Kansas Baseball Coaching Search, Job Profile And Candidates
Kansas coach Ritch Price on Sunday announced his retirement, bringing an end to a 20-year tenure in Lawrence that saw him lead the Jayhawks to a 581-558-3 record overall and 184-291-1 mark in the Big 12.
KU made three regionals under Price, in 2006, 2009 and 2014, with the 2006 team standing out as arguably the best under Price. At 13-14 in the Big 12, it wasn’t Price’s best team at Kansas in terms of conference record, but it was the only one to win 40 or more games in a season (43) and the only one to win the Big 12 Tournament.
The success Price brought to Kansas in the front half of his tenure is impossible to ignore. The three highest win totals for Price at KU came during this time in 2005 (36), 2006 (43) and 2009 (39), and the 2009 team advanced to a regional final. That was real progress for a program that had only been to two regionals, in 1993 and 1994, prior to Price’s arrival.
Things also undeniably flattened out in the second half of his time at Kansas. There were some near-misses, including in 2019 when the Jayhawks were a win or two away from being on the right side of the bubble, but 2014 represents the only time KU has made it to the postseason in the last 13 seasons. Things also bottomed out in 2022, with the Jayhawks finishing 20-35 overall and 4-20 in Big 12 play.
Assuming Price isn’t drawn back into coaching at some point in the future, this is also the end of a 40-year run as a head coach that dates back to 1983, when he was hired at Menlo (Calif.) College. After a stop at De Anza (Calif.) JC, Price landed at Cal Poly, where he guided the Mustangs through the transition to Division I and went 217-228-1 over eight seasons.
Price is well liked within the profession and is universally well regarded by his peers as an evaluator and developer of talent, and yet it was often a fight to keep the Jayhawks from finishing near the bottom of the Big 12 standings. That goes to show how tough the job is, but nevertheless, the KU administration will now go about trying to find the coach who can lead the program to uncharted waters as a more consistent postseason contender.
Previous Head Coach
Ritch Price: 581-558-3, 20 seasons
It’s hard to avoid defining Kansas by anything other than its limitations. It’s at a geographic disadvantage to most of the rest of the Big 12 both in terms of weather and in availability of high school talent. Its facilities are a step behind the rest of the conference, especially now that in-state rival Kansas State has completed a massive renovation and Oklahoma State has built a new stadium. Kansas is working on its own renovation plans, but those are still a few years away. There also just isn’t that much history on its side, with just five regional appearances to its name—although the 1993 team did make a surprise run to the College World Series—and no conference regular season titles since 1949. As with all power conference jobs, there is upside. At-large bids are in reach in these leagues and the money trickling down from football and basketball will always make programs like KU more of a financial have than a have not. But there’s no getting around that this is one of the tougher power conference jobs in the country.
What will Kansas be willing to pay?
According to 2021 data from Athletic Director U, Price’s total compensation at KU was $510,000, which put him right in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 (though that included a retention bonus of $125,000. His base salary of $385,000 ranked him more typically in the bottom third of the conference). Kansas is likely to keep a similar salary structure going forward, which could impact the caliber of coach it can attract.
Can Kansas find a niche?
With jobs as difficult as this one, a coach has to find a way to zig when everyone else zags, or at the very least, have a very clear identity around which to build and recruit. As a member of the Big 12, Kansas really hasn’t had any of that. It has had some standout players, but hasn’t ever had a consistent identity beyond being the scrappy underdog that tries to do more with less, which is less of an identity and more of a stark reality of its life in the Big 12. Might KU consider an outside-the-box hire or a coach with a clear blueprint in program building that’s different from the rest of the conference?
Where will they go without a coaching tree?
Price was extremely loyal to his assistant coaches throughout his time in Lawrence. Associate head coach and pitching coach Ryan Graves joined Price’s staff at Cal Poly in 1999 and was with him the entire time at Kansas. Price’s son, Ritchie Price, joined the staff ahead of the 2012 season after three years as the head coach at South Dakota State. The result is that there isn’t much of a coaching tree to speak of, at least among coaches in position to be considered for the opening this time around, and that would seem to increase the likelihood that the next man in the job is something of an outsider to the program.
The roster next season looks on paper like it will be a blank slate for the next coach. After Price’s announcement, shortstop Maui Ahuna, who would have been in the running to be the first Big 12 player taken in the 2023 draft, put his name in the transfer portal. The two best hitters other than Ahuna, Nolan Metcalf and Caleb Upshaw, are out of eligibility. Tavian Josenberger brings some excitement as a leadoff hitter and hit 13 doubles this spring. On the mound, two weekend starters, Daniel Hegarty and Cole Larsen, have also exhausted eligibility. Fellow starting pitcher Ryan Vanderhei, who has far and away the best stuff of the three, has eligibility remaining, but he’s likely to be drafted. The bad news is that means the 2023 roster will be short on proven performance, but the good news is that it will allow the kind of roster turnover that’s necessary for Kansas to begin rebuilding after a very tough 2022 season.
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While Kansas has significant challenges, it’s still a major conference job and will draw interest. The right fit will be key, but in the new-look Big 12, perhaps there will be an opening for the Jayhawks to take a step forward.
Sacramento State coach Reggie Christiansen brings both a connection to Kansas (he was an assistant coach with the Jayhawks from 2003-04) and a strong track record as a head coach. He’s built the Hornets into one of the most consistent programs in California (since 2012, only UCLA, Stanford and UC Santa Barbara have won more games) and led them to the only three NCAA Tournament appearances in program history (2014, 2017 and 2019). Prior to taking over at Sac State, he was the head coach at South Dakota State for four years, deepening his ties to the area.
Arkansas assistant coach Nate Thompson is a Kansas native and has guided one of the top offenses in the country over the last five years at Arkansas. Prior to that, he also stood out for his work in the same role at Missouri State. Thompson is establishing himself as one of the top assistant coaches in the SEC and is in a good spot, but perhaps a return home would persuade him to leave Fayetteville.
Central Michigan coach Jordan Bischel has won everywhere he’s gone in 10 years as a head coach, from NAIA to Division II and now Division I. He led the Chippewas to back-to-back regional appearances and Mid-American Conference titles in 2019 and 2021, revitalizing a program that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1995. His resume is not all that different from Kansas football coach Lance Leipold, who athletic director Travis Goff hired a year ago.
Oklahoma State pitching coach Rob Walton, the 2016 Assistant Coach of the Year, has a standout resume. He’s in his 10th season at Oklahoma State, his alma mater, and helped the Cowboys grow into one of the top programs in the conference. Walton, 59, previously was a head coach at Oral Roberts for nine years, where he went 367-167 and made the NCAA Tournament nine times. He’s in a good spot in Stillwater, but a chance to be a Big 12 head coach might not come around again.
Mississippi assistant coach Mike Clement would make for an interesting candidate. He’s spent eight seasons as the Rebels’ hitting coach, guiding one of the most explosive offenses in the country. He spent two seasons in the same role at Kansas State, helping the Wildcats to a super regional appearance. He’s also coached at Texas A&M and Texas-San Antonio and has the kind of Texas connections that would help on the recruiting trail.