12 Coaches Who Will Define College Baseball In The 2020s
As the end of the decade approaches, Baseball America is looking ahead to the 2020s. Earlier this week, we identified 10 mid-major programs poised to break through in the next decade. Today, we identify a dozen coaches who will define the 2020s.
The last decade saw many longtime greats of college coaching reach the end of their careers. Mike Martin and Augie Garrido, the two winningest coaches of all-time, retired, as did Mike Gillespie, Wayne Graham, Mark Marquess, Jim Morris and Gene Stephenson.
But with the exception of Martin, the torch had largely already been passed to the next generation. The 2010s belonged to coaches like Tim Corbin, Paul Mainieri, Brian O’Connor, Kevin O’Sullivan and John Savage.
At this time 10 years ago, most of the coaches who would come to define the 2010s were well under 60 and already head coaches at the school at which they would have their biggest success. They either had broken through on a national level at the end of the 2000s or would do so in the first couple years of the 2010s and then remained at an elite level.
That profile served as a guide in identifying candidates for this list. It includes many coaches who defined the 2010s. But new faces will emerge at the forefront of the sport in the decade to come. Here are a dozen to watch.
Erik Bakich, Michigan
Bakich, 42, this year guided Michigan to a runner-up finish at the College World Series, delivering the breakthrough season the Wolverines had been on the cusp of for a few years. He’s returned Michigan to its position in the top tier of the Big Ten and the 2019 season showed it can compete nationally, as well.
Bakich was already a popular name in coaching searches before the Omaha run. That interest will continue – and possibly intensify as the Wolverines win at a higher level – and there’s little doubt Bakich would win wherever he went. He’s also an affable figure whose voice is increasingly prominent in the efforts to improve the sport.
Bakich is set up to continue winning at a high level at Michigan and no matter whether he stays in Ann Arbor throughout the 2020s or not, he and his teams are going to be at college baseball’s forefront.
Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt
Corbin is one of the coaches who defined the 2010s, thanks to his two national championships, four CWS appearances and three SEC titles, as well as his important role in advancing the sport’s agenda. His coaching tree is flourishing, as Erik Bakich and Josh Holliday, two of his former recruiting coordinators have both taken their own teams to Omaha, and former pitching coach Derek Johnson is now well established in the same role in the big leagues.
All of that seems likely to continue into the 2020s. While Corbin turned 58 in August, he’s shown no signs of slowing down and retirement remains well down the road. All that means he should remain at the sport’s forefront well into the next decade.
Josh Holliday, Oklahoma State
In 2016, his fourth season at the helm of his alma mater, Holliday led Oklahoma State to the College World Series for the first time since 1999. In seven seasons overall as head coach, he’s never missed the NCAA Tournament and he’s won both the Big 12 and Big 12 Tournament.
Holliday, 43, could take Oklahoma State to the next level in the next decade. The Cowboys this spring will move into the new O’Brate Stadium, a much-anticipated upgrade on the 40-year old Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. He also made a pair of splashy hires this summer, bringing Marty Lees, his former recruiting coordinator, back to Stillwater after a stint as Washington State head coach and hiring Matt Holliday, his brother and seven-time MLB All-Star. Adding them to a staff that already included pitching coach Rob Walton, the 2016 Assistant Coach of the Year, gives the Cowboys one of the best coaching staffs in the nation.
Chris Lemonis, Mississippi State
Lemonis is coming off a historic first season in Starkville that saw him guide the Bulldogs to a College World Series appearance and a 52-win season, making him the winningest first-year coach in SEC history. That only served to burnish his reputation as a winner after he took Indiana to regionals three times in four years as head coach in Bloomington.
As the 2020s begin, Lemonis, 46, is well-positioned for success. The new Dudy Noble Field opened last spring, a glimmering, $68 million gem of a facility. In athletic director John Cohen, he has a boss who has a complete understanding of what the program needs to succeed. And he has a strong foundation to work from, both in recruiting and recent on-field performance.
Dan McDonnell, Louisville
McDonnell did just about everything at Louisville over the last decade. He led the Cardinals to Omaha, shepherded them through conference realignment and into the Atlantic Coast Conference where they instantly became one of the conference’s dominant programs, produced a Player of the Year when Brendan McKay developed into the country’s best player in 2017 and served as the American Baseball Coaches Association’s Division I chairman.
Really all that’s left for McDonnell is to win a national championship. And the Cardinals are running at such a high level that a dogpile in Omaha seems almost inevitable sometime over the next decade. McDonnell will also remain among the sport’s leaders as he is slated to ascend to the ABCA presidency in 2021.
Jeff Mercer, Indiana
Mercer, 34, has only been a head coach for three years and is the second-youngest head coach at the Power Five level. But he’s had a very impressive start to his career, which began with two seasons at Wright State, before jumping to Indiana after the 2018 season. He’s won back-to-back conference titles and compiled a 113-57 record to start his career.
Mercer obviously has the shortest track record of anyone on this list and he still needs to prove he can recruit at an elite level as his experience as an assistant coach came primarily at Western Kentucky and Wright State. But he’s a natural fit at Indiana and has what it takes to be a successful recruiter. Indiana is one of the Big Ten’s most committed programs and one of two that reached the CWS last decade. He’ll also be in demand for even bigger jobs if he keeps winning. Regardless, he’s in a position to in the next decade emerge as one of the stars of the profession.
Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida
Trying to find the Kevin O’Sullivan of the 2020s was the initial inspiration for this article. At this time in 2009, he had led Florida to regionals in his first two seasons and was coming off a super regionals appearance. Over the next 10 seasons, he would guide the Gators to a national championship, seven CWS appearances and four 50-win seasons. Florida has a strong argument as the team of the 2010s and O’Sullivan as the best coach of the decade.
O’Sullivan turns 51 this week and is firmly entrenched at Florida. The Gators will open a new $65 million stadium in 2021 that should instantly become one of the best parks in the country. Florida is already recruiting at an elite level (it’s landed seven-straight top-five classes) and the new stadium will only aid those efforts.
2020 NCAA Top 25 Preview: No. 2 Louisville
If Louisville simply plays to its talent level and experience, it will have the inside track to get to Omaha.
John Savage, UCLA
During the last decade under Savage, 54, UCLA established itself as California’s premier program and one of college baseball’s elite. Savage guided the Bruins to the national title in 2013, made appearances in Omaha two other times, won the Pac-12 four times and produced both a No. 1 overall pick (Gerrit Cole) and a Player of the Year (Trevor Bauer).
No one in the Pac-12 has recruited better than UCLA under Savage and his ability to land the best talent in Southern California helped lead to the Bruins’ rise. He’s regarded as one of the best pitching coaches in the country and, with the turnover at Oregon State, there’s no doubt that the Bruins are the program everyone is chasing in the conference.
Jim Schlossnagle, Texas Christian
Schlossnagle was one of the breakout stars of the last decade. He led TCU to the College World Series five times, including four straight appearances from 2014-17, and won Coach of the Year in 2016. He also shepherded the Horned Frogs from the Mountain West Conference into the Big 12, which they won twice in their first five years in the league. Additionally, he has become a significant voice on many issues in the game and is in line to ascend to the ABCA presidency in a few years.
TCU over the last two years has taken a step back from its incredible heights. But the Horned Frogs are recruiting as well as any team in the Big 12 and should return to national prominence. Additionally, Schlossnagle has recently been in the mix for some of the nation’s biggest jobs and he may still have another act in his career.
Schlossnagle, 49, is certain to be in the heart of the action in the next decade. His biggest remaining goal is winning a national championship and he’ll make a run at it in the 2020s.
Scott Stricklin, Georgia
Stricklin was often in the headlines in the last decade, first for taking Kent State on a Cinderella run to the College World Series in 2012 and then for his work at bringing Georgia back to prominence at the end of the decade.
It was a slow start in Athens for Stricklin, as the Bulldogs finished under .500 in each of his first four seasons at the helm. But the seeds were laid for success and in each of the last two seasons, Georgia has earned a top-eight national seed. He’ll start the 2020s with an Omaha favorite and in Emerson Hancock a leading candidate for both the No. 1 overall pick and Player of the Year.
Stricklin, 47, is carrying plenty of momentum into the 2020s. He’s established himself in one of college baseball’s premium jobs and while competing with Florida and Vanderbilt isn’t easy, he looks to have Georgia up to the task.
Tim Tadlock, Texas Tech
Tadlock wasted little time turning Texas Tech into a national power. He took over the program in 2013 and the next year guided his alma mater to its first ever College World Series appearance. He would lead the Red Raiders to Omaha three more times before the decade was over and win three Big 12 titles.
Tadlock, 51, has Texas Tech roaring into the 2020s. The Red Raiders have become perennial contenders not only in the Big 12 but also on a national level. Tadlock is entrenched in Lubbock, where he is a perfect fit, and this program is running at a high level. He should be able to keep this going into the next decade.
Butch Thompson, Auburn
Thompson, the 2014 Assistant Coach of the Year, spent 14 years as an assistant coach in the SEC before Auburn hired him as head coach in the fall of 2015. In his first four seasons as a head coach, he’s already taken Auburn to heights the program hasn’t seen since the turn of the century. He led the Tigers to the College World Series in 2019, their first appearance since 1997, and helped develop Casey Mize into the No. 1 overall pick in 2018.
The SEC West is rugged, and Auburn doesn’t have some of the advantages its competition enjoys. That hasn’t mattered to this point, but it is something Thompson, 49, will have to overcome to make the Tigers a consistent Omaha threat. If anyone can do it, Thompson is the man. And, if we rewound the clock 10 years, similar things could have been said about Brian O’Connor at Virginia. At the end of the 2020s, perhaps Thompson and Auburn will be viewed in a similar light.