Push To The Finish Line

Ole Miss baseball opens postseason play against Maryland Friday night. It marks the 13th time in 15 seasons that a Mike Bianco-coached Rebel team is in the NCAA Tournament.

There’ve been a lot of stories and columns written , and even just questions among fans, as to whether this is Bianco’s best coaching job yet at Ole Miss. There are plenty of reasons that one might say it is and likely just as many reasons one might say it is not.

Or maybe it is simply one of his best. But he did point to me a few days ago when asked that question by another reporter.

It was prior to the Southeastern Conference Tournament and we were gathered on Swayze Field in one of those media sessions where we get two or three players to talk to and also Bianco.

“So have you done your best job as the head coach at Ole Miss this season?” the reporter asked.

Bianco paused, said a few words, and then said maybe that was something “better for Jeff to answer” as he looked in my direction.

Why? Because I’ve been there basically every step of the way, even when he was an assistant coach at LSU before he was named head coach at McNeese State and I was gauging his and other assistants around the country as to their interest in coaching the Ole Miss Rebels. That was when the job was open in 1996.

Most were interested. A few were not. Mike Bianco definitely was.

But to absolutely say this was his best coaching job? I’m not sure I can give a “Yes, that was the best” title to any of his 15 seasons here. That would be difficult. All seasons have had their moments.

That first year was pretty special when the 2001 Rebels won 39 games and the program was in the NCAA Tournament for only the third time since 1977. The Rebels played in the New Orleans Regional, hosted by Tulane, and the program under its new head coach was on its way.

Tulane actually made it to the College World Series that year (the Green Wave would go to Omaha again in 2005) and had a program that Ole Miss could only hope for at the time. But under Bianco and company, Ole Miss would move past programs like Tulane and become a consistent winner.

When you’ve made 13 of 15 NCAA Tournaments and had as many shots at getting to Omaha as the Rebels have had, you’re on stable ground.

Besides those Super Regional heartbreaks against Texas in 2005, Miami in 2006, and Virginia in 2009, no other season was more gut-wrenching, at least in how it ended, than Bianco’s second. In 2002 the Rebels were ranked as high as No. 6 in the country in April and by late May had collapsed and didn’t make even the SEC Tournament.

Not being able to win a single game the last weekend of that season in Starkville and MSU needing to win all three to get to the SEC Tournament – and all that happened – it was a kick in the gut of major proportions for a young Bianco and his talented coaching staff.

The Houston Regional hosted by Rice in 2003 was as important as any season Bianco has had. The Rebels simply had to get back to the NCAA Tournament that season after the collapse of 2002. They did, and the lineup was dotted with a host of freshmen and young players who would become one of the nation’s top programs the next few seasons. That was a pretty good coaching job as well, and also included another sweep – this time in Oxford – at the hands of Mississippi State.

Which is another key point. From that year on, Ole Miss has dominated the Bulldogs. The record in those first three SEC regular seasons against the instate rival was 1-8. State had the eight.

Since then it’s 24-12 in favor of Ole Miss. In the Mayor’s Trophy/Governor’s Cup games, Ole Miss leads 9-6.

The dominance of Ole Miss baseball over Mississippi State has been a huge factor in the Rebel program’s success for all the right reasons.

Sweeping MSU this year in Oxford were the three victories that gave Ole Miss a fighting chance to stay above .500 and make it to another NCAA Tournament.

I half-heartedly said to a few media types in February and March that this Rebel team needed to make sure and get to Hoover, that the SEC Tournament should be its goal, and that anything more would be gravy. The Rebels have gotten past Hoover and are still playing.

I knew the replacement of so many key players from last year’s third-place College World Series team would be a challenge. I knew the loss of Sean Johnson to Tommy John surgery would be a big setback for the pitching staff.

There were going to have to be newcomers who would step up. Some did. Some early and some later. But enough did to get Ole Miss to this point, along with a few key veterans, its No. 1 in the country strength of schedule, and a 20-something RPI much of the year.

I figured one thing was a given, because it’s happened most seasons Bianco’s been here, and certainly has since he got his program established. And that is this.

I believed this team and its coaching staff would eventually figure some things out, would get things righted as best they could, and there would be a push toward the end of the season. That’s exactly what happened as they now have won six of their last eight games.

When he was answering those questions recently about if this was his “best coaching job” or not, one thing Bianco mentioned was definitely worth noting. And that is that neither he nor the program are patting themselves on the back for a 30-26 record and a .500 SEC season. That it’s always about winning championships at all levels here and being a title-contending ballclub basically every year.

This season, with numerous highlights, big wins over top-ranked teams, and another NCAA Tournament appearance, hasn’t been that just yet. But there is still that chance. No. 1 seeded UCLA as well as Maryland and potentially CSU-Bakersfield await.

If the Rebels get through that tournament and move on to a Super Regional? I’ll be ready then to say, “Yes, best coaching job in 15 seasons.”

And I think I’d also have a lot of people agreeing with me, too.

Here’s hoping for that chance.

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