Sometimes, we want so badly for the calculus on what makes a successful program to be simple. The thinking often goes that if you hire a good coach and you’re a program in a major conference, you should be successful as a program and that’s just all there is to it. And many times, it plays out just like that.
But if it were always that simple, Dave Serrano wouldn’t be stepping down as the head coach at Tennessee.
The fact that Serrano is resigning, given the way his six seasons at the helm have played out, isn’t all that surprising. His teams simply didn’t win enough. Even if he took over quite a rebuilding job in Knoxville, missing the NCAA Tournament for six consecutive seasons just isn’t something that’s typically going to be tolerated in the SEC.
But if you had told people, on the day that he was hired, that Serrano would be leaving Knoxville after six seasons, most probably would have assumed that he’d be moving on to an even bigger college program or that an upstart, well-to-do athletic department made him a godfather-type offer in order to lure a big name to run their baseball program. For that matter, you probably would have even guessed he’d be going into coaching at the pro level before you figured he’d have to resign for his team’s poor performance.
There’s just no real disputing that Serrano is a good college baseball coach. He turned the UC-Irvine program into a west coast power, leading them to the College World Series in 2007. Then, he took over west coast blue blood Cal State Fullerton and kept the ball rolling there, leading the Titans to four regional appearances, three super regional appearances, and one College World Series (2009) in his four seasons as a head coach in Fullerton.
When he was brought to Knoxville, it seemed like a good fit. He was a known entity, he’d had success as a head coach at the highest level, and given that Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have the recruiting advantages others in the league have in terms of state-of-the-art facilities and ultra-fertile recruiting grounds near campus, his ability to develop players that weren’t blue-chip recruits out of high school seemed like a great fit. Above everything else, he’s known as a genuinely decent person who treats people with respect.
And yet, it just didn’t work.
The Vols won more than 30 games in a season under Serrano just once, when they went 31-23 in 2014, and they never finished better 12-18 in SEC play, also in 2014. They had some talent come through the doors on campus, including first round picks Christin Stewart and Nick Senzel, and they had some boffo recruiting classes, but there was never enough game-changing talent on the roster at one time to lead the program to a breakthrough season.
Let’s also not overlook the current SEC coaching climate and how that might have played a part in pushing Tennessee to want change. There has always been pressure for head coaches to win right away, but with first-year head coaches like Andy Cannizaro at Mississippi State and Nick Mingione at Kentucky having such success right out of the gate, expectations are at an all-time high for what a new head coach can do in a short amount of time. Those are somewhat unfair comparisons, given the recent success of the MSU and UK programs compared to their counterparts in orange and white, but it’s actually not that far-fetched that Tennessee could be winning in a big way sooner rather than later.
Cruelly, Serrano might have had one of his better teams in 2018 had he returned for another year.
Many of the players leading the way on Rocky Top this season are guys who are going to be on the roster again next season. The top two hitters on the team, Jordan Rodgers and Jeff Moberg, are seniors who will be moving on, but the next three hitters in terms of batting average on the roster are freshman- Andre Lipcius, Pete Derkay, and Justin Ammons. Fellow freshmen Luc Lipcius and Jay Charleston have also shown well in part-time roles.
On the mound, freshmen Garrett Stallings, Will Heflin, Andrew Schultz, and Zach Linginfelter have been among the club’s most reliable pitchers, with Stallings and Linginfelter often looking the part of what could potentially be one of the better one-two punches in the SEC over the next couple of years. That’s all to say nothing of sophomore Will Neely, who’s had his moments in 2017 as well.
There are plenty of challenges to the job in Knoxville, including facilities shortcomings compared to the rest of the SEC, a crowded recruiting landscape in their region, and more than a decade of SEC futility, but those returning players alone give a new head coach a real chance to compete right away, and it would have been interesting to see if Serrano had been able to get things turned around once and for all with that nucleus of players.
But you shouldn’t shed too many tears for Serrano, despite his certain disappointment at not getting the job done at UT. He’s got plenty of coaching left in him. He’ll be a hot commodity as a pitching coach at a major program, at a bare minimum, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him get in the mix for some head coaching openings as well, as soon as later this offseason.
Sometimes, good coaches just don’t click with a program, and that’s what we had on our hands with Dave Serrano at Tennessee. Despite their respective setbacks, it’s a good bet that there are brighter days ahead for both.