Tim Esmay's winning percentage in five years at Arizona State was higher than any other active Pacific-12 Conference coach. But when the Sun Devils went 0-2 as a No. 2 seed in the San Luis Obispo Regional, first-year ASU athletic director Ray Anderson made the bold move to replace Esmay as head coach. Or maybe that is the wrong word choice.
“I didn't consider it a bold move. I considered it a very necessary one that we owed to our student-athletes and our institution," Anderson told Baseball America.
This summer marks a very important moment for a very important program in college baseball. Arizona State is a prominent member of the sport's royal family, along with Southern California, Texas, Louisiana State, Cal State Fullerton, Miami and Arizona. Anderson, a Southern California native who played baseball and football at Stanford, has always viewed ASU in that light. He admitted that when he was hired last winter, he was surprised to learn that the Sun Devils haven't won the College World Series since 1981.
“The program had such an aura and history about it that you just thought they were winning championships all along," Anderson said. “As I came in here, it really just occurred to me that that history could be recaptured, because you have everything here in terms of the history, location, abiliy to recruit, all the major league training camps—they're all here for a reason.
“It didn't make sense to me that Arizona State wasn't doing consistently what they did in the '80s, which is scare everybody out of the park half the time, then just beat them the other half of the time. I had a sense, very frankly, in my first couple months here that it just wasn't occurring, so a change needed to be made. Mediocrity, or finishing second, third or fourth for four or five years in a row, is not good enough at a program like this. This program should be vying all the time for a real championship opportunity."
Despite its national championship drought, Arizona State retained its mystique during the Pat Murphy era because it churned out big leaguers and conference titles. But ASU's commitment to its baseball program lagged far behind other national powers, both in terms of coaching salaries and facilities.
Dawn Of A New Era
The Sun Devils will move into a new home in 2015, replacing 40-year-old Packard Stadium—which Anderson referred to as “iconic" but “outdated"—with Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the former spring training home of the Oakland Athletics. It is being renovated this offseason for Arizona State, and it will provide a dramatically better baseball experience for the players and the fans alike.
Anderson acknowledged that ASU also needed to ramp up its financial commitment to offer a salary commensurate with the market in order to land a marquee head coach. And that's just what the Sun Devils did, luring Tracy Smith away from Indiana, where he had transformed the Hoosiers from an afterthought into a program capable of reaching Omaha and earning a national seed in back-to-back years.
Smith said he was perfectly happy at Indiana, where he made a comfortable living and was enjoying the fruits of a beautiful, one-year-old ballpark. But Arizona State still has real cachet.
“When they called, Arizona State baseball and tradition go hand in hand, so I was interested," Smith said. “Had it not been Arizona State, I'm not getting on that plane to go talk to them, I'll tell you that.
“I love just really connecting to the tradition of the past, I enjoy that stuff. I'm not just a guy who hits fungoes and throws BP."
Smith's big personality presents a striking contrast from Esmay's more understated disposition. For a program with huge ambition, the bold Smith is the perfect fit. And that's the right word choice.
“I want to be a part of a program that, there is that expectation," Smith said. “That is an expected part of the job description, that you are going to manage more than just your team. The media, alumni, fan base, all that, I love that contact and interaction, and I embrace that. I see that as a big part of the responsibility. I told them that during the interview: Whoever they hire has to have that understanding, because this is a larger than life program."
It hasn't been quite so large lately, but it will be again, and soon.