU job comes available, and for that matter, when any other top vacancy in the Southeast comes open.