Taking A Look At The Baseball Program

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about what went wrong with the 2004 baseball Tigers.

The cry has grown louder over the past week. A lot of Auburn people, it seems, want to be rid of baseball coach Steve Renfroe.

You no doubt have heard the grumbling. Fans are gumbling. Trustees are grumbling. Some say players are grumbling, though I haven't heard it or seen any sign of it. To be sure, this season was one worth grumbling about. But it was just one season.

Is this really what Auburn has come to? Will an Auburn man - a former player and assistant coach - be fired because of one bad year?

There isn't much reason to rehash what happened this season. It could easily have been better, but it wasn't. Nobody ­not Renfroe, not Hal Baird, not interim president Ed Richardson ­ would say a 12-18 SEC record is acceptable. If it was a pattern, it would be time to make a change. But it isn't a pattern.

Renfroe has done some terrific things. When his SEC career started 0-9, with a remarkable string of close losses, he told his players to get ready, that they were going to do what no SEC team had ever done. And they did.

They went 15-6 from that point on, won two of three at LSU in Skip Bertman's final SEC series, and made it into a regional. No other SEC team had ever come from so far down to make it to a regional.

The Tigers finished eighth that season, fifth in 2002 and third overall (second in the West) in 2003. Not winning the 2003 regional at Plainsman Park as the No. 4 national seed was certainly a disappointment, but it didn't change an 18-12 SEC record. Baseball is a fickle game, and the better team doesn't always win.

Renfroe has consistently scheduled the best nonconference teams he can find, which is why as I write this there is still a chance this Auburn team could end up in an NCAA regional. His teams play the game hard and with class. They go to school, graduate and don't embarrass the university. Those things count, too.

That doesn¹t mean there aren't problems that need to be addressed. Clearly, there are. This SEC season started off with the Tigers pitching well and not hitting a lick. As it wore on, the hitting got better and the pitching got worse. That shouldn't happen.

It's amusing when I get phone calls and emails from people questioning Renfroe as a hitting coach. No, this team didn't hit well for much of the season, but Renfroe is widely recognized as one of the top teachers of hitting in the college game. Frank Thomas credits Renfroe with teaching him to hit. That's a pretty good recommendation. Major league scouts consider him one of the better hitting coaches in the college game.

This season, Renfroe was hurt by a recruiting class that didn't pan out and a devastating injury to power-hitting first baseman Karl Amonite. That doesn¹t explain away a 12-18 record or explain why players who had hit in the past didn't hit this season or why pitchers who had been successful in the past weren't successful this season.

Renfroe needs to evaluate how things happened and why they happened. He needs to scour the nation for the best replacement he can find for deposed pitching coach Mark Fuller. He already has a recruiting class that is likely to be ranked among the nation's best.

Renfroe is a good man, a caring and compassionate man who would serve himself well if he would show that side in public more often and be a little less sensitive to criticism. He is devoted to his faith, to his family, to his school and to his friends.

I don't know what's going to happen. I suspect Baird, the athletics assistant to the president, will urge that Renfroe be given an opportunity to deal with what went wrong and get his program back on the road it was on before this season. What Richardson will decide is anybody's guess.

I realize I said in this space last Monday some of what I am saying here today, but I believe it bears repeating. You don't build a program in any sport by firing the coach at the first sign of trouble.

With the pressure mounting and the complaints growing louder, it might be that the easiest thing for Richardson to do would be make a change.

But it wouldn¹t be the right thing.

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