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Can Alabama baseball be a contender again?
The question is not rhetorical. Over the years, a number of reasons have been offered up as to why the winningest team in Southeastern Conference baseball history is mired in mediocrity.
First, it was the sad state of the facilities. That was remedied this year. (I would have preferred a completely new building, but what we have is easily top five in the conference and is pretty fantastic.) Next, it was the lack of lottery scholarships to supplement the NCAA’s current baseball scholarship limit of 11.7. I would point out that Mississippi does not have a lottery either, and it would be hard to argue that Ole Miss and even Mississippi State do not currently have better baseball programs than The University. Other arguments, like the fact that Mississippi schools offer in-state tuition for baseball players, are often presented.
You won’t hear me disagree that these present both competitive advantages, but the problem remains: Given the current state of affairs, what are we going to do? It seems to me, a coaching change is the only way to try to right this ship.
In Part I of this post, I will detail the case for firing Mitch Gaspard should this season not end in at least a super regional appearance. Part II will look at the best and most likely names to fill his shoes: a Hot Board, if you will. What I will not do here is direct blame toward the players.
First, baseball recruiting is a more difficult proposition than basketball or football. The very best baseball players sign MLB contracts out of high school. So, having the best recruiting ranking in college baseball is meaningless when none of them actually play college baseball. LSU does it better than anyone in this regard, striking a balance of highly touted kids who will actually play. However, the evidence suggests that Alabama actually does okay on this front. That is, Alabama has had 32 draft picks over the last six seasons. In 2015 alone, only Vanderbilt, Florida and LSU had more draft picks than Alabama. All three of those teams went to Omaha, while the Crimson Tide didn’t make the 64 team field.
Gaspard supporters suggest that he should be allowed to recruit with the new park, but to me, it is obvious that player quality is not the problem.
The Case Against Mitch Gaspard
Gaspard came to the University from Northwestern State (Natchitoches, La.), where he won the Southland Conference twice in his six years there. He also also finished fourth or worse three times in those years — including his final two years, which featured 4th and 6th place SLC finishes.
Gaspard became the head coach at UA in 2010, and despite a 15-15 SEC record, led our Tide to a Super Regional in that first year. All appeared right with the world.
Since then, the wheels have come off the wagon. Here’s the yearly breakdown of Alabama’s SEC records, in what is admittedly a Golden Age of SEC baseball:
2015: 12-18 T
Those numbers are the very definition of mediocrity.
We have not won a regional or sniffed a super regional since 2010, missing the tournament entirely in two years of Gaspard’s tenure. (I recognize he gets a pass for last year, but the overall numbers do not lie.)
The current season started promisingly enough. The Tide performed well out of conference, despite a series loss to a decent Houston team at home. In-conference play also began swimmingly, including an improbable series win at LSU and against Tennessee. Along the way, however, we have suffered a drubbing at the hands of UAB, and from the SEC’s worst team, Auburn, in the Capital City Classic (yet again).
You simply don’t see LSU and Ole Miss regularly losing those types of games. Since then, we have lost a series to bottom-dweller Georgia, and at Kentucky (which took a series from Florida but has lost to Northern Kentucky and Wofford).
Historically, a new building should mean success — at least during the first year.
Ole Miss came to town and the Tide took a weekend series from America’s No. 8 team, and I was hesitant to go forward with this piece. But, one successful series does not a better program make. It happened again. On the cusp of stealing the opener from TAMU, Gaspard refused to put Tommy Burrows in to pitch a tie game in the 10th. Naturally, we lost.
This example is but one in a multi-year trend of on-field decisions I would call questionable, at best. Leaving pitchers in for too long has plagued Gaspard’s tenure. And, at College Station, even though it was not a "save" situation, the belief in baseball is to use your best man in situational pitching. (For another high-profile failure to grasp this concept, see: Gonzalez, Fredi.) A coach should know this.
As I type this, we have lost yet another mid-week game…to Samford, no less, in our third walk-off loss in five days.
Now, here is the part where I name names and make enemies. Much of the blame has been placed at the feet of Gaspard’s assistant coaches, Dax Norris and Andy Phillips, and Mitch’s blind loyalty to them. From all accounts, Norris and Phillips are conspicuously absent at high school travel baseball tournaments — the kind which are attended by all the major players in the NCAA baseball world. With that in mind, there is a camp in the Alabama baseball world who would like to keep Gaspard, on the condition that he fire Norris and Phillips. Maybe that’s fine. But I remember when there were camps who just thought [disastrous football coach] needed to fire [assistant football coach].
Look, I like Mitch, too. He is from all accounts a very good man. However, one of the duties of a head coach is to know when your assistants are not getting the job done. On that front, he has undeniably failed. If loyalty blinds him to their dereliction of duty, he is not equipped to be head coach at The University of Alabama, and it is time for a change.
At this point, the question becomes: Who? I’m glad you asked, we'll discuss that on Monday.
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