Polk Confirms Resignation After 2008 Season

Twice before he has tried stepping out of the coaches box only to return. Now, Ron Polk means it. After four decades in college baseball and 29 seasons as Mississippi State's skipper, #1 is leaving the field for good. For his own good, and the best interests of Diamond Dogs present and future.

Polk's resignation as Mississippi State head coach, effective the end of this 2008 season, was made official Thursday by the media relations office. Following the team's afternoon practice Polk—the winningest coach in SEC history in any sport--told reporters at Dudy Noble Field he would prefer waiting until Friday night, following the series opener with Georgia, to speak directly on the subject.

He also gave no comment in the official release, but a three-page letter Polk had sent on March 12 to newly-named athletics director Greg Byrne and current A.D. Larry Templeton was obtained by reporters. That full letter is available on this website, offering insight into both Polk's decision and the timing of this announcement.

That same letter was waiting in every Diamond Dog's locker today when they reported to the locker for a surprise team meeting. "And we usually never have meetings on Thursday," junior pitcher Chad Crosswhite said. "I didn't know if it was about Georgia or something had come up." Something really had, Crosswhite soon found. "I walked into the locker room and everybody was real serious. I said somebody turn the music on or something, it was just quiet. I knew something was wrong and I read the letter."

In the letter to the current and future A.D.s Polk said he knew, as soon as January attempts to override NCAA legislation on baseball scholarship use and roster size failed, "my time in coaching college baseball was quickly coming to an end." Indeed, speculation among those close to the program of who cover Bulldog baseball was that the new guidelines, which go into effect for the 2008-09 school year, would be the last straw for a coach who has become as famous for public battles with the national governance body as for his team's achievements the last two decades.

In fact, Polk retired from coaching back in April 1991 to become director of the American Baseball Coaches Association and lead the fight against what he and his peers believed were policies that penalized college baseball. He withdrew that resignation two weeks later and coached State through the 1997 season when he again retired, this time to become an administrator at MSU. That lasted two years before Polk accepted the head coaching position at Georgia, where in the second season he took the 2001 Bulldogs to a SEC Championship and the College World Series. Barely a week later he was back at Mississippi State as head coach, taking the place of his selected successor Pat McMahon who'd abruptly taken the same post at Florida.

This third time? "It's for real," said senior pitcher Justin Pigott, who was in a lab during the team meeting but got a text-message from fellow pitcher Andy Wilson with the news. "He has nothing else to add to this game, he's done everything he possibly can. He's fought for a lot of kids and he's lost his battle. I think that's what really did him in. It's becoming a cruel thing when you have to cut players that don't deserve to be cut. He has such great respect for the game and it's getting taken away by the NCAA."

Pitcher John Lalor, team co-captain along with Crosswhite and Pigott, said it was the most focused team meeting of his MSU career. "It just took a while to take everything in, he took us through his whole career, leaving here and going to Georgia and when he decided he wanted to come back here. He told us all about what went into the decision. He's getting older and obviously the NCAA thing, he doesn't want to have to run players off. It's not a good thing for college baseball and Coach Polk doesn't want to go out like that."

Polk won't have to. Nor will the 64-year-old coach push his career past what he sees are other limits. In the letter, he discusses the death of his father and uncles in their 60s, and that he has never taken a day of personal leave in his career. Tellingly, Polk talks about the current players needing "a younger coach with a higher degree of energy. My energy level continues to "slip" each year. In addition, recruiting kids to play baseball here is already hindered by my age, for other coaches are using this against us, as they should."

But, Polk adds, "There is no question I have enough energy to complete this season." He told the same things to his players. "He said just how he's getting tired, his age is catching up with him when it comes to recruiting, he doesn't have the fire he once had, and the way the game has changed," reported Pigott. "He said he has enough fire for the season, that's not in question and I agree totally. But to do another one and another one…"

"And to hear him admit that is a shocker, because he's Coach Polk! He's stubborn, but…wow, I'm still overwhelmed."

Even the voluble Crosswhite claimed to be speechless, before talking of course. "I love him like a father. And he loves all of us. It's tough on him, too. It's tough. He loves this game, loves us, loves the school. It's hard for him to walk away. Man, it's just tough."

Yet not totally unexpected. Polk repeats wishing he'd made this move in January, though all last season and during talks with media prior to this campaign he dropped plenty of such hints. Polk held out slim hopes last fall that, once enough schools voted to review the NCAA's new regulations on aid and rosters, the changes might be rescinded. When the issue was settled, the coach's course was essentially set unless he was willing to change to the new way of recruiting first, then trimming rosters after fall practices.

His most common and clear critique is to call the process "cruel" as it will mean cutting players. In the letter Polk used "dump." The process is all the tougher for players because starting next school year they no longer can transfer and play immediately, but must sit out a season.

Mississippi State, as did other SEC schools (that is, their presidents and chancellors who are the voting body of the NCAA) voted in favor of the new rules last year and did not support attempts to review or revoke.

"I was not about to wind down my 40 year career in college baseball being cruel to student-athletes," Polk wrote.

"He said it's time," said Crosswhite. "The whole NCAA thing went down, he said he knew then it was going to end pretty quick, and that he wished he'd done it earlier. It has nothing to do with us not winning. He said getting old is tough. He got pretty emotional and that's something I'd never seen. I got choked-up a little bit. But I'm behind him the whole way."

Polk's timing has another aspect, addressed fully in the letter. He hopes that by making his resignation formal now, and coaching through the season, to help assistant coach Tommy Raffo be promoted to head coach, calling it a "win-win situation" and saying it will make for a smooth transition. Raffo, a 1987-90 letterman at first base for State and an assistant to Polk and McMahon here, has been placed in an interesting position by his boss's open comments.

"I'm honored," Raffo told reporters today. "It's meant a lot to me to have somebody like him say that. But at the same time you have to go about your business, and until that decision is made later on."

That business of course is the three-game weekend series with Georgia. State goes into the series last in the SEC West and overall standings at 1-5, with little margin left even this early in the season for further setbacks if the Bulldogs (10-13 overall) aren't to fall too far behind in the post-season picture. The schedule and situation factored into Polk telling his team, and State making the announcement, on a non-game day.

"We're talking about it now on a Thursday," Lalor said. "But when it comes time for the game it's going to be a big motivating factor instead of a deterrent. We want to send Coach Polk out in the greatest style we can."

Crosswhite agrees. "I think it's a huge motivation for us, now let's just go out and play for him. Let's really come together and play hard."

"Our goal right now is to try to have a good weekend for our team, to get these boys feeling good about the rest of SEC play," Raffo said. "That's the biggest thing right now. I know this announcement came today, but these three games are big for us."

But inevitably the 2008 season will become another—and this time, final—farewell tour for the coach who has more Ws by his name than anyone in SEC history, any sport. These Diamond Dogs have all the more reason to make the most of this last run with #1.

"It's an honor to be a part of the last class for him," said Pigott. "It's his choice, so it's right."

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