Wells' Coaching Commendable

Say this about Jim Wells: The man knows a thing or two about longevity.

About this time last year, the whispers started.

Had Wells, the longtime University of Alabama baseball coach, lost his magic?

Was the Crimson Tide program beyond repair with him at the helm?

Was he long for Tuscaloosa?

The questions had legitimate doubt behind them.

Since Alabama's last College World Series in 1999, the program had fallen into severe mediocrity. From 2000 to 2004, the Tide made only three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a 2003 trip when a team with a 14-16 record swept through the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met, winning an automatic bid.

The bottom fell out last season, a 29-26 abomination that featured a 10-20 SEC mark, good for 11th place in the league, ahead of only Kentucky.

Wells wasn't in trouble, but had his program struggled again this season, those whispers might have turned into legitimate, normal-volume talk.

Instead, they're silent.

With a month left in the regular season, Alabama has all but erased doubt about the program's viability – and any belief that Wells isn't one of the league's best coaches.

Heading into this weekend's home series with Georgia, the Tide is 30-13, 11-7 in league play, and sits atop the SEC West. The program is expected to bid for an NCAA regional, and if it finishes in the SEC's top three or wins the competitive West Division, it will begin tourney play at home for the first time since 2002.

Much of the credit for the turnaround should go to Wells, who took last season's motley crew, added only a few key parts and turned it into one of the SEC's best teams.

After a year like last season, some coaches would have cleaned house, started over and prayed for the best.

Wells chose to work with what he had – minus pitching ace and Florida Marlins first-round pick Taylor Tankersley. Seven of nine members of last Sunday's starting lineup against South Carolina were on the roster last season, with catcher Kody Valverde (a transfer from New Orleans) and freshman shortstop Cale Iorg the only exceptions.

And Wells has gotten more out of what he had. Junior starter T.J. Large emerged from an injury-plagued 2004 and has become the team's most reliable starter, with a 6-3 record and 2.41 ERA heading into tonight' start against Georgia.

Senior outfielder Gabe Scott has overcome an injury-plagued career and become one of the SEC's best outfielders; he had a 27-game hitting streak snapped last week and has a .422 average, nine home runs and 25 RBI, far above his career averages.

In his second college season, Emeel Salem has developed into a quality center fielder, while third baseman Evan Bush has blossomed with Scott's bat providing protection.

Other newcomers like Iorg and freshman relief ace David Robertson have provided much-needed depth that Alabama didn't have last season, when it lost 12 games by two runs or less and eight Sunday SEC games, including seven that would have won a league series.

As it were, the Tide won only one league series – from lowly Kentucky – and it took a 12-11 victory on Sunday to clinch that series.

It was an ugly year – the worst in Wells' 10-year Alabama tenure and the worst since 1994, when Barry Schollenberger led the team to a 21-35 overall mark (4-22 in SEC play) in his final season at UA.

In a stifling-hot, deadly-silent Sewell-Thomas Stadium dugout following a season-ending loss to Mississippi State, Wells made it clear work on a turnaround would begin immediately.

He's lived up to his word this season, with a team marked by its strong attitude (18 comeback wins) and strong veteran leadership. Last season's imbalanced team that tilted towards strong pitching while weak bats let it down is gone; this group can pitch and hit equally well.

It is further proof that Wells is one of the SEC's best coaches. Even on an unlevel playing field tipped by the fact that Alabama is one of the few league schools without "lottery" scholarships which provide extra depth, he has proven he can forge a winner with the help of longtime assistant Todd Butler, who returned to the program last season following a head-coaching stint at McNeese State.

He has the second-longest consecutive tenure in the SEC, behind Tennessee coach Rod Delmonico; Mississippi State's Ron Polk has them both beaten with nearly 30 seasons, although those were split between MSU and Georgia.

He's also one of the most successful coaches on UA's campus, behind perhaps only gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson and maybe men's basketball coach Mark Gottfried.

Yet he handles himself in a low-key, approachable manner that has made him a favorite among media members – and fans.

If he can continue this season's success, he'll be a favorite in these parts for a long, long time.


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