Sizing Up The College Baseball Coaching Market In 2021

Image credit: Central Michigan coach Jordan Bischel (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan)

The pandemic’s effects were last summer acutely felt on the coaching job market. College baseball over the last five years has averaged about 30 head coaching changes annually. In 2020, however, there were just 14 head coaching changes—a number that is inflated by a planned retirement and two schools removing the interim tag that their coaches operated with during last season. One job has already opened in 2021, as Ohio coach Rob Smith retired after eight seasons in Athens.

What does the 2021 job market hold? A return to form or another summer of inactivity brought on by financial austerity and greater patience? The answer probably lies somewhere in between, with not enough major conference jobs opening to really heat the market up, but more movement than a year ago at the lower levels.

With Opening Day fast approaching, here’s a look at some of the factors that will drive this year’s coaching market and what to be watching throughout the spring.

What Effect Will The Pandemic Have?

Last summer, with college sports reeling both emotionally and financially after the cancellation of winter and spring sports championships and the entire spring sports season, few coaching changes were in the works.

Only one major conference baseball job turned over during the 2020 offseason—Mike Fox retired after 22 years at North Carolina and his longtime assistant Scott Forbes was promoted to replace him. Men’s basketball also saw only one change among the major conferences, though women’s basketball did have five major conference changes.

By fall, however, with football able to proceed with its season, the coaching market began to thaw. Seven Power Five conference jobs opened, including four in the SEC alone. The men’s basketball job market is off to an early start, as Boston College this week fired Jim Christian.

Baseball is not football or basketball, the two biggest revenue generators for college sports and the two most likely to engage the kind of donor support needed to pay significant buyouts. That would seem to reinforce the notion that baseball this summer would have a slower job market.

But even at the top end of the market in a normal season, few programs are willing to fire a coach with multiple years left on his contract and pay a large buyout. Baseball coaches also generally have lower salaries and shorter contracts than their football and basketball counterparts, which could make a coaching change more palatable in baseball than in other sports.

Ultimately, few major conference jobs are likely to open this summer due in part to the pandemic’s effects, both financially and in making it harder to evaluate a coach’s progress this year, and in part because so many of those jobs have turned over in the last few years.

For schools in mid- and low-major conferences, however, the calculus is a bit different. In some situations, a job change could be a chance for an athletic director to upgrade at coach and come out at least cost neutral. With cost-cutting taking place throughout universities, an athletic director could look to offer a new hire a smaller guaranteed contract than the current head coach, perhaps with incentive clauses making up the difference. Others may see this year as an opportunity with fewer major conference jobs open to attract a level of coach who would not ordinarily be in the mix for their job.

An unknown at all levels is how coaches themselves will react to the last year. When announcing his retirement, Fox said he enjoyed spending more time with his family and that helped inform his decision. Other coaches, having gone back through the grind of a season, could come to the same conclusion. Some assistant coaches who have been comfortable making good money at major programs may look differently at head coaching opportunities after a year of being off the road for recruiting and of little to no camp money coming in.

The pandemic’s effects will certainly color the 2021 coaching market and more to come in the future, but don’t look for it to totally freeze up this summer.

Who Will Lead The Market?

So, if we assume there will be a more active job market this summer, which schools will be at the front of it?

Given the unprecedented nature of the last year, no coach enters the season on a particularly hot seat. There are, however, a few major conference coaches who are in the final season of their contracts: Minnesota’s John Anderson, Michigan State’s Jake Boss and Texas A&M’s Rob Childress.

Anderson ranks second among all active coaches with 1,325 career wins and his track record has earned him the right to decide his own future. The situations at Michigan State and Texas A&M warrant further inspection, however.

Childress is 592-207-3 in 15 seasons at Texas A&M, has made the last 13 NCAA Tournaments, twice guided the Aggies to the College World Series and in 2016 won the SEC Tournament. At most major conference programs, that track record would be plenty. But, as it stands, a contract extension has not come.

Boss is 342-275 in 12 seasons at Michigan State. He led the Spartans to a share of the 2011 Big Ten regular-season title and they reached the NCAA Tournament the following year for the first time since 1979. Since that peak they haven’t been quite as good, and the Spartans have missed the Big Ten Tournament in two of the last three conference seasons. Still, Michigan State has made impressive progress as a program under Boss.

At this point, no decision in College Station or East Lansing would come as a surprise. If either job opened, it would draw significant interest. But there’s also a compelling case for a contract extension in both cases.

There are a number of coaches whose contracts expire in 2022 who could end up on the hot seat with a poor season this spring. But unless a powerhouse slips in a big way this spring or there’s a surprise retirement, the top of the coaching market should be relatively quiet this summer.

So, where will the open jobs come from? Few major conference jobs should be expected to open. Some solid mid-major programs may look to make a change and could end up with better-than-average candidate pools due to the lack of major openings.

There are also a handful of programs that enter 2021 under the direction of interim head coaches, including Alabama-Birmingham, Ohio, Southern and UC Riverside. While that group is now in the hands of coaches who have been a part of the program for several years, seeing at least a couple open broader searches would not be a surprise (though in UCR’s case, the university must decide whether it wants to continue sponsoring an athletic department).

After a year that saw only five coaches hired from outside the program, there is a backlog of qualified job candidates. How choosy both coaches and athletic directors are in 2021 will be interesting to see.

Rising Stars

As the spring begins, it’s a good time to look at which coaches are on the rise. Here are five mid-major coaches who may be a little off the radar now, but could this spring elevate their profile.

Jordan Bischel, Central Michigan: In two seasons at CMU, Bischel has led the Chippewas to a 58-20 record, the 2019 Mid-American Conference title and their first regionals appearance since 1995. CMU again returns a veteran team that projects to again challenge for a conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance.

Justin Blood, Hartford: Blood, 41, is entering his 10th season at Hartford and has done an impressive job with the program. When he arrived, the Hawks had not had a winning record since 1992. He ended that run in 2014 and in 2018 guided them to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Hartford is chasing another title this spring as the favorite in the America East.

Reggie Christiansen, Sacramento State: Over the last decade, Christiansen has built Sac State into one of the most consistent programs in California and has led the Hornets to their only three regionals appearances in program history. His roots in California and the Midwest (as an assistant coach at Kansas and head coach at South Dakota State) make for an interesting profile.

Jeff Duncan, Kent State: The Golden Flashes’ last four head coaches (Bob Todd, Danny Hall, Rick Rembielak and Scott Stricklin) all eventually left for jobs in the Big Ten, ACC or SEC. Duncan figures to follow in their footsteps sooner or later. In six full seasons as the program’s head coach, Duncan has averaged 36 wins and led the team to three regular-season titles and two MAC Tournament titles.

Alex Sogard, Wright State: The Raiders’ last three coaches moved on to bigger jobs (Penn State’s Rob Cooper, Central Florida’s Greg Lovelady and Indiana’s Jeff Mercer) and Sogard could be the next to make such a move. In 2019, his first season as head coach, he led Wright State to a 41-15 record and a regular-season Horizon League title. This year’s team is again the HL favorite and will be eyeing a return to regionals.

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