The Hunt For A New Baseball Coach

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Hal Baird's search for a new head baseball coach.

Like many others, I have been surprised by Auburn's seeming difficulty in attracting a big-name coach to lead its baseball program. Tim Corbin of Vanderbilt was offered the job and declined. Virginia's Brian O'Connor didn't even bother to come for an interview.

What's the problem? Why would a program with ample resources and facilities that some rate the nation's best not be more attractive to more people? For the past several days, I've gone in search of answers. I've talked to numerous people in college baseball and other facets of intercollegiate athletics.

For obvious reasons, none of them wanted their names used here. But the crux of what they all said is that Auburn simply does not seem to be a stable situation.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with decisions made in recent months, those decisions raise questions in the minds of people looking from the outside.

Tommy Tuberville finished the 2002 season with back to back wins over Top 10 teams, has been to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and has winning records over his major rivals. Yet, he was on the verge of being fired last November.

Cliff Ellis took the 2003 basketball team to the Sweet 16, his second in five years, went to the NCAA Tournament three times in five years and won the SEC championship in 1999. Yet he was fired last a year later.

Steve Renfroe went to NCAA regionals his first three seasons as baseball coach, was the No. 4 national seed in 2003 and was the host for a regional. He lost his best hitter to injury this season and the pitcher who might have been his best mysteriously lost his fastball. Renfroe was fired in May after missing the postseason for the first time.

Whether you agree or disagree with interim president Ed Richardson's reasoning in making those moves, people outside the Auburn program have a hard time understanding them.

On top of all that, there is uncertainty at the top of the athletic department. Hal Baird, the athletics assistant to the president, is running the department, but it is uncertain whether he will still be running it a year from now. Some coaches are hesitant to take a job when they don't know who their boss is going to be. The lottery scholarship issue is floating around, too.

Add it all together and moving to Auburn looks like a risky decision for a Division I head coach who is comfortable in the situation he already has. Corbin would certainly have a better chance to win championships at Auburn than at Vanderbilt, but he has security at Vanderbilt that he isn't sure he would have at Auburn. The same goes for O'Connor.

As a result, Baird and Richardson are left with choices that might or might not prove to be good ones. Mitch Gaspard was a highly regarded assistant at Alabama and has had one good season and one ordinary season at Northwestern (La.) State. John Pawlowski, a former Clemson assistant, rebuilt a down-and-out program and had a big year at College of Charleston. Gaspard and Pawlowski have been to campus for interviews and would be virtually certain to take the job if offered.

Tom Slater was due on campus today to meet with Baird and Richardson. Slater was an Auburn assistant under Baird for six years. He spent three seasons as head coach at Virginia Military Institute, a college baseball wasteland, and broke records in 2003 for most overall wins and most conference wins. He was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year, but left to run the offense for Pat McMahon at Florida.

Slater is viewed in baseball circles as rising star. He certainly wants the job and would work tirelessly to win, but there is no way to know whether, at 36, he is ready for the challenge of taking over the Auburn program.

Put simply, there are no sure answers. But there rarely are any sure answers. Every school would like to fill its vacancies with coaches who have proved themselves at the highest level. Reality is, it rarely happens that way. In the SEC, even in football, most positions are filled by assistant coaches or coaches from lower-level teams. In that respect, Auburn's situation is not unusual. Administrators make the best decisions they can and move on.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

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