This past weekend, the Ole Miss Rebel head baseball coach's contract has been extended to 2015. Mike Bianco's initial agreement was set to expire at the conclusion of next baseball season, but in spite of his team performing well under Rebel fans expectations this past season and in the several seasons prior, he will have one more year added to his agreement with the university. His salary will not change, as will not those of his assistants, but he has been given a vote of confidence of sorts by Athletics Director Ross Bjork for this next season at the very least.
I write to you in defense of this decision.
As unpopular as the move is among the Ole Miss Rebel faithful, it is a move that is a smart one for the longevity of our beloved baseball program, even though it may rightfully be seen as a resignation to next year's seemingly inevitable decline in on-field performance.
The Diamond Rebs have not been what they were in Bianco's heyday for four seasons now. Whereas for much of 2004-2009 the Rebels were one of the top performing teams in college baseball - with all-American honors, NCAA Super Regional hosts, and an SEC Championship or two to show for it - Mike Bianco's team simply has not been much better than average since. The wins have not been as plentiful, the players have not been as talented, and Oxford-University Stadium - a stadium expanded for the purposes of containing our ever growing fan base and our much anticipated opportunities to host postseason play - has been empty during the NCAA's regionals and super regionals. Adding insult to injury, our fiercest rivals have recently performed well in the NCAA postseason, leading many of us fans to ask "well, why not us?"
These are all understandable reasons to terminate Mike Bianco. The program simply has declined, and does not look to be on the upswing. The drop in performance has been precipitous enough to make this very discussion valid. But I posit to you that doing so at this juncture would be a bad move, in that it would make the much desired return to college baseball success more difficult to come by than the alternative of this announced extension.
My argument is threefold. First, this year's team, while not good, was far from bad. The Rebs were a mainstay in the top-25, finished right around the middle of the SEC, and earned a bid as a No. 2 seed in an NCAA regional. It would be one thing if Ole Miss were, say, Georgia this past season, who fired their head coach after a disastrous 7-20 record against the Southeastern Conference. It is another thing to finish ahead of eight other conference teams, even if such a finish were quite disappointing. Firing a coach who, for all intents and purposes, did not have a bad season, makes hiring his predecessor much more difficult. By giving Bianco just another year - not any more money, mind you - we are signaling to potential future Rebel coaches that they will be given this sort of leeway if they have earned it.
And it is tough to argue that Bianco does not deserve a last chance at redemption. Keep in mind, it is his coaching, his teams, that have given us the expectations necessary to postulate that he should be fired in the first damn place.
My second argument is that it behooves Ross Bjork to show some clemency to Mike Bianco. Bjork, as much as we may love what he has done thus far in Oxford, is still a bit of an unknown with regards to coaching moves. If he makes a decision this early in his career that gives people reason to think of him as impatient and giving in to the demands of fickle fans, then that could make things difficult for him moving forward in his handling of all sports, not just baseball.
My third argument, I must apologize, is a bit defeatist. I do not believe next season's Ole Miss team will be better than this past season's team. In fact, if pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers take their MLB Draft offers - as I anticipate they will - this team will be without its two most reliable starters and its most powerful bat in departing catcher Stuart Turner. Outside of freshmen phenoms or significant growth amongst underclassmen, next season's Rebels might struggle to even earn an NCAA postseason appearance. If that is the case, then Ross Bjork's decision can become much easier to make and mitigate the controversy that could arise if he is to can Bianco now.
While we Ole Miss fans may be frustrated with the program as of late, how in spite of our increased fan support and monetary investment we have not seen improved performance out of the team itself, we must consider the longevity of Rebel baseball when voicing our concerns. We need a program that is in a very good position to make a very good hire; firing Mike Bianco will not give us that, yet.