SEC Programs Welcome New FacesColumns
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Four Southeastern Conference programs have new head coaches this season. Those of you who think that seems like a big number for a conference that fancies itself as the best in college baseball are correct. These jobs don’t come open often, and when they do, there’s typically no shortage of candidates banging on the door.
In the past, having a pair of new coaches start the same season was about as crazy as the SEC got. Having three would have been insane. So what do we call four?
The last time there was more than one coach hired in the same season was in 2014 when Georgia hired Scott Stricklin and Auburn hired Sunny Golloway. In 2009, there were three new coaches but that was aided due to an intra-conference move when John Cohen left Kentucky for Mississippi State. Gary Henderson replaced Cohen while John Pawlowski took over at Auburn.
Sure, the conference has expanded so we’re dealing with a bigger hand, but perhaps there is more than just math going on with the turnover. Today, there’s much more money involved. Coaches’ salaries are soaring which has also ramped up the pressure. A pair of coaches voluntarily stepped down last season. A stated reason for both was that they felt they needed a break from the hectic that accompanies a big-time program.
While higher buyouts may give a coach an extra season on the hot seat, one has to wonder if this season’s unprecedented high turnover has a chance to become a periodic occurrence.
Mississippi State, Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri are all replacing coaches who took them to postseason play during their tenures. All four have enjoyed varying levels of success and all have obstacles that they have to overcome to compete on the national stage.
First off, let’s look at how these four jobs came open in a conference where six of the 14 programs have had the same head coach since 2008 or before.
Unlike in years past where some vacancies were filled by sitting head coaches from College World Series contending schools, these openings failed to lure the splashy hire but instead grabbed mid-major head coaches or SEC assistants. There was no Dave Serrano or Sunny Golloway plucked from a perennial winner this offseason.
Alabama looked around the nation and tried to entice some established coaches that had enjoyed postseason success. In the end, they hired a proven small school winner in Greg Goff from Louisiana Tech to replace Mitch Gaspard. Goff moves into a situation with a ballpark that opened last spring, but inherits a program that last won a regional in Gaspard’s first season, 2010. Goff will need to use that state-of-the-art facility to offset the lack of in-state lottery scholarship aid along with no waiver for out-of-state tuition. Unlike other SEC programs, there is little wiggle room to miss in recruiting. As a result, Alabama’s teams under Gaspard often lacked depth both positionally and on the mound. Goff immediately hired sitting UCF head coach Terry Rooney as his pitching coach and hit the road recruiting.
“The biggest thing for us is to continue to get depth and more athleticism,” Goff said. “We like to run and be aggressive on the bases a little bit more than Coach Gaspard did. We are looking for guys who can run and put pressure on people. We need more depth. Right now, there are guys in our lineup who know they are going to be in the lineup. I don’t like that. I like being the one to control the lineup, not my players.”
Kentucky brought in Nick Mingione to replace Henderson. In a way, Mingione and Henderson swapped positions as the former Wildcat head coach landed at Mississippi State as an assistant, where Mingione had been an assistant under Cohen since 2009. Under its past three coaches, Kentucky has had periods of success despite being the northern most program in a warm-weather league. Mingione’s arrival coincides with a new stadium breaking ground this year with an eye towards playing there for the 2019 season. If Mingione and his staff can build some momentum, they could be in a nice spot when the new stadium is completed.
Missouri hired just its fourth coach since John “Hi” Simmons took over in 1937. Yep, the program had only three coaches in 79 seasons. Simmons coached until 1973 when Gene McArtor arrived and coached until 1995 when Tim Jamieson replaced him. Jamieson’s departure opened the door for Steve Bieser, who was previously the head coach at Southeast Missouri State. Mizzou went to seven consecutive regionals from 2003-2009 but since joining the SEC in 2013, it has taken a significant step back. Bieser will try to restore success while, like Kentucky, is facing a weather disadvantage against many of his conference brethren. They also have less glamorous facilities than many of their league mates.
The last opening came as a bit of a surprise to many because few expected the Mississippi State job to come open after John Cohen led the Bulldogs to the SEC regular season title last season. But when MSU’s athletic director Scott Stricklin left for Florida, Cohen was tabbed as the new athletic director. Cohen then hired LSU assistant Andy Cannizaro. The new MSU coach walks into a program with a rabid fanbase, recent success, and upcoming facility renovations. A scout with the New York Yankees from 2009-2014, Cannizaro spent the last two seasons as the LSU hitting coach. That means he has spent just two seasons as a college assistant, certainly making that lack of seasoning a glaring hole in his resume.
However, like the SEC’s other new coaches, he displayed a talent for recruiting and quickly demonstrated an ability to teach hitters. In his first year in Baton Rouge, he impressed immediately and many began discussing it was just a matter of when, not if, that the young coach would be leading his own program. Some felt his opportunity would come at Tulane, his alma mater, when it opened over the summer, but the Green Wave opted for former Vanderbilt assistant Travis Jewett. Fate had other plans for Cannizaro and now he is the new coach for the defending SEC champions.
One obstacle waiting for Cannizaro in Starkville is a mostly rebuilt roster. The Bulldogs must replace eleven members of the 2016 club who signed professionally. Cannizaro is looking at that glass as being half-full.
“One of the things that is going to help me establish the culture that I want to have is that last year’s club lost so many guys,” Cannizaro said. “We have a really young team and really inexperienced team. This is probably the best time and the perfect time for a new coach coming in and establish that culture and establishing the types of day-to-day expectations that each and every guy needs to have if they want to have the privilege and honor of putting on a Mississippi State baseball jersey every day. I think the timing of it allows me to instill a lot of the values that I want to have and that I think are more important for our guys moving forward.”
Mingione was a surprise choice in the eyes of some. As an assistant at both Kentucky and Mississippi State, he’d earned a reputation for an energetic personality as a recruiting coordinator. Kentucky hopes to model the success programs like Vanderbilt and Florida have experienced snagging assistants off successful programs that can assemble talent. No one is comparing Mingione to former Clemson assistants Tim Corbin and Kevin O’Sullivan, but that’s the goal when rolling the dice on an up-and-coming type like Mingione (or Cannizaro, for that matter).
“We have spent the last few months teaching our guys how to become better leaders,” Mingione said. “We covered things like, what does it mean to ‘cover and move’? How do you win the middle of your team and how important that is? We have created individualized development plans for them over the break. When we got here, we created standards. One of our goals is to win the Southeastern Conference. How do you do that? We have basically decided we have to get a run-and-a-half better. That means either offensively or on the mound. We created standards and we have accountability with those standards.”
Both Goff and Bieser consider their new roles as destination jobs after working their way up from programs in less affluent conferences. Goff came to Louisiana Tech in 2015 and took a team that was 15-35 the prior season to a 25-27 mark in his first year. Last year, his Bulldogs went 42-20 and made the finals of the Starkville Regional, the program’s first postseason berth in 29 years. Prior to his stint in Ruston, Goff was at Campbell for seven seasons. He took over an 11-45 club and by the time Goff left for Louisiana Tech, Campbell was coming off three consecutive 40+ win seasons. Goff has been able to build winners at two struggling programs with a fraction of the resources Alabama offers. The competition level is also worlds apart so Goff’s program-builder reputation gets another test in Tuscaloosa.
Like Goff, Bieser had success on a smaller stage and also took his team to the Starkville Regional last June. He took over as head coach for Southeast Missouri State in 2013 after serving as an assistant in the program for a couple of years. Last season, he saw his squad go 39-21 and win the Ohio Valley Tournament title. He hopes to bring a new mindset in order flip the narrative that the Tigers’ program is destined to remain outside the contending zone.
“I’ve been at Southeast Missouri State and the first year there we were picked to finish down in the bottom of the standings and we did really well,” Bieser said. “We were picked three years to finish first and we were able to do that. The preseason rankings mean nothing to me; it’s where we are going to be at postseason and I think the best thing to be in this situation right now is to allow people to expect nothing from this club and I think we can surprise some people.”
In an odd quirk, all three of the new SEC head coaches were active participant in last season’s Starkville Regional. Two took their previous teams there and Mingione was an MSU assistant. The one in the quartet who wasn’t there is now there calling the shots.
Four new coaches – four programs in different outlooks – all unproven in their current roles. Of the twelve SEC head coaches hired in the last ten years (not counting the four new hires this season), only six are still in place and one of them just started last season at a program that is on its fourth head coach during that span.
Yes, this is a new world for SEC coaches and their longevity.