Polk's Softer Side
Career goes beyond loathing of NCAA
Any coach who has a 35-year career as a Division I head coach, who wins more than 1,350 games, who has the kind of impact on the game that Ron Polk has had, provides plenty to write about.
In fact, there's a whole other column to be written about Polk's wrangling with the NCAA
. He announced plans to resign from Mississippi State in late March the same way he announced plans to do the same thing back in 1991—by blaming the NCAA for dumping on college baseball. In 2008 and in 1991, he used the word "war" to describe his relationship with the NCAA. But there's more to Polk than his constant NCAA complaints. If he won't tell that story, then his friends will.
Mississippi State Family
Polk is a bachelor who has never been married, but everyone he's coached as a player and everyone he's coached with in college baseball is part of the Polk extended family. Closest to his heart are those who are part of the Mississippi State community—mostly the baseball alumni, players and coaches, nearly all of whom receive an annual newsletter that Polk puts together himself. Even when Polk wasn't the coach at Mississippi State, handing the gig to longtime friend and assistant Pat McMahon after the 1997 season, he still owned a home in Starkville and seemed content working as an assistant to the athletic director as a fund-raiser. His efforts led to the construction of luxury boxes at Dudy Noble Field at Polk-Dement Stadium.
After two years away, though, including a summer with Team USA, Polk decided to return to coaching, at Georgia. He turned the program around quickly, winning 47 games and reaching the College World Series in his second season. After being eliminated, the Bulldogs flew back to Atlanta, then boarded a bus back for Athens. Daren Schoenrock, now the head coach at Memphis, was Georgia's pitching coach and remembers on the ride that Georgia sports information assistant Christopher Lakos received a call on his cell phone.
"He got off the phone and turned to coach Polk and just said, 'Coach, Pat McMahon just got the job at Florida.' And coach Polk just kind of put his head down," Schoenrock said. "Then he turned to me and said, 'Rock, does Carol like Starkville?'
"He didn't even ask me. He knew he had to get my wife on board."
Thanks in part to Ron Polk, she did, and Polk (and the Schoenrocks) returned to Starkville. Last year, Polk piloted those Bulldogs back to Omaha, the eighth trip his teams have taken.
The Polk Playbook
His team was just 33-20 after losing eight of its last 10 games following the Southeastern Conference tournament, but on the way to Omaha, Polk's team did what his teams do.
• They got back to fundamentals—the same ones found in Polk's book, "Baseball Playbook", which serves as a college textbook for many coaching courses around the country. "There's nothing magical about what he teaches," Schoenrock said. "What he does is just so consistent. It's repetition, repetition, and stuff just becomes second nature." Adds Alabama-Birmingham coach Brian Shoop, another former Mississippi State assistant, "We all try to organize our practices down to the minute, like he does. We try to do all these things, but we can't do it to the same level of detail he does, because he's just so professional."
• They took advantage of their home-field advantage in the super-regional against Clemson. Mississippi State and Polk were first to realize college baseball could at least pay for itself, if not be a revenue sport if properly promoted. The rest of the SEC followed.
"No one (else) has . . . the combination of the stadium, the other facilities and the fan support, all of it," said Sam Houston State coach Mark Johnson, who has known Polk since the 1960s and coached under him with the Bulldogs. "They were consistent winners and their fans responded to that, and he worked hard to promote the sport."
• They were motivated to play for each other, but also for Polk.
Mississippi State players become part of an alumni family that Polk maintains diligently. Shoop tells of birthday cards and anniversary cards or timely words of encouragement. But he also tells a story about a March 2007 game against the Bulldogs. He found himself talking during a break in the game to a Bulldogs player and said, "You know, a lot of us out here are hoping you guys can take Coach back to Omaha, at least one more time."
"And the player just had this look on his face, and he said, 'That is our main goal—to get coach Polk back there.' He was focused on coach Polk. I thought that spoke volumes."