Who's The Next Wave Of College Baseball Royalty?
Now the head coach at Florida International, Turtle Thomas worked as an assistant coach at Miami under Ron Fraser (and Brad Kelly and Jim Morris). Thomas sums up Fraser's impact on college baseball this way.
"He was a very, very good baseball coach," Thomas said, "but every night we played, it was showtime."
Fraser's two national championships and 1,271 victories earned him a place in Jim Callis' Mount Rushmore of college baseball coaches. It's a no-brainer list of the four greatest coaches of college baseball in the 20th century, with Fraser joining Southern California's late Rod Dedeaux, retired Louisiana State coach Skip Bertman (Fraser's former assistant) and five-time national champion Augie Garrido, still active at Texas.
Ray Tanner might have been able to make it a quintet with his recent run at South Carolina. The Gamecocks fell just short of winning three straight championships, something only Dedeaux has done. Tanner's clubs made six trips to the College World Series in the last 11 seasons, and he oversaw the construction of $36 million Carolina Stadium.
But Tanner left coaching last summer to become the Gamecocks' athletic director, after his team lost in the CWS Finals to Arizona and Andy Lopez. The victory tied Lopez with Tanner and three other active coaches with two national championships: Oregon State's Pat Casey, Stanford's Mark Marquess and Miami's Morris.
The New List
With Tanner retired, that quartet makes a strong case as the next set of college baseball royalty. Lopez, 59, has taken three schools to Omaha, won titles 20 years apart and is still going strong. He's also the only coach mentioned yet in this column who has been fired, when his Florida tenure ended.
Casey, 53, coached repeat winners, and Oregon State sticks out in recent CWS history for its lack of previous pedigree and geographic location. However, the Beavers have made just seven regional trips; Marquess and Morris both have more CWS trips than Casey has made regionals.
Marquess, 64, is still going strong in his 37th season, with another preseason Top 10 team. A third title, combined with his pro alumni, longevity and consistency, would put Marquess on another level. But Stanford hasn't won a national title since 1988, with only one CWS trip since 2003.
Morris, 62, has a similar resume: two titles (1999, 2001), more than 1,350 victories and a gentle slide from his peak. Morris took Miami to Omaha 11 times in his first 15 seasons, but not since 2008, losing its place as a national power since leaving independent status behind and joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. Moreover, Miami has lost stature in a pair of PED cases—the 2010 arrest of Frankie Ratcliffe and the January revelations in the Miami New Times implicating the program's strength and conditioning coach, pro alumni Cesar Carrillo and Yasmani Grandal, and Alex Rodriguez, whose name is on the Hurricanes' stadium.
Casey is the youngest of that quartet, and even he has openly discussed retirement. It's likely that the next group of great college baseball coaches—candidates for a 21st century Mount Rushmore for the sport—will involve different names, different coaches.
Some coaches are just a national title (or two) away from joining this conversation. A CWS championship is all that is missing from the resume of Florida State's 67-year-old Mike Martin, whose consistency, 1,723 victories and good nature make him a favorite of his peers. North Carolina's Mike Fox and Arkansas' Dave Van Horn have similar resumes, with national titles at lower levels (Division III for Fox, D-II for Van Horn) and multiple Omaha trips. A national title for either puts them on an inside track for college baseball immortality.
John Savage has taken UCLA to Omaha twice in three seasons, after the Bruins had made just two trips prior to 2010. If Savage builds UCLA into a true West Coast dynasty in the rugged Pac-12, he'll be the face of West Coast baseball in his time.
Oregon's George Horton may have something to say about that, considering he won a national championship in 2004 at Cal State Fullerton and has built the Ducks into an Omaha contender in short order, losing in a super regional in just their fourth season. At 59, Horton is older than others in the group and got his start later, becoming a D-I head coach at 47. But making Oregon a champion would give him a resume similar to that of Lopez.
Younger coaches have more time to state their cases. Former Clemson assistants Tim Corbin of Vanderbilt and Kevin O'Sullivan of Florida have built Southeastern Conference powers, with the Gators making three straight CWS trips. Corbin's program had further to go and has produced scads of pro players, but has only one Omaha trip in his 10 seasons, and he'll have to adjust to the loss of top assistants Josh Holliday and Derek Johnson this offseason.
Holliday just became a head coach, taking over at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, and assembling a talented staff. Holliday's talent evaluation skills, deep roster of recruiting contacts and passion for college baseball could make him the next great head coach.
The game has changed enough that it's hard for anyone to have a Dedeaux dynasty, or affect the game's bottom line as Fraser did. It's up to these coaches to lead the sport into its next era, to make their own lasting mark on the game.