On Monday, Arizona State baseball head coach Tim Esmay resigned from his position after four seasons. His resignation comes on the heels of a disappointing 0-2 performance for the Sun Devils in the San Luis Obispo regional. For a full breakdown of what led up to the resignation, you can read my piece on the subject.
Although we are early enough in the process that we’re only speculating here, let’s break down some likely candidates to fill the role vacated by Esmay.
Steve Rodriguez- Pepperdine head coach
Before hitting a bit of a rough patch from 2009-2011, and then again in 2013 when his Waves missed the NCAA tournament, Rodriguez was a name that we heard with just about every west coast head coach opening. And now, after getting his Waves just three outs from Omaha for the first time since their national championship season of 1992, his name is going to get brought up again, and rightfully so.
Some of the ASU faithful may be hung up on the fact that he hasn’t gotten his team to Omaha, but I think the focus should be on what he has done in his time there. In a college baseball landscape that is getting tougher for schools like Pepperdine as institutions from power conferences with football money rolling in invest in their baseball programs, Rodriguez has managed to keep his program relevant.
If ASU shows interest in Rodriguez, it will be a pivotal moment for the coach. He has been the head coach in Malibu long enough that if he passes up on this opportunity, there’s a great chance he retires as Pepperdine head coach. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s hard to imagine another job this good presenting itself to him.
Rich Hill- University of San Diego head coach
Working largely in anonymity, Hill has turned the Toreros into one of the more consistent programs on the west coast. He has turned his team into regional regulars, and quietly, he has done a great job of developing legitimate MLB talent. Brian Matusz and Kris Bryant are just two of the names that have come through the program in recent years.
The most impressive thing that he has done at USD, though, is really get that program off the ground. When he took over in 1999, the program had enjoyed just four winning seasons in the last fourteen under John Cunningham, dating back to their first season in what is now known as the West Coast Conference.
Hill won’t get anyone overly excited, but he’s a proven winner with a great track record of recruiting the west coast.
Tracy Smith- Indiana University head coach
Smith has become one of the hottest names in college baseball thanks to his accomplishments in Bloomington over the last two seasons. In 2013, he led the Hoosiers to their first appearance in the College World Series. In 2014, although they fell short of their goal of getting back to Omaha, they secured a national seed and put together another great season.
And it’s not like he was doing this with a plucky bunch of overachievers. He was able to bring in top-flight talent, like Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, and Dustin DeMuth, that will have a great chance of success at the next level. For those that have spent any time in Bloomington, Indiana in February and March, you know that what he has done there is not easy to do.
One negative to Smith is that he has only been a head coach in the Midwest, although he does have recruiting connections out on the west coast. And to a certain extent, good recruiters tend to be good recruiters no matter where they go.
If ASU shows real interest in Smith, it will be a litmus test for how serious Indiana really is about competing on the national stage. If they let Smith walk, they risk losing the momentum that he built up for that program.
Ray Birmingham- University of New Mexico head coach
Birmingham is another name that seems to come up just about every offseason when jobs come open, but to this point, he has stayed put in Albuquerque. Whether that’s because no job has enticed him to leave or because offers haven’t been made, we can’t know for sure, but if it’s the former, the ASU opening will certainly test how attached he is to UNM.
The success he has had there speaks for itself. The Lobos have won 34 or more games in six of Birmingham’s seven seasons at the helm, and they have won the Mountain West Conference regular season title in each of the last three seasons. For a program that was pretty much going nowhere when he showed up, that’s pretty good.
It’s doubtful that Birmingham will be at the top of ASU’s list of candidates, but for better or worse, their administration has a reputation for underpaying its coaches, particularly on the baseball diamond. If they whiff on a few of their top choices for one reason or another, Birmingham would be a nice fallback option that may come a little cheaper.
Tim Chambers- UNLV head coach
Like Birmingham, Chambers would be a solid option for the program if they don’t land that big fish they want. After a successful career in the JUCO ranks at College of Southern Nevada, Chambers was charged with returning UNLV to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade.
After a couple of seasons to get things turned back around, he got them back to the regionals in 2014. If ASU wants to put an emphasis on getting someone who can recruit pitchers, they could do a lot worse than Chambers. UNLV’s staff, led by Erick Fedde, John Richy, and Kenny Oakley, was fantastic all season.
Travis Jewett- Vanderbilt assistant coach
Generally, we assume that big programs like ASU will want to focus their search on proven head coaches, but if AD Ray Anderson wants to reach for the “next big thing” in coaching from the ranks of assistant coaches, Jewett could be his man.
Jewett’s teams have had success everywhere he has gone, even when he has coached in non-traditional baseball locales. From 2002-2004, he was an assistant at Washington and the Huskies made the regionals in each of his three seasons on staff. While he was an assistant at Washington State, the Cougars made their first trip to the regionals since 1990. Jewett also served as an assistant at ASU for three seasons from 2010-2012.
Most recently, Jewett has been an assistant at Vandy and its that experience that should most excite ASU. Under his watchful eye as the program’s recruiting coordinator, the Commodores have been a recruiting machine. No one has done a better job of coaxing MLB draft picks to campus and no SEC program does a better job recruiting the entire country. We don’t know how he will handle the day-to-day grind of being a head coach, but it might be worth finding out for ASU.
Andrew Checketts- UC-Santa Barbara head coach
If ASU wants to nab what could soon be the hottest name in college coaching, Checketts would be a good place to look. After serving as an assistant at UC-Riverside and then at Oregon under the legendary George Horton, Checketts was hired at UCSB prior to the 2012 season. In just his second season, he had the Gauchos back in the regionals. In 2014, his team just missed the NCAA Tournament, but they turned in another solid season.
ASU has only had a handful of head coaches in their program’s history and hiring Checketts would give them a chance to have another long-tenured coach. At just 38, he has a long career ahead of him.
Pat Murphy- El Paso Chihuahuas manager
You knew Murphy was going to be on this list. The fact is, even if Murphy was something of a divisive figure at ASU, he had the program humming along at the time he was pushed out. Their recruiting success was off the charts and they were starting to be a regular in Omaha again.
A factor that can’t be overlooked is how loyal his former players are to him as well. When he left Tempe, many of his high-profile players more or less separated themselves from the program altogether. Bringing him back would extend an olive branch to those players and would start to bridge the gap between ASU’s storied past and bright future.
There were hard feelings when Murphy and the Sun Devils split, but things seemed to have cooled of late. Murphy was invited back to Packard Stadium this past season to honor his teams and there is a thought that there might be mutual interest in a return.
It would be a gutsy move for Ray Anderson to bring him back, but it would be tough to not bring him back if he believes he is the man that can best bring the program back to prominence.