It started on November 15, 1975 when Ron Polk, only 31-years-old at the time, was hired away from his assistant coaching position at the University of Miami under the legendary Ron Fraser by Mississippi State University as their head baseball coach.
Unlike his recent retirement announcement, which generated headlines across the internet, in local, regional and national newspapers and baseball publications such as Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America, his hiring barely generated any headlines. And even then it was on the 4th page of The Clarion-Ledger's sports section ... six days after the fact by way of a brief release from the MSU media relations department. His salary was $15,000 per year.
Mississippi State, coming off back-to-back losing seasons, saw an immediate turnaround under the guidance of the workaholic Polk - who usually rose at 6:30 each morning, then left the office at midnight many nights - leading them to a 28-17 overall record and 11-12 in the SEC. The 28 wins were the second most in MSU history and just four short of the school record. The team's leading hitter was walk-on freshman outfielder Mike Kelley, who hit .307 on a team that batted .247 overall.
The top pitcher was sophomore Don Robinson, who went 8-4 with an ERA of 2.50 on a team that had an overall ERA of 2.88.
The MSU fans, sensing something special was beginning to happen, attended games to the tune of 2,295 per game.
Knowing he needed immediate help, Polk went heavy in the junior college ranks with eight of his ten-man recruiting class being from junior colleges. Included among that group were the likes of Russ Aldrich, power-hitting Del Bender, Jack Lazorko (one of MSU's all-time great pitchers), Buddy Maher, Howie McCann, Tom McCullough, Nat Showalter (MSU's leading single season batting average leader with a .459 BA), and Mike Smith. The only freshmen among the group were John McDonald and Dominic Chiti. Chiti, a second-round selection in the 1976 draft by the Atlanta Braves, chose to go the pro route, but retired in 1981 after suffering arm problems that he never recovered from. He then became a coach and still works on the MLB level to this day. A walk-on in this class who would figure prominently later in his career was Perry Cliburn.
And the dividends were immediate. The team batting average went from .247 to .328. The runs scored per game jumped from 182 (4.00 runs per game) to 372 (7.75 rpg). MSU also had its first-ever 10-game winner with Lazorko going 10-3 that year. The team, with the 33-15 W-L record, also set a single-season win record. The record included a 1-2 performance in the SEC Tournament, but no NCAA Regional invitation.
Five members of the team earned All-SEC honors (Aldrich, Jim Kallaher, Kelley, Lazorko, Showalter) with one, Showalter, earning All-American honors.
Three players were drafted - Showalter (5th round), Robinson (17th round), and Lazorko (2nd round) with one, Showalter, signing a pro contract with the team he would, ironically, manage later in his pro career - the New York Yankees.
Polk, knowing he needed even more talent to take his program to the next level, continued to recruit the junior colleges hard - signing six players ... all from the jucos. That group included Bobby Kocol, Tim Weisheim, Josh Reagan, Pete Torres, Bart Conner and Dale Hannah.
And in 1978 MSU had its best baseball season in the history of the program - going 38-18 overall and 16-10 in the SEC. The team went 3-2 in the SEC Tournament and advanced to the NCAA South Central Regional in Arlington, Texas, finishing 2-2 and runner-up to Baylor. The team's final ranking was 14th in the nation.
Three players - Russ Aldrich (led team in hitting with a .343 BA), Del Bender (led the SEC and the MSU team with 17 HRs) and Jack Lazorko (led pitchers with a 8-2 record with a 2.92 ERA) - earned All-SEC. The team stole an incredible 138 bases in 162 attempts, an MSU record that still stands today. Eight players stole 12 or more bases with team home run leader Del Bender leading the way with 21.
Two players were drafted and signed - Bender (5th round) and Lazorko (11th round). And four others signed as free agents - Don Robinson, Russ Aldrich, Buddy Maher and Howie McCann.
Record attendance also occurred, with 2,476 attending each home game, including 4,995 per SEC home game. The largest crowd was 8,225 against LSU, which was the second largest crowd east of the Mississippi River in 1978. The 1,171 season tickets sold by MSU set a national record.
Polk hit the recruiting trail hard once again, but changed his strategy. After signing mostly junior college players in his first two classes, his 1978 class included a little over half junior college players this time around. The junior college players included Rick Dixon, Kenny Kurtz, Randy Schlosser, John Shrewsberry, Billy Martz, Terry Bartley with the high schoolers including Bruce Castoria, Steve Susce, Dave Klipstein and Bryan Hardwick. Two walk-ons from that class, Don Mundie, a transfer from Calhoun (AL) Community College, and Brad Winkler, from Madison Central HS in Richmond, Virginia, also joined the team. And both would figure prominently during their careers at MSU.
Thanks in large part to the additions of pitchers Kurtz and Mundie, MSU baseball in the 1970s would end with a huge bang that would be felt as far away as Omaha, Nebraska.
After winning six of their first eight games, the 1979 team reeled off a streak that saw them win 22 of 23 games and an overall record of 28-3. A trip to Hawaii saw the team lose 4 of 6 to the University of Hawaii Rainbows who were ranked No. 1 at the time MSU played them. The first victory by the Bulldogs ended the Rainbows 23-game winning streak.
Once State got back on the mainland, they continued their dominance to the tune of 10-2 to end the regular season at 40-9 overall and an amazing 17-2 in the SEC.
But the best was yet to come.
The team continued its hot ways in SEC and NCAA postseason play, going 3-0 in the SEC Tournament which was played in Starkville, MS.
MSU, due to its excellent record, was selected to host an NCAA Regional, the first ever for Mississippi State. After losing the first game of the regional, the Bulldogs went on a 4-0 run that put them in the College World Series for the first time since 1971.
First up for the Bulldogs was Cal State Fullerton, the team that would eventually win the College World Series. Junior lefty Kenny Kurtz completely dominated the Titans and helped the Dogs win going away, 6-1.
After losing their next game, 8-2, to the Texas Longhorns, the Bulldogs faced Pepperdine in an elimination game, losing a close one, 5-4.
The team, which won its first SEC championship since 1971, ended up with a 48-12 overall record and ranked 5th in the nation, the highest ranking in MSU history ... up to that point.
Mike Kelly led the team in hitting with a .400 average, followed closely by Bobby Kocol at .366 (Bobby had a 24-game hitting streak which was an SEC record at the time) and John McDonald at .352. Kocol and Rick Dixon led the team in home runs with 8 each. Overall, the team hit .311 and scored an average of 7.9 runs per game.
Pitching-wise Kenny Kurtz led the way with a 12-2 record and a 2.09 ERA. Not far behind was Don Mundie with a 10-1 record and an 3.87 ERA. Josh Reagan and Perrry Cliburn rounded out the starting unit with 8-0, 3.83 and 5-2, 3.53 records. Bryan Hardwick, MSU's closer, was 3-3 with 7 saves and an 3.48 ERA. MSU's pitching staff, which had an overall ERA of 3.40, had only one pitcher with an ERA of over 4.00.
Four players earned All-SEC honors - seniors Mike Kelley and Bobby Kocol, and juniors Kenny Kurtz and John McDonald. Kelley and Kurtz also received All-American honors.
Two players were drafted - Kurtz in the 25th round and Kelley in the 32nd. Kurtz elected to forego his senior season and sign with the team that drafted him.
The team set a new attendance record with an average of 2,520 per home game which was tops in the nation.
During the Ron Polk portion of the 1970s (1976-79), the MSU baseball team won 1 SEC overall title, and was second in the SEC Western Division the three other years. During the 4 years, MSU had the best overall SEC record 1 time, the 3rd best record 1 time, the 4th best record 1 time and the 5th best record 1 time. Two of the four teams appeared in an NCAA Regional with one of those going on to play in the College World Series.
While the 1970s ended on a high note, the 1980s would be even better for MSU baseball.
Check back Tuesday to read about the greatest decade in the history of MSU baseball and the decade that solidified Ron Polk's status as one of the greatest coaches in the history of collegiate baseball - the 1980s.