Within the last week, South Carolina and Oklahoma parted ways with their respective head coaches, Chad Holbrook and Pete Hughes.
South Carolina did so because while Holbrook was successful, he wasn’t as successful as the South Carolina program has been in the recent past. When your predecessor is a legend in the game, Ray Tanner, who led the program to 13 consecutive regional appearances from 2000 to 2012, six College World Series appearances, and two national titles, going to regionals in three of your five seasons as head coach with three 40-win seasons, but no CWS appearances isn’t going to get the fanbase excited.
Oklahoma did so perhaps because Hughes wasn’t successful quickly enough and in his team’s one regional appearance, which came this season, the run ended with 11-1 and 11-0 losses to Louisville and Xavier. However, generally speaking, with a program like OU that hadn’t been to regionals in the three seasons prior, you assume that a postseason appearance would have been enough to keep him in place at least for another season or two. Still, there were rumblings about him being on the hot seat last offseason, and just one postseason appearance in four seasons on the job might have been tough to swallow for a program that went to the CWS in 2010 under Sunny Golloway and was coming off of two consecutive super regional appearances when Hughes took over.
More than anything else, though, what these two transactions have in common is that they might not have occurred in a different era.
Lots has changed in college baseball, even in the last decade or so. There has never been more college baseball on TV than there is right now, and online streaming options have led to a boom in how much college baseball one can watch in a given weekend. The quality of players coming to college has also never been better. More and more high-end draft talents are choosing to put their pro careers on hold in favor of three or more years spent on a college campus.
And look no further than CWS runs for Kent State and Stony Brook five years ago, and super regional appearances from the likes of Kennesaw State, VCU, Illinois, Boston College, UC-Santa Barbara, Davidson, and Sam Houston State since then to know that parity across the country has never been better. Across the country, and not just in the southeast, crowds are turning out in record numbers to a see a sport that, too often in the past, featured just players’ friends, girlfriends, and family, and a smattering of scouts in the stands, even for games involving major conference teams.
That’s all great news for the health of the sport we love so much, but that increased profile creates expectations. And with expectations come shorter leashes for head coaches, and that might be what has changed the most in recent years.
College baseball isn’t at the level of college football when it comes to head coach turnover, and it probably never will be. It’s just tough to imagine, in college baseball, a Guz Malzahn-type situation where a coach wins a national title and finds himself having to answer questions about his job security just two years later.
But the questions about job security certainly come faster now than they ever have in college baseball. How often can you recall a coach, barring NCAA troubles or a public falling out with his university, being relieved of his duties after leading his team into a regional like Hughes did? Heck, for that matter, how often does a head coach, again, barring those aforementioned off-the-field issues, get only four years on the job? In college baseball, even that’s been relatively rare.
And although expectations at South Carolina are as high or higher than anywhere else in college baseball, it’s tough to imagine too many coaches in years past looking for work after going 199-105 in five seasons with two super regional appearances to his name. Whether or not you agree with South Carolina’s choice to move on, that’s just not something that happens all that often in college baseball.
By comparison, look at a guy like Pat Casey. Few would call Casey anything less than one of the very best coaches in the sport right now. He took over the Oregon State program in 1995, but didn’t get his team into the postseason until 2005. Even at a program that was rebuilding in the way that OSU was during the early years of Casey’s tenure, would a coach in that spot get that long a leash now?
It doesn’t seem all that likely. It’s just a different time.
There were days when, at some programs that weren’t all that committed to baseball, being named head coach was akin to a lifetime appointment. So long as you graduated your players with regularity and kept the program out of the kind of trouble that would bring embarrassment to the university community, you stuck around, even without postseason appearances.
Those days are mostly gone.
A larger percentage of teams than ever are committed to baseball, both in sentiment and financially. For those of us who want to see the sport grow, that’s something you love and want to see continue. The trade-off is that a “win or else” mentality when it comes to coaching hires will only continue and you’ll probably see an increasing number of quick hooks from Athletic Directors with each passing offseason.
Like it or not, fair or foul, that’s just the reality of the situation.