Ole Miss baseball continues to build

Ole Miss will host Texas in a Super Regional in Oxford at 6 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. If there is the need for a Monday game, that time will be determined later.

Sometimes it's about the moment. You know, a right place right time kind of thing.

Monday afternoon at the Ole Miss baseball offices was like that.

Life around those offices these days has a different feel to it. Always a busy and active place, there's just more spring in the steps of those who work there this week. And rightfully so.

Winning an NCAA Regional will do that to you. Of course that's just an obvious assumption on my part since Sunday was the first one I've been a part of, too.

A handful of reporters paid Oxford Regional champ head coach Mike Bianco a visit the day after, just to see how things were going and to see what this week might look like to the fifth-year head coach.

We hadn't gotten down the hall toward his office very far when we heard an internet radio broadcast of the Texas-Arkansas game. The Longhorn's radio voice was raised as he said "The Texas Longhorns win and will be headed to Oxford."

My, what a moment.

Mike Bianco vs. Augie Garrido. New guard and old guard. A young head coach whose program is making more headlines than ever vs. an absolute college baseball legend. Both with many visits to Omaha. But if it happens, this would be the first for Bianco as a head coach.

Garrido is the only coach to ever win the College World Series at two different schools (Cal State-Fullerton and Texas), and has made a total of 11 trips to the College World Series as a head coach. He played in Omaha as a member of the Fresno State team in 1959.

At Texas, the 66-year-old Garrido has made four trips to the College World Series in the last five seasons. He led the Longhorns to a national title in 2002. Second and third-place national finishes in 2003 and 2004. Two Big 12 Conference Championships (2002 and 2004) and a pair of league tournament crowns (2002 and 2003).

As his bio on the Texas official sports website says, "These are the results and the reasons why head coach Augie Garrido was hired to guide the Texas baseball program in 1996."

That the Rebels are now playing in a Super Regional at home with the winner heading to Omaha is certainly one of the reasons the former LSU player and assistant coach was hired as the head coach of Ole Miss baseball in 2000.

"I know that's one of the story angles this week," Bianco said of the veteran coach vs. the young coach. "I don't look at it that way. I have a lot of respect for Coach Garrido and everything he's accomplished and certainly for their program. But beyond that, it's about these two teams, and that really is the story this week. It's not him and me. It's two programs that will compete this weekend at a high level of college baseball."

A week from now, Bianco could become only the tenth head coach to also have played in the College World Series.

Also on Monday as we visited with Bianco, we heard that LSU had lost to Rice in the Baton Rouge Regional. They don't take kindly to such things down in Tigertown. Make that Titletown.

Bianco didn't necessarily appear surprised one way or the other that Wayne Graham's Owls had beaten Smoke Laval's Tigers at Alex Box Stadium. Although still just 38, he's been around the game long enough to know anything is possible, especially with two powerhouse programs playing each other.

Of course there is also another matter on their minds at the baseball offices. Today is somewhat a bittersweet day. The MLB draft is always that way.

Never have so many eyes been on the Ole Miss baseball program on draft day as this year since a number of Rebels will see their names appear alongside a professional team. Their dreams of playing baseball for a living will move one step closer to reality.

"It's something that we deal with this time of year every year," Bianco said. "It is a big day for those kids, and something we're very proud of them for. You don't know if it is a distraction or not. You hope it's not. After Tuesday, then you believe they will focus again on what we're doing. All of the kids want to win more than they care about what round they get drafted in. It's really unfair to ask them not to think about that. It's something they have dreamed about all their lives. It's a great opportunity and a dream for them. This time of year, we walk both sides of that line and we get through it. I'm happy for them, and we'll see how it plays out."

So what about Texas and Garrido? What will we see?

"They're more small ball, lot of bunting," said Bianco, who played against Garrido as a player at LSU and was 1-1 as head coach at McNeese State vs. the Longhorn's legendary manager. "I remember one year at McNeese we played them and their team had an unbelievable amount of sacrifice bunts, like three times as many as we had this year and we were one of the top teams in the conference in sacrifice bunts. They're well coached and they do everything well. They catch all the balls. They play solid defense. They pitch. They're one of those programs you know you will have to play well against to beat them. They won't beat themselves."

Bianco said while now is no time for reflection with so much left to accomplish, the journey at Ole Miss has been special so far.

"What we've been able to do in almost five years is something I'm very proud of," he said. "Coach (Dan) McDonnell has done an unbelievable job recruiting. Certainly we're reaping the benefits of those players in the program now. There have been a lot of hands in this. I get a lot of credit as the head coach, but believe me, it goes way beyond me. We have an administration that's been super supportive and trusts me, and I think it takes that. You have to be on the same mission and have the belief that we can do what we did this past weekend and draw 7,000 people a game here on a weekend in June.

"It's hard to reflect right now, and you almost want to put a guard up. You don't want to talk about that now. Let's win and finish the season. But that being said, it hasn't always been an easy road either. There have been times when it's been hard on the coaches and the players, because we have raised the expectations and raised the bar and worked so hard to compete and to win and to get to Omaha and to win a national championship. There are 290 Division I schools trying to do the same thing. It's not easy. Only one will win the last game."

John Shafer was the AD when Bianco came on board. He left after Bianco's second season.

"Certainly I wouldn't be here if John Shafer didn't hire me. One of the things I still tell people and recruits is that when he picked me up in the Memphis airport, before we even crossed the state line into Mississippi, I remember distinctly him saying that he believed our best shot to win a national championship is in baseball. That stuck with me from five years ago. It's important to have that kind of vision with your administration.

"You can't compete in this league and nationally in baseball unless the administration is with you. And they have been. Since Pete Boone has been back, it has been a continuation of that. And the Chancellor. I don't know if there is a Chancellor in the entire country that goes to more baseball games than our Chancellor, or knows as much about what goes on in a baseball program at a University than our Chancellor. He loves baseball. You have Pete Boone at games in his box. You have the Chancellor at the games. I don't know if that happens every place."

Bianco admits he continues to learn. With baseball being the sport that it is at the college level, baseball people talk among themselves and share ideas, perhaps more than other sports. He says he has talked several times over the years with Skip Bertman, his former coach, with Jim Wells at Alabama who he worked under at Northwestern State, with Ray Tanner the current head coach at South Carolina and others.

"I don't know if that happens in other sports, but it does in baseball. Ideas are exchanged and opinions are given. I talked to Ray (Tanner) specifically. They had gone to three Super Regionals in a row before they got to the College World Series. Once they finally got there, they went to Omaha three times in a row.

"I just think you continue to talk to people and to learn and to make sure you are doing the right things. Sometimes maybe it is to reassure you that you are doing the right things."

Like Tanner assuring him his program is there, that it simply needs to play a little bit better at the end, that the team physically is there already.

Like Bertman talking about pushing the team.

Bianco on what Bertman has told him: "That it's better to push than to lay back, better to admit to the pressures and the expectations and to break through the barrier rather than to sit back and coddle them and try to take the pressure off. If you really want to win, you have to put the pressure on them and break through that barrier. You can't hide from it. It's here."

And so the question comes up from time to time. Is Ole Miss and Oxford a place where he would want to remain for years as the head baseball coach?

"Certainly I'm excited and proud for a lot of things we've done here," he said. "Certainly we haven't realized our goals as a program. We want to win the national championship. Maybe that happens this year. We will see.

"As far as other programs, that's just a lot of people talking. I haven't spoken to anybody about any program since I've been here in five years. I haven't spoke to one athletic director. I haven't spoken to anybody.

"My wife loves it here. My kids love it here. I love it here. It's a neat place to live. I don't see why I wouldn't be here forever. But they have to want you here, too. I'm in an occupation that I don't always have the only say in that. Since you're asking me now, my hope is that I will still be here in 20 years."

Bianco and wife Cammie have four sons and a daughter all under the age of 11. His parents are in town now visiting from Florida. He has a million things going on it seems. We said we appreciated his time answering our questions.

"And I appreciate you guys doing this at a time so I can get out to the games of the Phillies and the Devil Rays (of the Oxford Park Commission) in just a few minutes."

With that Bianco, who had already watched two of his sons at Rod Barnes' basketball camp earlier in the day, headed to the youth league fields of Oxford, a Regional championship head coach hosting his first Super Regional this weekend against one of the game's true legends. We asked him one last time about Texas, since we'd only known for a few minutes that it would be the Longhorns his Rebels will play.

"With Texas coming in, I think it adds something to the weekend with all their baseball tradition and Coach Garrido and all the success that he's had," Bianco said. "It just adds another dimension to it all. What a great thing for Ole Miss and Oxford and the state of Mississippi to be hosting a Super Regional against the University of Texas.

"We're proud of what we've accomplished so far, and we enjoyed (Sunday) night. But now we have to get back to work again, because we have a big week of baseball in front of us.

"To me it's all about playing well and feeling good and being confident, and certainly those are all things you can say about us right now."

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