400 Here And Counting

Mike Bianco mentioned something about his career wins record of 500, with 400 of them coming at Ole Miss, being a shared, collective effort. He meant assistant coaches, players, staffers. I'm sure he'd add you, the fans, in as a big part of it, too.

A lot of people won't remember his 400th here and 500th overall came on a sultry spring May evening in Jonesboro, Ark. But the Rebels beat Arkansas State 5-2 Wednesday night, and the marks were set.

He had 100 of the 500 victories when he got here after three years as head coach at McNeese State.

The first time I interviewed Bianco, then an LSU assistant, for a story, I also called an Alabama assistant, Mitch Gaspard, the same week. They were two of the rising stars among college baseball assistants in the southeast, and both would someday land SEC head coaching jobs.

Bianco said he was interested in the Ole Miss job. That was back in 1996 when he was 29. Gaspard, not so interested at the time. The Rebels went with experience and age and hired Pat Harrison, the head coach at Pepperdine. McNeese hired Bianco after the 1997 season.

Bianco makes a point

Bianco and Gaspard, in his first season as head coach of the Crimson Tide, will meet this weekend as SEC head coaches. Bianco was an assistant to former Alabama head coach Jim Wells at Northwestern State in 1991-92. Gaspard was an assistant to Wells at Northwestern State in 1993-94.

Bianco had gone back to LSU as an assistant in 1993. When Wells got the Alabama job, Gaspard went with him – until he got a head coaching job himself. That was at Northwestern State when the head coach there, current Mississippi State head coach John Cohen, left for the head coaching job at Kentucky.

Thoroughly confused? No need to be. It is Bianco whose path is fairly easy to follow, and the one that matters.

He arrived in Oxford with those 100 wins in June, 2000, and with a plan to make Ole Miss a big winner in college baseball. The plan worked then and works now.

He did a lot of "extra" things, and not just the between the lines things. He wanted a playground to make the place more family friendly. He wanted a support group to help the program and to build a fan base. Enter the late Ernie Labarge and the most energetic, passionate booster club organizer anywhere.

He needed an indoor hitting building fairly quickly, and some people stepped up and made that happen fast. He needed some patience from fans and administrators, and he also needed to be patient himself. It wasn't always easy those early years.

Some of it was actually because there was success right away. An NCAA Regional at Tulane in year one and 39 wins, one shy of the school record of 40 set by a Don Kessinger 1995 team. And only one other UM team had won as many as 39 games, and that was a Jake Gibbs team in 1977.

There was great baseball tradition at Ole Miss, as good through most of the 20th century as any SEC school. But this is a 21st century program now.

A good weekend SEC crowd 10 years ago might be 9,000 for three games total. And quite a few of those would be visiting teams' fans.

Now there are usually that many per game.

Justin Henry, Mike Bianco meet the press

There hadn't been an NCAA baseball Regional at Ole Miss until Bianco's fourth year in 2004. There's been one every year since, except 2008.

There was early pressure, even though not nearly as many people were paying attention as now. That late-season collapse in 2002 was painful for all concerned. But everybody was doing their part to help out.

Chancellor Khayat showed up in Starkville on a Sunday, the last regular season game of the year. Ole Miss had to win it to get to Hoover. State had to win it to get to Hoover. He came up to the press box and had a seat. I asked the Chancellor when was the last time he had been to MSU for a baseball game.

His answer? "I played in it. 1960."

As I said, everybody was pitching in to help the cause.

That '02 season, Bianco's second at Ole Miss, was the only one when there was no postseason of any kind. No SEC tourney. No NCAA tourney.

The next season, 2003, to me stands out as arguably the most significant one he's had. The program had to get back to the NCAA tourney, and it wasn't easy. But with a bunch of freshmen whose names are household ones for fans now – like Head and Holliman and Pettway, for example – the Rebels made the Regional at Rice and were back in the postseason business.

Another thing after three seasons they still hadn't done was take care of business against MSU. In regular season SEC games, Bianco was 1-8 those first three years, with sweeps at the hands of the Bulldogs in both '02 and '03.

Starting with the 2004 series win in Starkville, only last year's blip of two losses mars what has become more than a trend of beating the Bulldogs in baseball. This year's sweep at MSU only added to the dominance, along with the 2005 sweep in Oxford.

So the Rebels (35-15 overall, 15-9 SEC) head to Alabama (29-20, 10-14) this weekend with a milestone number of wins for the head coach. But that will quickly be forgotten. There is a lot of work left to do this season. They want to win league and tourney championships, host again in June. And try again to get this school back to Omaha.

The summer of 2000 seems a world away now. Certainly there's been a lot of winning since then.

Like 400 victories and counting.

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