Baylor Baseball Coaching Search, Job Profile And Candidates
Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez stepped down last Monday, bringing an end to a seven-year tenure in Waco. He went 197-146 overall leading the Bears and 67-75 in Big 12 games.
Rodriguez got Baylor turned around quickly after taking the job. After an under-.500 campaign in 2016, he had the Bears back in a regional in 2017, the first of three straight regional appearances for the program.
They also won the Big 12 Tournament in 2018 for the first time in program history and in 2019 they finished in second place in the Big 12, one game behind Texas Tech. That team was led by catcher Shea Langeliers, who was drafted ninth overall, making him the second-highest player in program history.
Baylor never could take the next step, however. In those three regionals, Baylor went 2-6, including 0-3 in opening games. Both of its wins were against No. 4 seeds in elimination games.
There has also been an indisputable decline the last couple of seasons. After a 10-6 record during the pandemic-shortened season, the Bears stumbled late in 2021 and were the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament. Last season they finished eighth in the nine-team Big 12 with a 7-17 conference record, albeit in a season that was marred by myriad pitching injuries.
Whether it was frustration over the lack of advancement in postseason play or the missed regionals each of the last two years, Baylor clearly wants more from its baseball program, and now it’s in the market for just its third coach since 1995.
Previous Head Coach
Steve Rodriguez: 197-146, seven seasons
Baylor, a Big 12 program with history, is an attractive job, but just how good it is in 2022 is hard to say, exactly, and involves some unknowable factors. There are only so many power conference jobs in America and that puts a premium on the Baylor job. But does a new-look Big 12 in the coming years hurt or help? Baylor Ballpark is a good facility, but is quickly falling behind nationally as other programs build and renovate. Baylor has rigorous academics and a high cost of attendance, which doesn’t make things easy in recruiting, but the brand is strong after the men’s basketball national title last year and its location in central Texas means access to talent isn’t an issue. Baylor’s floor is extremely high, but it remains to be seen where the ceiling is in the current college baseball climate.
What are the expectations?
Baylor has been a relatively consistent regional team in the 64-team era but has done so without competing at the top of the Big 12 very often. How much higher is it setting its sights in the new Big 12? Between 1999-2012, the Bears hosted four regionals, went to four super regionals and made the trip to the College World Series in 2005. During that time, they also missed a regional just twice. The right coach might be able to return them to that kind of success, but the school might have to be willing to really pay for it and even then it’s no guarantee with how much the landscape has changed in college baseball since Baylor’s heyday.
Will this be another outside-the-box hire?
Because it’s in Texas, it’s easy to auto-fill this job with any number of successful sitting head coaches or assistant coaches within the state’s borders, but that kind of hire isn’t what athletic director Mack Rhoades has been known for at Baylor. His two football coaching hires are a great example. Neither Matt Rhule nor Dave Aranda were the first names on anyone’s lips when the Bears were looking for their football coach and both worked out well. For that matter, while he was hired by a previous athletic director, Rodriguez, a Pepperdine grad who was coaching at his alma mater, was a non-traditional hire when Baylor made the move in 2015. Will this coaching search result in something similarly outside of the box?
Job number one for the new Baylor coach is going to be re-recruiting the current roster. Shortly after Rodriguez stepped down, Jared McKenzie, Tre Richardson, Jack Pineda and Kyle Nevin all entered the transfer portal. Those were the four best hitters in the Baylor order last season, so while McKenzie is likely to be drafted and signed this summer, it would behoove the new coach to try to find a way to get the other three back if the professional opportunities aren’t there for them. If he can do so, the pieces are in place for the Bears to have a solid lineup. If not, it’s something close to a total rebuild. The pitching might be a significant rebuilding job regardless. Tyler Thomas, the team’s best pitcher when he was healthy, is out of eligibility. The same goes for Jake Jackson, who led the team in innings. Returners to be optimistic about include righthanders Will Rigney and Mason Marriott, but Rigney has battled injuries for most of the last three seasons and Marriott hit some speed bumps as a freshman. In the big picture, Baylor went 7-17 in the Big 12 last season for a reason, so it’s reasonable to expect the 2023 roster will look quite a bit different.
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Since coming to Baylor in 2016, athletic director Mack Rhoades has had to make some big hires and has not been afraid to look outside the box for candidates. Expect a similar approach in this search. Baylor is one of two Big 12 jobs open, but with Kansas being the other, there won’t necessarily be a heavy competition for candidates.
The list has to start with Dallas Baptist’s Dan Heefner. Baylor interviewed him seven years ago but he ultimately pulled out of the search. There’s no question of his qualifications or his fit, but there’s also no guarantee his answer will be any different in 2022 than it was in 2015. If that is the case, Baylor could call Louisiana State assistant coach Dan Fitzgerald, who spent nine years on staff under Heefner before last year moving to Baton Rouge. He certainly understands the keys to DBU’s success, though he isn’t as experienced as other candidates.
If experience is what Baylor wants, Rob Childress, 53, would more than check that box. He spent 16 years as coach at Texas A&M and led the Aggies to 13 regionals and two College World Series appearances. He was not retained last season after a last-place finish in the SEC West and spent this year on staff at Nebraska. While Childress in the end wasn’t retained, he’s shown he knows how to win at a high level and could help Baylor take the next step.
Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs has built an impressive program. He last year led the Bulldogs to their best season in 30 years as they hosted a regional and this year they won the Conference USA Tournament. Burroughs also has high-level experience as an assistant coach at Mississippi State, making for a strong, well-rounded resume.
Like Burroughs, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Matt Deggs has built a strong, well-rounded resume in the area. He this year led the Ragin’ Cajuns to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Sun Belt Tournament in his third season at the program’s helm. Previously, he spent five years as head coach at Sam Houston State and took the Bearkats to super regionals in 2017. He’s also been an assistant coach at Arkansas and Texas A&M.
If Baylor wants to think outside the box, Maryland coach Rob Vaughn could be a target. At 34, he’s the youngest major-conference coach in college baseball and he’s coming off a banner season with the Terrapins that saw them win the Big Ten and host a regional for the first time in program history. Vaughn has been vocal about wanting to stay at Maryland and build a program, but the last two Maryland coaches quickly parlayed their success into jobs at more committed programs—Erik Bakich at Michigan and John Szefc at Virginia Tech. Vaughn is a Texas native and played and coached at Kansas State, giving him some Big 12 experience.
Texas’ Sean Allen is probably the Big 12 assistant coach most ready to be a head coach and he’d be a fit 100 miles up I-35 in Waco. He has spent the last 10 years on staff under David Pierce, working at Sam Houston State, Tulane and Texas. He’s gotten experience as a hitting coach, pitching coach and recruiting coordinator, giving him a well-rounded resume that should ease the transition to a head job.
Mississippi State assistant coach Jake Gautreau is one of the most respected assistants in the country and while he pulled out of the search at Tulane, his alma mater, a Big 12 job could be a different story. He’s a Texas native and brings national championship pedigree, having helped the Bulldogs to the 2021 title.
There’s some support among people close to the program for McLennan (Texas) JC coach Mitch Thompson, who was a longtime assistant at Baylor under Steve Smith. Thompson last year led McLennan to a national championship and he knows what it takes to be successful at Baylor. While there are many current head coaches with junior college experience, going straight from junior college to a major conference head job would be unusual in the 21st century. Thompson’s experience at Baylor might smooth any unease, but no Big 12 coach has been hired out of the junior college ranks since Kansas State’s Mike Clark in 1986.