Quixotic Streak Defined Polk
Outgoing Mississippi State coach warred with NCAA
Ron Polk blamed his resignation from Mississippi State, effective at season's end, on the NCAA.
Big shock there. The Bulldogs coach probably holds the college governing body responsible for the fouled-up war in Iraq, the recession and his 2008 team's early struggles (13-15, 2-7 in the Southeastern Conference).
"The NCAA and I don't like each other," Polk told assembled media following the first game following his resignation. "They don't like me and I don't like them. It has become a war."
It's a long-simmering war in Polk's mind. He actually is quitting for the second time while blaming the NCAA, the first coming in 1991. That April, he resigned to become executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association (BA, May 10-24, 1991). He intended to fight the "cost containment" cutbacks the NCAA had voted to impose at the time, including the elimination of graduate assistant coaches and a reduction in scholarships from 13 to 11.7. "We have a war on our hands," Polk told BA's Jim Callis back then.
Polk later changed his mind, returning to Starkville to coach Mississippi State for six more seasons. But it's that kind of talk—talk that we've all heard before—that saddens many of Polk's closest friends in the game.
Twelve active Division I coaches once served as assistants under Polk, one of his many, many legacies
. Few coaches can match Polk's track record of producing consistent winners, consistently high academic achievers and a consistent program that does a lot of things right. The only shortcoming for Polk between the lines has been his inability to win a national championship. He has coached eight teams to Omaha at three different schools, making him one of three coaches (Larry Cochell and Andy Lopez are the others) to take three programs to the College World Series.
His latest trip came just last year, in an example that the 64-year-old is far from past his prime. He regrouped Mississippi State from a 2-8 season-ending tailspin to sweep its way through regionals and super-regionals back to Omaha. There, the Bulldogs went two-and-barbecue, dropping Polk's record at the CWS to just 7-16 in eight appearances between Georgia Southern, Mississippi State and Georgia.
Polk was careful not to use the word "retire" in this year's press release, only "resigned." He's retired before, following the 1997 season. But after two seasons away from the college game (with one summer as coach of Team USA, in 1998), Polk returned to the diamond, taking over at Georgia and leading those Bulldogs to the CWS in 2001.
"I got to see him re-energized when we went to Georgia," said Daron Schoenrock, a Polk assistant at Georgia and at Mississippi State. "I couldn't believe his energy. We hit the ground running."
He returned to Mississippi State the following year when his successor, Pat McMahon, went to Florida. McMahon was one of the many former Polk assistants who had become head coaches, an active list that includes John Cohen (Kentucky), Joe Hudak (Winthrop), Brian Shoop (Alabama-Birmingham) and Steve Smith (Baylor), among others.
"He doesn't have a family; the other coaches and players are his family," said Shoop, a former assistant at Mississippi State.
And that's why Polk takes the NCAA's rules changes so personally, why his rhetoric can get so heated. In his mind, the NCAA is going after his family—his players—by limiting his roster size and by requiring 25 percent scholarships (imagine the NCAA telling Polk how to spend his money).
For years, Polk railed against the federal law Title IX, which has mandated equal treatment for women in athletics. I can't tell you how many times Polk has told me how many scholarships women's crew gets, or how softball gets more scholarships than baseball. Now he says he's a supporter of Title IX, but just wants to see "Title X," to protect men's sports.
All those years fighting a losing battle against Title IX have made Polk the last person to make an effective case to the NCAA, and his 19-page letter in the fall criticizing the latest raft of changes to the college baseball landscape didn't go over well. Sam Houston State coach Mark Johnson—who coached with Polk at Arizona and Mississippi State—used the phrase "passionately obsessed" to describe Polk's feelings on the changes. Suffice it to say the letter—for which Polk hand-typed more than 1,400 address labels—did nothing to sway people who actually matter in the game. It may have voiced the frustrations of many coaches, which Polk has done for years, but as was the case with his quixotic tirades against Title IX, it did little to help college baseball and may actually have hurt its cause.
Johnson and McMahon (who was on the committee that drafted the changes) were among the friends who tried to get him to temper his feelings on the subject. "He's passionate to the extent that it's hard for Coach to understand why the rest of us are tolerating it," Schoenrock said. "He'll say, 'Rock, you're not fighting!' But the rest of us haven't won like he has and we have families and jobs we have to keep."
Friends like Schoenrock worry about what a man with few interests outside of baseball will do with his time now, and most of the Polk friends I spoke to doubted he would return to coaching soon if at all. His ties to Starkville and the Mississippi State community make it unlikely he'd leave for long, and his hatred of the NCAA and age could make it a tough hire for some schools. Somewhat ironically, Polk's even-keeled, consistent approach in which he never gets too high or low fits better in pro ball than the rah-rah world of college baseball, but few can see him as a minor league manager, either.
Polk seemed to know he needed to try something different last June when he confided after last year's CWS ouster, "We need other coaches to help. What we need is another Ron Polk type."
Any college program would do well to hire a "Ron Polk type" to lead its baseball program. But in dealing with the NCAA, another "Ron Polk type" is the last thing college baseball needs.