Tim Esmay has resigned after five seasons as Arizona State’s head coach. Esmay, who had one year left on his contract, went 201-94-1 in his tenure at ASU, and his .680 winning percentage at Arizona State is the best among active Pacific-12 Conference coaches.
Esmay took over a program in turmoil after Pat Murphy was forced out as a result of an NCAA investigation into rules violations in December of 2009. Esmay led with a steady hand that first year, guiding the Sun Devils to a 52-10 record and a trip to the College World Series. The following year, with the specter of a potential NCAA tournament ban hanging over the program all season while the Sun Devils waited for the NCAA to rule on their appeal, Arizona State finished tied for second in the conference, hosted a regional and advanced to super regionals.
But ASU has been a middle-of-the-Pac team over the last three years. It went 36-20 overall and 18-12 in the Pac-12 in 2012, when it was ineligible for the postseason. The Sun Devils went 37-22 (16-14) in 2013, and 33-24 (19-11) this spring, finishing in fourth place last year and third this year. They fell in the Fullerton Regional final in 2013, then went 0-2 in the San Luis Obispo regional this season. ASU never cracked the Baseball America Top 25 in 2014, for the first year ever.
Arizona State’s talent level has dipped markedly since the Murphy years, although the lingering NCAA investigation, postseason ban and scholarship penalties certainly did not help recruiting. Esmay deserves significant credit for stabilizing the program during a turbulent period, but Ray Anderson, Arizona State’s first-year athletic director, made public statements late in the season that he was not satisfied with the baseball team’s performance and promised a thorough review. Ultimately he decided it was time to bring in his own man to restore Arizona State baseball to national prominence as it moves from Packard Stadium to Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 2015.
Arizona State is a premier program—albeit one that hasn’t won a national championship since 1981—and the job will attract plenty of interest from accomplished coaches. But to land a marquee coach, Arizona State must show more willingness to pay its head coach and assistants salaries commensurate with what other top programs are paying.
Some potential targets:
• Grand Canyon head coach Andy Stankiewicz, a former major leaguer who spent time on Arizona State’s coaching staff before shepherding Grand Canyon through a Division I transition. He’s a hot name in the ranks of rising college coaches.
• Pepperdine’s Steve Rodriguez, whose Waves became the first West Coast Conference team to win a regional in the 64-team era this spring and are on the brink of the College World Series.
• San Diego’s Rich Hill, who has turned the Toreros into one of the more consistent programs in the West, though they are still seeking their first trip to super regionals.
• Indiana’s Tracy Smith, who guided the Hoosiers to Omaha last year and to a national seed this year. Smith has recruiting ties in Southern California, and his big personality and aggressive style of play would be a natural fit at ASU.
• New Mexico’s Ray Birmingham, like Smith, has turned an afterthought program into a consistent winner. His grinder mentality and recruiting ties in the area would make him a great fit.
• Florida International coach Turtle Thomas, an accomplished recruiter who spent a year on Murphy’s staff at Arizona State.
• UC Santa Barbara’s Andrew Checketts, one of college baseball’s most highly regarded younger coaches for his ability to recruit and develop pitching. He’s on the fast track to serious stardom in the coaching world.
• Pat Murphy, currently the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas manager. The Sun Devils welcomed Murphy back to Packard Stadium this year to honor his great teams of the 2000s, and they might consider bringing him back as head coach—he won three straight Pac-12 titles in his final three seasons, after all. If Bruce Pearl (now at Auburn) can return to coaching a major college basketball program after receiving a show-cause penalty from the NCAA, there’s no reason Murphy should be blackballed from coaching again, and few coaches can match his track record of winning. It would be a bold move by Anderson, and it is a long shot, but there are plenty of Arizona State boosters and prominent alumni who would welcome it.