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Mike Bianco, Ole Miss (Eric Sorenson)

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D1Baseball.com Coach of the Year: Steady-Handed Mike Bianco Leads Ole Miss To Pinnacle

Awards

• Player of the Year: Texas’ Ivan Melendez
• 2022 D1Baseball.com All-America Teams


DURHAM, N.C. — On Sunday afternoon, just one week after leading Ole Miss to the first College World Series championship in program history, Mike Bianco sat in the third-base dugout at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, wearing the red, white and blue uniform of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, taking stock of the turbulent-turned-magical 2022 season, and the whirlwind week that followed.

Actually, “whirlwind” doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s more accurate to describe the last week as a category-five hurricane of pure joy mixed with frantic preparation for Bianco’s next gig as Team USA’s head coach. Bianco was blown away by the sheer volume of ecstatic Ole Miss fans celebrating at each stop during the first few days, from the postgame party at Charles Schwab Field, to the revelry back at the Ole Miss hotel that night, to the throngs of supporters greeting the Rebels when their flight landed at the Tupelo airport on Monday afternoon, to the even larger throngs of fans lining the Walk of Champions in the Grove later that day, to the tens of thousands of fans lining the parade route on Wednesday, to the final gathering at Swayze Field at the end of the parade.

“I knew we would travel well, I knew Rebel Nation would show up, but I never fathomed that it would be 20,000-plus [in Omaha]. So after we won and the dogpile, they put the stage up and everybody’s hugging, it had to be 25 minutes after the game or longer, I remember going up on the stage and looking around going, ‘Man, it looks like it’s still packed here.’ Never saw that before,” Bianco said. “Then we’re supposed to walk through the Grove on the Walk of Champions, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘There’s 20,000 people, they’re all in Omaha.’ I’m feeling bad for our marketing team because I’m like, ‘This isn’t gonna go good.’ We pulled up and there were thousands there. That was the loudest thing I’ve ever been a part of, walking through there. Then two days later we have the parade, there’s got to be 20, 30,000 people on the one mile route that we take. Now I’m feeling bad, all these people, there aren’t going to be any people left for the celebration and the SEC Network is doing it live. And then you go to the stadium, that’s packed. I don’t know where all these people came from, but it was just overwhelming how much this meant to everybody. Obviously it meant a lot to us, but a lot of Ole Miss people.”

For helping to deliver the first consensus men’s national title in any sport at Ole Miss, where the enormous baseball fan base was starving for the ultimate glory, Bianco is the 2022 D1Baseball Coach of the Year. Bianco was the perfect coach to guide this Ole Miss team back from the dark pit of a 7-14 record in SEC on May 1.

“The one thing Mike Bianco is is consistent,” said Ole Miss assistant coach Mike Clement.

So when the Rebels sunk from the No. 1 ranked team in the country at the start of SEC play to the depths of despair after losing their fourth straight series on May 1 at Arkansas, Bianco did not panic, and did not try to reinvent himself as a coach on the fly. He continued to lead with a steady hand — even though the outlook was bleak for the Rebels, and the players knew it.

“That was the low point for our team,” Clement said, referring to the May 1 loss to Arkansas that dropped Ole Miss to 7-14. “After the game, it’s Derek Diamond’s start. We get done, and one of the things that’s a staple of our program, when we meet in the outfield after a game, you have to take your sunglasses off and make eye contact. So it’s a day game, a 1 o’clock game, we just got beat in Fayetteville and we’re 7-14, and [Tim] Elko and Derek Diamond both had their sunglasses on. Those are not guys that would leave their sunglasses on, veteran guys in our program. So Mike is talking, and I walk around to tell guys to take their sunglasses off, and I can see Diamond’s lip quivering, and I can see a tear going down Elko’s face. At that point, I was like, ‘Well I’m not going to ask them to take their sunglasses off.’ We’d dug ourselves too big of a hole, they knew.”

Even the coaches wondered if the hole was just too deep — Clement acknowledged having a discussion about that with fellow assistant Carl Lafferty right after the Arkansas series during a five-hour car ride. But the coaches did not give up, and they did not change who they were.

“I think it’s hard for coaches, we’re human, and it’s hard for players. We talked about body language and belief and confidence, but when you’re a hitter and it’s Sunday and you’re 0-for-13 on the weekend, it’s hard sometimes. The best can do it, but for most of us it’s really hard,” Bianco said. “I think it’s the same for coaches — it’s tough, we live this, we breathe it, and when we don’t have success, it’s hard. But we’ve got to practice what we preach. You’ve got to be where your feet are, you’ve got to lock in and try to be mindful of that, try to be the same person every single day. And for me, with this team, that wasn’t as difficult because during all of it, I don’t remember a time where I ever looked in the dugout where they ever looked like they didn’t think they could win. We never hit that. Credit to leadership, credit the experience and the older guys, but they held it together too. I think we all did. I challenged the coaches as well, it’s hard. But they’ve got to see us living that too.”

Somehow, Ole Miss scrapped and clawed its way back into contention. The Rebels swept Missouri the weekend after the Fayetteville trip, then beat Southern Miss midweek and swept a series at LSU the following week. Sunday in Baton Rouge was Senior Day for LSU, and it allowed Bianco the rare opportunity to share a special day with his son Drew, who was a senior for the Tigers. Bianco’s emotional comments after the game felt like a window into the soul of a warm, genuine man, a father of five who has sacrificed so much family time for the sake of his job leading the Ole Miss baseball program.

When the season went sideways for Ole Miss this year and a segment of the fan base started clamoring for a change in leadership, Bianco did his best to block out the noise — he stopped reading Twitter mentions about 10 years ago at the advice of former Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork — but the heat took a toll on the Bianco family.

“You know it’s there, because your loved ones, they act differently, you can tell, because they live in that life, social media. It’s their dad, their husband,” Bianco said. “Friends, you get a lot of, ‘Hey man, we’re pulling for you, we’re praying for you.’ Ooh, there must have been some bad stuff going on on Twitter last night.

“I think it’s really hard on [the family]. It’s tough. I get paid to do this job, and it’s part of this job, I guess. They didn’t sign on for that. I’m their dad. They don’t look at me as the Ole Miss baseball coach, they know that’s my job, but I’m their husband, I’m their dad. And unfortunately what their dad does, it bleeds into their life. And there’s a lot of benefits, this is not crying. Our family is super fortunate, and we’re blessed to do what we do. But that’s a big negative part of it.”

Bianco would rather not talk about that part of it. He said he would rather stories like this one emphasize the “positive people”, the ones who applauded him as he walked from the bullpen to the dugout during the darkest days of the season, to show their support. He would rather not give a platform to the vocal minority of “negative people.” But the fact is, Bianco’s redemption is an unavoidable part of the narrative arc of this magical season. 

The dean of SEC baseball, football and men’s basketball coaches, Bianco has led an incredibly successful, consistent program for 22 years. Despite playing in college baseball’s most brutal meat-grinder of a conference, Bianco has led Ole Miss to regionals 18 times in 21 completed seasons (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, when the Rebels ended the season on a 16-game winning streak). Ole Miss has hosted regionals 10 times under Bianco and made eight trips to super regionals — all marks of sustained excellence that very few programs in college baseball can rival over the past two decades. So it seems absurd to suggest Bianco was in need of any kind of “redemption” — after all, he’s been one of college baseball’s great coaches for many years, and he has always led his program with the utmost class and dignity. But plenty of Ole Miss fans still grumbled about the fact that Ole Miss had made just one trip to Omaha, in 2014, despite getting to all those super regionals, repeatedly falling just short in a decisive third game of a super. Still, when it comes down to one game to get to Omaha, over and over again, that’s a sign of a very healthy program, and Bianco knew it, despite his own frustrations with the lack of CWS trips. 

“You don’t want your ego, when you don’t have success and you don’t go as far as you want, to get in the way and say hey, we’ll just continue doing what we’re doing. You want to be able to evaluate, and we do,” Bianco said. “So there’s tweaks here and there, some things that, hey, I wish we would have done this a little differently. But for the most part, when we sit down and look at that, we lost because it came down to one baseball game. It wasn’t that we didn’t make it to the postseason, it wasn’t that we couldn’t get past regionals. I mean, the last two years, we played on game three of a super regional. So when you get to that point, you’re good enough, you’ve just got to play well enough. And sometimes in our game that’s hard to do. Look at a team like Tennessee this year, look at Arkansas last year — it’s hard, even if you’re the best team in the country, it’s hard to do it two weekends in a row. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes the other team plays really well or you don’t play well enough and everybody’s so good at that point in the season, and that super regional, anybody can beat anybody.”

While consistency is a defining characteristic of Bianco the coach, he said wants to be remembered as a coach who also evolved with the times, just as his mentor Skip Bertman evolved and innovated over the course of his career. Bianco points to the hiring of Chris Goudoras to bring Ole Miss into the modern age of analytics as a key development for the program in recent years. He talks about some changes to the program’s recruiting philosophy and tactics. And he believes his own personality as a coach has softened a bit over the years.

“[The players] may argue with this, but I don’t think I get frustrated as much as I used to. I think I have a little more patience. My wife would probably argue, but I think I have a little more patience,” Bianco said. “Talking to guys like Coach Bertman and Ray Tanner and others, I think as time goes on, that part of you, I think we were all a little tougher and shorter. And the kids are different now, you have to be that way. I think some of that just comes naturally with age, and two, with experience you realize, it’s gonna be OK. We’re gonna get it done and we’re gonna learn. I’m not talking about being OK with losses, I’m talking about little things that happen in the program or on the field that could be teaching moments. At the end of the day, our job is to get them to perform, and sometimes being a little more relaxed helps them perform.”

Bianco certainly seemed relaxed during the Rebels’ run to glory last month. Once his team snuck into the field of 64 as one of the final at-large teams, a weight was lifted off everyone’s shoulders. The Rebels were freed up to just play. And they played up to the potential that earned them a preseason top-five ranking.

“Once we got to postseason, as a coach you hear a lot of times, hey let’s just start over, it’s conference season, it’s a new season. When you get to postseason, it’s really a new season,” Bianco said. “For so many weeks, we were 7-14 looking uphill trying to get up there, because you know you’ve got to get near .500 to have a shot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but once we got to postseason, we didn’t feel like we were running uphill anymore. Now we’re on flat ground, and we feel like we can run with anybody.”

Mike Bianco gets the Powerade bath in Omaha (Eric Sorenson)

The Rebels cruised unbeaten through regionals and supers, eliminating Arizona, Miami and Southern Miss along the way. They won their first two games in Omaha, then bounced back from a one-run loss to Arkansas in the bracket final, punching their ticket to the CWS Finals the next day. And then they swept Oklahoma to win it all. On the field after the final victory, when Bianco ascended the dais to join his team and exchange hugs, the fans chanted his name: “Mike! Mike! Mike!”

As you might expect, Bianco’s phone lit up after the Rebels clinched the championship — he estimates he received somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 congratulatory text messages. One of those was from Bertman, who coached Bianco as a player at LSU, then hired him as pitching coach, a role that earned Bianco three national titles on the LSU staff.

But Bianco did not have a chance to call Bertman back right away — he was caught up in the whirlwind. A few hours after Wednesday’s parade, Bianco and Ole Miss players Jacob Gonzalez, Hunter Elliott and Mason Nichols hopped on a university plane and flew to North Carolina to join the national team, which began training camp Thursday. Finally, on Sunday at the end of a frantic and unforgettable week, Bianco had a chance to connect on the phone with Bertman.

“We spoke for an hour, and it might be the longest I’ve ever spoken to him on the phone,” Bianco said. “I just thanked him. We talked a lot about the Series, and the transfer portal and all that — he’s a baseball guy. But at the end, it was important to me to tell him face to face that I’m not here without him. There’s no doubt in my mind, I’m a coach for sure, an OK coach, because I played and coached under him. He’s like a second dad to me. So I wanted him to know that.”

An OK coach. That’s one way to put it. Here’s another way: Bianco is one hell of a coach. And he’s our Coach of the Year.

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