It's not in my nature to dwell on negatives, so recapping 2005 won't be a long, drawn out affair.
Kudos are in line for baseball, which provided one of the most exciting times in my web-clogged memory banks. The 2005 Rebels made a run at the College World Series against national champions Texas in the Super Regional in Oxford that, literally, put Rebel baseball on the national map and provided us with some of the most scintillating sports moments I can recall. Coach Mike Bianco is building – yes, he's still building – a powerhouse program that will keep us excited and on the edge of our seats for years to come. Spring is no longer a time to wait for football season to roll around.
Men's tennis. Billy Chadwick. Excellence. Not much more to say. . . . Lady Rebel Basketball. Carol Ross. On the verge. Have a little more patience. It's coming. Meanwhile, enjoy the process. . . Steve Holman keeps spinning some magic in soccer, but he's still in search of breaking into the national scene more prominently, which he will.
There were other spotty achievements in UM athletics – an individual national title in track, improvement in men's golf, some exciting facilities' improvements being lobbied for and drawn up for the future, etc. – but the two most visible sports on our campus floundered.
Football, well, the first year of Coach Ed Orgeron's tenure as head coach was rocky. Coaches were fired, a couple more moved on. Administrative personnel hit the bricks. Players were run off, players quit. The transition to the Coach O way of doing things didn't take root during the season, resulting in a 3-8 campaign that was painful to watch and culminated in a 35-14 to Mississippi State in Starkville. "Quit" is a strong word that I avoid at all times because of the effort I see these 100 or so people – coaches, players, support personnel – put in every single day of the year, but suffice it to say the team was less than motivated the last two or three games.
The "live and learn" philosophy was never more in play. To believe the new program was not going to have growing pains was on the naïve side, but it's doubtful many anticipated the magnitude of that growth. In our euphoria over the enthusiasm Coach O brings to the table, we conveniently dismissed how difficult transitions are for all involved. The whole season took on a look of Murphy's Law at work. If something could go wrong, it usually did. The end result was a team that spent the whole season digging out of one hole after another and never reached the surface.
Men's basketball had an anticipated poor year. So much so that I truly cannot remember much of it or the specific circumstances surrounding it that made it painful to watch. On the flip side, however, Coach Rod Barnes started seeing results from "new" staff members Michael White and Tracy Dildy, who brought needed solid recruiting back into the picture. While the season was a wash, the recruiting efforts of Rod and his gang gave some hope to the otherwise bleak situation.
As 2006 approaches, most have put behind the disappointments of 2005 and have turned the page. After all, we are in the midst of football recruiting and it appears Coach O and his staff are on the brink of putting together a Top 20 class that will add much-needed talent to the fold. Many of us are clinging to the belief that the only way out of the mess we are in is to recruit our way out of it. If that is truly the cure-all, Coach O is well on his way to righting this wayward ship. January will be crucial – as it always is in recruiting, but all signs point to the Rebs "getting our share" of top prospects.
There is also the monumental matter of replenishing his staff with an offensive coordinator and a position coach or two. These are critical, program-defining hires for Coach O. As we write this, it appears Fresno State OC Frank Cignetti is the number one candidate, even though Orgeron has been dutifully silent on the subject. Cignetti seems to have received fan approval, for what that's worth, and would certainly infuse some excitement into the situation if hired after Fresno's December 31 Liberty Bowl matchup with Tulsa.
From there, it's a matter of the coaches piecing everything together into a well-oiled machine during the offseason, spring training and two-a-days. There is a lot of work to be done, but Orgeron is keenly aware of the steps that need to be taken and how to get there.
The 2005 part of the basketball schedules have given us reason to believe those programs are advancing. The young Rebels have had a couple of nice wins in the preseason and are starting to gain some chemistry as conference play approaches. While this team does not have the markings for championships, postseason play is a possibility, and that's all I wished for when the season began. The Lady Rebels have taken on a tough preseason schedule and have emerged as a team that has to be dealt with seriously. Again, no championships seem to be on the horizon this year, but postseason play is likely. Another meaningful step in the building process for Carol and company.
Baseball? Can't wait. Bianco's troops will have a lot of new faces – particularly on the mound – in the lineup, but their confidence level is almost scary. We're hearing things like "won't miss a beat" and "young but extremely talented." It will be difficult for these Rebels to match what happened last year, but then again, maybe it won't be. Maybe this will be the year they break through and land in Nebraska in June. It's coming sooner or later. Why not sooner?
Yep, 2005 wasn't much to gloat about because only one of the big three sports came through, but the good thing about college athletics is that you can wipe the slate clean starting January 1 and start all over again with hope, pride and excitement. The first "huge" day of the new year will be the first Wednesday in February - Signing Day. Then hoops will be well into the SEC schedule and hopefully we'll gain some momentum in that arena. Then the spring sports – count on tennis, baseball and pieces of track and golf to be user friendly.
And before you know it, the 2006 football season will be upon us. Year two of the Coach O Era. The Christmas wish here is that the roller-coaster ride that was 2005 will plane off a little, we can settle back into some winning and build from there.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Just around the corner
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