After the 27th out was recorded last night by the Arizona Wildcats, punching their ticket to Omaha, Neb. for the 2021 College World Series, a resilient Ole Miss Rebels ball club could only sit in the dugout and watch.
A team that finished the year 45-22 (18-12), fourth most wins in school history, did it despite season-ending injuries to Max Cioffi, Jerrion Ealy, and Gunnar Hoglund. Despite the proverbial odds being stacked against them, they somehow figured out a way out of a tough Oxford Regional and forced a game three against the regular season Pac-12 champions and 5th overall seed.
This campaign was truly Mike Bianco’s masterpiece. He lost his starting centerfielder, a high-leverage bullpen arm, and his Friday night starter, and still almost made it to the College World Series. Even with all the grit and courage shown by Tim Elko, fighting through a torn ACL to play the final two months of the season, and Doug Nikhazy’s dominance, they came up one win short.
Curtain call for the man who has shown us over and over again what it means to be an Ole Miss Rebel. pic.twitter.com/irMAMcIWV5— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) June 14, 2021
But, unfortunately, not everything can be viewed in a vacuum. Baseball is a zero-sum game that has winners and losers. And unfortunately, the Rebels were the losers once again.
So where do things turn now? What will athletic director Keith Carter do?
Ole Miss is now just 7-13 all-time in the super regional round under Bianco. Furthermore, they’re just 1-8 when trying to advance to the CWS. Outside of the magical run in 2014 that saw the Rebels finish third overall, the last trip to college baseball’s Elite Eight was when Richard Nixon was president.
In six Game 3 Super Regional games, Ole Miss has been outscored 56-26 (so far). In three of those games, they scored 1 run. In three of those games, they gave up at least 13 runs. The analytics tell me this is #bad.— Gray Hardison (@BellyoftheBeast) June 14, 2021
This isn’t for lack of trying though, the Rebels super regional history is loaded with woulda coulda shoulda. Bianco took over a program that had very little postseason success and catapulted it to national prominence, going to three-straight super regionals in 2005, 2006, and 2007, coming up one win short twice in the first two. After a one-year hiatus, the Rebels were back in the super regional round in 2009, but ultimately fell one win shy. Again.
Still, you can’t doubt what Bianco has done in Oxford. There are 10 40-win seasons in school history and nine of those are on his watch. That’s pretty damn good, borderline elite. But, unfortunately, things are measured on a postseason, what have you done for me lately type basis. That 2014 run to Omaha is now seven years in the rearview mirror and fans are clamoring to get back any way possible.
Could that way could be new blood at Swayze Field? Two years ago Carter denied rolling over Bianco’s contract after a 2019 season that saw Ole Miss roll through an Oxford regional with ease only to lose another game three super regional in Fayetteville. This was almost certainly in direct relation to Bianco’s lack of consistency getting to Nebraska. And now that he has failed to reach the pinnacle of the sport yet again, where does that put us?
LSU, Bianco’s alma mater, is looking for a head coach. Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan and retired coach and former Oregon State skipper Pat Casey were considered but they both are no longer in the picture. For now, it appears that the Tigers’ athletic director, Scott Woodward, is focusing his search on Bianco and ECU head coach Cliff Godwin. Former LSU head coach, athletic director, and college baseball kingpin Skip Bertman is one of Bianco’s biggest supporters and his opinion carries a ton of weight in Red Stick.
Would Bianco take the job? Does he want a fresh start?
These are answers I do not have. But I do know the answer to what the book is on Bianco. Despite all the regular season success, attendance records, revenue generated at Oxford-University Stadium, he is still 1-for-20 in Omaha trips and is making a top-10 salary. Carter seems to be motivated to keep the program at the level it is at and that might mean without Bianco as its leader.
As far as replacements go, the two obvious choices are Godwin and Louisville’s Dan McDonnell. Both are former Bianco assistants who have had success as head coaches. Godwin is the younger of the two who has won 40+ games four times in his six full seasons in Greenville. But, similar to Bianco, the bugaboo with Godwin is he has yet to get the Pirates to Omaha, falling short in the super regional round three times.
McDonnell on the other hand is the home run hire. Since his arrival in 2007, he has won 624 games, four Big East titles, one AAC title, four ACC Atlantic Division titles, two ACC titles, and been to Omaha five times. Most believe he would not replace Bianco if he were fired, but if he leaves for LSU on his own, would that open the door for a return to Oxford?
The common denominator between both Godwin and McDonnell is that they both have experience coaching in the Southeastern Conference, recruiting to the sport’s best conference, and deciphering and maneuvering around the scholarship limitations that hinder the Rebels’ program.
The Rebels are one of the most consistent programs in the country and respected coast-to-coast. And that is ALL due to Bianco and the job he has done building Ole Miss to what is today since his arrival in 2000. But, unfortunately, they don’t hoist trophies for brand-building. They don’t drop confetti for season ticket records being shattered. The end result sans 2014 is stale and is beginning to wear on the fanbase.
There’s zero shame in moving on from a guy that has only been able to reach the goal once in two decades. I’m sure Ole Miss will retire No. 5 or rename the stadium after Bianco. And I’m 100 percent cool with that. Hell, do both of those things.
But, sometimes it’s just time to move on.
As Jim Halpert famously told Pam Beesly, “you gotta take a chance on something, sometime”.