Monday night the Arkansas Razorbacks defeated the Baylor Bears 1-0 to earn a place in the 2012 College World Series. While watching the Arkansas faithful celebrate with the vile, squalid wail that is the Hog Call, I couldn't help but wonder how a team so similar to our Rebels in both talent level and regular season performance had managed to advance so much farther in the postseason. The two teams finished only a game apart in the SEC West, and the Rebs even managed to go 3-1 against the Hogs, including a knockout blow in the conference tourney. The difference, of course, is that the Razorbacks executed in the clutch, when it counted. Arkansas skipper Dave Van Horn's 2012 postseason success accentuates Mike Bianco's postseason failure.
Upon further thought and subsequent research, it occurred to me that, much like this particular season, Van Horn's ten year tenure at Arkansas provides a strikingly similar template which can, through comparison, be used to evaluate Bianco's Ole Miss career. Much has been made of exactly what level of success Bianco should be achieving given the tools which our program provides him. I believe the congruence in facilities, attendance, recruiting and winning percentages between the two programs makes Van Horn's Razorbacks an accurate measuring stick with which to judge Bianco's shortcomings.Let's compare some of the vital areas of the two programs:
Our Oxford-University Stadium and Arkansas's Baum Stadium are two of the premier facilities in college baseball. You're all familiar with the 10,300 seat utopia that is Swayze, but if you haven't visited Baum, its worth the trip. It holds a tad more than O-U (10,500) and is complete with similar luxury boxes, chair-back seating, and an alcohol-friendly outfield section. Just about any ranking of collegiate baseball stadiums will feature both Swayze and Baum in it's top five.
Neither program has had any problem filling their top-flight stadiums. Final numbers for 2012 rank Arkansas #2 in national attendance, with Ole Miss following close behind in the #4 spot (behind #3 South Carolina). Averages over the past five seasons are even closer: the Razorbacks' 7,686 fans per game and the Rebs' 6,820 rank 2nd and 3rd, respectfully.
Both programs have a strong national presence in recruiting, routinely pulling in some of the top talent in the country. According to Baseball America's yearly rankings, the Rebs have signed a top-25 class in each of the past five years, with a mean rank of #12. Razorback classes have been ranked in four of the last five years, averaging #15 in that span.* Sure, recruiting rankings are not always an accurate indicator of on-field talent, and many times the top level guys that drive those rankings up never even make it onto said field (as we're all too well aware). They do, however, provide an instrument for measuring a program's national appeal and prestige. At least to the fluctuating whims of 18-year olds, Oxford and Fayetteville are comparatively appealing places to play baseball.
*Arkansas's 2010 class was unranked by Baseball America. I used a stand-in number of 26 when calculating this average.
One of the few advantages Van Horn holds over Bianco is his program's spending. Arkansas's 2010 baseball budget (because that's the most recent year I could find, dammit) was $1,934,555, good for second in the conference. Ole Miss's spending is surprisingly ranked toward the bottom of the SEC, with a $1,306,222 budget in '10. As we've seen in the above figures, though, this $630 thousand disparity has failed to make a difference in facilities or recruiting. It has also not made a difference in the two coaches' contracts. In fact, Bianco's annual salary of $610 thousand is nearly $50K higher than Van Horn's.
With their programs' infrastructure and support being as similar as they are, one would expect parity in Bianco and Van Horn's game day production. For the most part, there is. Remarkably so. In the ten seasons Van Horn has been in Fayetteville, he has compiled an overall record of 398-220 (.644) with a 159-139 (.534) conference mark. In that same span,** Bianco has gone 395-236 (.626) overall and 164-136 (.547) in the SEC. The pair's overall and conference winning percentages are separated by a mere 1 and 2%, respectfully. As far as postseason play goes, Van Horn has reached the NCAA tournament every year since his arrival in 2003. Bianco's squads have qualified in nine of those ten seasons. Both coaches have reached a Super Regional four times apiece.
**Bianco took over at Ole Miss two years prior to Van Horn's hiring, but these numbers have been excluded for comparability's sake.
There is, of course, the one paramount difference between the two coaches' programs; the one cardinal statistic that distinguishes and defines each man's tenure. Dave Van Horn has three College World Series appearances. Mike Bianco, as we're all painfully aware, has zero.
As I've illustrated above, both coaches are encompassed within equivalent programs that provide them with similar resources. In regular season and early stages of postseason play this has resulted in nearly identical results. In high pressure, late season situations the fates of the two teams diverge. Faced with these clutch situations, Van Horn's teams have usually played their best baseball, going 3 for 4 in Super Regionals. Bianco's teams have collapsed, going 0-4.
I realize the equation for a successful baseball team is much more complicated than the list of general factors I've explored above. The comparisons I've made are far from comprehensive or exhaustive. Luck and timing many times play as big a factor in the outcome of a game as skill and coaching prowess. A blown game-ending double play followed by two bases-loaded hit-by-pitches allowed the Razorbacks to avoid elimination in game two of the Baylor Super Regional. The Diamond Rebs have typically been on the wrong side of such breaks. The fact of the matter remains, though: for whatever reasons, Van Horn has repeatedly taken his team to Omaha and Bianco has not. Under reasonably similar circumstances, Bianco has failed where Van Horn has succeeded.