We always figured there was a bit of a smokescreen surrounding Ole Miss head baseball coach Mike Bianco, whose name has been floating as the “favorite” for the vacant job at LSU for the last couple of weeks. Bianco, who played at LSU and famously was the starting catcher when the great Ben McDonald was the Tigers’ ace pitcher, has been at Ole Miss 21 years and it’s likely he’ll retire there.
The only place he’d leave Oxford for, at least voluntarily, would be LSU. And that fact, plus a sizable PR push by several former players, particularly those who like Bianco played for Skip Bertman, to bring him in made Bianco’s name the dominant one as the coaching search proceeded.
But yesterday, there was this…
— Are You Serious #AYS (@AYSSPORTS) June 21, 2021
It’s starting to look like Bianco and LSU did each other a mutual favor. LSU gave the coach leverage for a longer deal at Ole Miss, and Bianco bought LSU some time for its coaching search by giving the local sports media something to chew on.
Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco signed on to remain in Oxford.
Bianco, who has been the coach at Ole Miss for 21 seasons, agreed to a contract extension that was announced Sunday night by the school. Bianco, 54, is once again under contract for four years, the maximum number of years allowed for public employees in Mississippi.
“Ole Miss is home for me and my family, and I am committed to bringing championships to Oxford,” Bianco said in a statement. “I’m proud of what we have accomplished over the past 21 years, and I look forward to building on that foundation and achieving new levels of success. I want to thank Rebel Nation for their unmatched support, year in and year out, and how they help make Swayze Field the greatest experience in baseball.”
Bianco led Ole Miss to a loss in the Tucson Super Regional last Sunday, finishing one win shy of a College World Series berth. Bianco has led Ole Miss to seven super regional appearances since 2005 but his Rebels are 1-6 in those series with the lone win leading to a College World Series appearance in 2014. Ole Miss is 1-5 in winner-take-all super regional third games under Bianco’s tenure.
That said, Bianco is the winningest coach in Ole Miss history and the third-winningest coach in SEC history behind Ron Polk and Skip Bertman. Ole Miss has appeared in 17 NCAA Tournaments in Bianco’s 21 seasons compared to seven appearances total in the century before Bianco’s arrival.
“Mike Bianco is our head coach, and with his contract extended to the maximum four years, we look forward to seeing him lead Ole Miss to new heights,” Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter said in a statement. “We understand that the consistent success of our program will generate interest from other schools, and with any coach, there can be personal factors that come into play. Mike and I have been in constant contact and have been able to privately sort fact from fiction. Our program is poised to take the next step toward success in Omaha, and we believe Coach Bianco is the right person to guide us there.”
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward is known to have contacted three other coaches about the job: Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, former Oregon State head coach Pat Casey and East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin. O’Sullivan removed his name from the LSU sweepstakes and Casey’s contact seems more like a consultation than a full interview. Godwin, as of this writing, seems to still be a possibility – but since his team lost to Vanderbilt in the NCAA super regionals more than a week ago he could have been hired last week. The rumor mill says he was interviewed Thursday but hasn’t yet been offered the job.
There is an obvious conclusion to be had given all this, which is that LSU’s next head baseball coach is currently in Omaha coaching a team in the College World Series.
Barring the possibility that coach is an assistant on a CWS team – there are actually three potential such candidates (Arizona pitching coach Nate Yeskie, Mississippi State hitting coach Jake Gautreau and Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown), though it would not be Woodward’s style to hire less than a splashy big-name head coach – that would mean eight coaches are in the running.
Of the eight we would eliminate Texas’ David Pierce, as he’s a Texas native and seems set there, Stanford’s David Esquer, who’s a west coast/Bay Area native and a Stanford alum, NC State’s Elliott Avent, who’s 65 years old and has been in Raleigh since 1997 and Mississippi State’s Chris Lemonis, who seems more or less untouchable at present.
That leaves four coaches. We won’t predict one of the four will be at LSU once his season ends, but we won’t refuse to predict it, either. There’s a rumor that a plane often used by LSU athletic officials flew to Omaha over the weekend and that discussions are being had or will be had there this week. Whether that’s true or not, who knows, but it would make sense – and given the prominence of the LSU baseball job it seems like the CWS might just be an audition for Woodward’s attention and a heavy flow of purple and gold dollars into a lucky winner’s bank account.
In no particular order, the four are…
Brian O’Connor, Virginia – if the LSU search had been taking place in 2017, virtually no one would have doubted O’Connor would be the top man on LSU’s radar to succeed the retiring Paul Mainieri. O’Connor is the top name in Mainieri’s coaching tree (Godwin would be second); he was an assistant to Mainieri at Notre Dame, and he built the Virginia program from nothing into a juggernaut from 2004-17. In that time period the Cavaliers went to NCAA Regionals 14 straight years, winning 40 games or more in 11 of the 14, appearing in six Super Regionals and four College World Series, finishing as the national runner-up in 2014 and winning the whole thing in 2015.
Since 2018, though, O’Connor fell off the radar a little. He was 29-25 and only 12-18 in the ACC in 2018, and 32-24 and 14-16 in 2019. UVA was 14-4 and 2-1 in the ACC when the 2020 season was canceled, which indicated he might have been on the verge of a bounceback, and this year Virginia is 35-25, having finished 18-18 in ACC play. They’re a bit of a Cinderella team which has gotten hot in the postseason. But Virginia blanked Tennessee in the first game in Omaha, showing that they’re more good than lucky.
O’Connor has a bit of a knock on him in that some say he’s tough on his pitchers’ arms; others dispute that. But one thing is clear about him; his teams get hot late in the season and he’s a very tough out in the NCAA tournament.
O’Connor is very gettable money-wise. He’s making $765,000 this year at Virginia; Mainieri made $1.2 million at LSU this season.
Tony Vitello, Tennessee – The Vols haven’t been to Omaha in a very long time, having last made the trip to Omaha in 2005, and that showed in the 6-0 loss to Virginia on Saturday. But that doesn’t take away from Vitello’s accomplishment in quickly rebuilding that program. This is his fourth year in Knoxville, and Tennessee’s rise has been meteoric – from 29-27 his first year (2018), to 40-21 and a regional appearance in 2019, to 15-2 in the COVID-canceled 2020 season to 50-17 and a CWS trip this year. It’s exactly the pattern you’d look for in a superstar young coach’s record.
Vitello, who was an infielder in college at Missouri, broke into coaching at his alma mater from 2003-10. In 2011, TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle hired him as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, and Vitello helped to build some great Horned Frogs teams. Then Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn snapped him up, and Vitello held a similar position in Fayetteville from 2014-17 before Tennessee hired him as its head coach. He’s just 42 years old.
Vitello might be the most high-ceiling hire of the bunch, but he also would be a significant adjustment in style from Mainieri. He’s fiery – very fiery – and the atmosphere around the Tennessee program is, to put it charitably, a bit combative. They’ve embraced the new-kid-on-the-block mentality, and the team’s identity is brash and emotional. It takes on the atmosphere of “new money.” That’s completely different than the blue-blood attitude of LSU baseball for the past couple of decades since Bertman put the Tigers on the map, but maybe that’s a good thing.
Tennessee will pay Vitello a lot of money to keep him. He’s only making $550,000 now, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if that figure tripled next year. To pull him Woodward might have to offer $1.75 million per year or more, something he could do. The real question is whether such a huge departure in style fits with the decision to back up a Brinks truck, and a moving van, to Vitello’s house.
Jay Johnson, Arizona – We mentioned Johnson in a post last week about the LSU job as an out-of-the-box thought for Mainieri’s replacement when Bianco’s name was the center of discussion, and the rumor mill and message board conversation has seen increasing buzz about his candidacy for the job. Johnson’s Wildcats took a tough 7-6 loss on a 12th inning walkoff single against Vanderbilt Saturday, in a game where his team went largely toe to toe against the defending national champions. They clearly belong in Omaha, something they proved by clobbering Ole Miss in the Super Regional (Arizona earned the trip to Omaha in a 16-3 blowout).
This is the second CWS journey in five years for Johnson at Arizona. His first year in Tucson, which was in 2016, the Wildcats were 49-24 and ended the season as the national runner-up to Coastal Carolina. But in 2017, Arizona was 38-21 and finished in a regional, and in 2018 (34-22) and 2019 (32-24), Arizona just missed the NCAA tournament. That indicated a downward trajectory rather than what one might expect, until this year’s huge bounceback. Arizona is the No. 5 national seed and sits at 45-17 following the Vanderbilt loss.
Johnson is a terrific postseason coach. He’s 17-8 in postseason play for his career, a good number for a 44-year old head coach. Arizona isn’t his first stop, as he was 31-27 and then 41-15 in two years at Nevada from 2014-15, earning Mountain West Coach of the Year honors in 2015. Prior to that he was an assistant at San Diego from 2006-13, during which time the Toreros won their conference three times and appeared in four regionals. Johnson spearheaded the nation’s best recruiting class in 2010 at San Diego (which is an incredible feat in itself), including current major league star Kris Bryant. And while the knock on Johnson would be that he’s a West Coast guy, something which has generated so-so results for other SEC baseball programs at times, if you watch Arizona play they don’t look or feel like a West Coast team.
He’s currently making $856,687 at Arizona, making him definitely gettable.
Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt – On the surface, it would seem ridiculous to believe LSU, or anybody, for that matter, could move Corbin out of Nashville. He’s currently making at least $1.2 million – as Vanderbilt is a private university, exact contract terms aren’t public knowledge – and he’s sitting on the best program in all of college baseball where he is.
He’s been to an NCAA regional 15 straight years, not counting the 2020 canceled season, he’s made it to four straight Super Regionals, he’s the defending College World Series champion and decently likely to win back-to-back championships, and with one more win he’ll hit 800 career victories as a head coach, all at Vanderbilt. He’s sitting on two national titles already. He’s put 16 of his players into the first round of the major league draft, a number likely to increase by at least two given that his top top pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are both ranked in the top six draft prospects (seven Vanderbilt players are in MLB.com’s Top 250 list)…there is very little about Corbin at Vanderbilt that anybody should believe ought to change.
Corbin is 59, which is a little older than the other coaches mentioned for the LSU job. He’s also in a position at Vanderbilt with respect to the university’s sliding-scale tuition policies which allows him to be very creative about how to allocate the NCAA-allotted 11.7 scholarships to build his roster, an advantage lots of other coaches complain is unfair (LSU is able to do something similar, though not as drastic, given the TOPS program for in-state players).
So why are we putting him on this list while marking, say, Pierce and Lemonis off as untouchable?
Well, last year Vanderbilt promoted Candice Storey Lee, a former captain of its women’s basketball team, as its athletic director. Word out of Nashville is that Lee, the first black female athletic director in the country (and the recipient of a whole lot of glowing media coverage for that fact), and Corbin aren’t on the best of terms. What we don’t know is whether those rumors are overblown or if they’re real; if they are, perhaps Woodward could swoop in with a $2 million job offer and get six or eight years of excellence, and perhaps a national title or two, from Corbin.
We’d regard this as a long shot. Of the four, Corbin is the least likely. But he’s also the coach who perhaps fits Woodward’s hiring patterns, seeing as though his hires have included thought-to-be-untouchable coaches like Chris Peterson, Buzz Williams, Jimbo Fisher and Kim Mulkey.
We’ll just have to wait and watch, and as Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee and Vanderbilt fall out of the College World Series, or don’t, speculation of an impending LSU hire might well build rapidly surrounding the availability of the coaches on this list.