Mississippi State's Interim Coach Has Team Rolling
OMAHA – Gary Henderson has coached a lot of baseball. He’s seen triple plays, no-hitters and a little bit of everything on a baseball diamond.
But nothing he’d seen, done or experienced really prepared him for the moment on Tuesday, Feb. 20 when he stepped in front of a team of a shell-shocked Bulldogs. Two days earlier, on Sunday night, he’d been an assistant coach. Now, he was addressing the team as their new head coach. Andy Cannizaro had resigned as head coach earlier that day, citing “poor decisions.”
There’s no way to really prepare to take over running a program in a season that’s already underway. But with very little preparation or foreshadowing, Henderson and his coaching staff had to stand in front of a group of somewhat stunned 19, 20 and 21-year-olds and convince them that all was not lost.
“It’s a pretty raw moment. No doubt about that. I was well aware that it had a chance to be the most important 20 minutes of the year,” Henderson said. “If that meeting doesn’t go right, you’re going to die.”
Henderson’s speech was simple. He told the team that they would work to create an identity. They would be honest, they would have integrity, they would be competitive and they were going to be men, not boys. When it was over, everyone on the team signed the board that spelled out the four main points, vowing to do their part.
“We called it the Hendu era. The way you do it is you say we didn’t draw it up this way, but we’re not going to look back. It was probably refreshing for the whole crew,” assistant coach Jake Gautreau said.
With the decision, Henderson handed the hitters over to Gautreau while he continued to manage the pitching staff. Mike Brown was promoted from volunteer assistant to a full-time assistant, providing an immediate boost, and A.J. Gaura was promoted to volunteer assistant.
Those players have lived up to the signatures they put on the board that Tuesday morning. The team didn’t turn things around immediately. From the time of the switch through the end of April, the Bulldogs went 14-12. They were swept by Vanderbilt in their Southeastern Conference opener and then lost two of three to Missouri and Louisiana State. But since then, Mississippi State is 23-12, which includes sweeps of fellow College World Series participants Arkansas and Florida. The Bulldogs came back from a loss to Oklahoma to open regionals to beat the Sooners in a pair of do-or-die games to win their regional, then beat Vanderbilt in 11 innings in Game 3 of the Nashville Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.
And now, they've won again in dramatic fashion, walking off Washington with a Luke Alexander walk-off hit. Mississippi State will face North Carolina in the winner's bracket game on Monday night.
The Bulldogs are a longtime baseball power. They play in one of the best ballparks in the country. Expectations are astronomical every year. But those expectations take a big hit when the team gets swept on Opening Weekend and its coach resigns immediately thereafter.
So the fact that Henderson and the Bulldogs are enjoying the euphoria of a trip to Omaha is quite remarkable.
“To this point in their life it’s probably the best baseball experience these players have had,” Gautreau said.
“When we got done celebrating on (last) Sunday night, I told them, whatever happens in Nebraska, you’re going to remember this team for the rest of your lives,” Henderson said.
There have been interim coaches who have won NCAA basketball titles (Steve Fisher with Michigan in 1989). Interim managers have won MLB World Series (Jack McKeon and the Marlins in 2003). And interim coaches have won NBA titles (Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers in 2016). But if Henderson and the Bulldogs win the College World Series, he will become the first coach promoted to the job in-season to win a CWS.
And that success will also lead to a fascinating decision. When Henderson, 57, was named the interim head coach as Mississippi State athletic director (and former baseball coach) John Cohen said the school would conduct a search to find its next head coach. In multiple interviews, Cohen said that the Bulldogs next head coach would have experience in Omaha.
Since then several coaches, including Louisville’s Dan McDonnell, Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle and East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin have publicly announced they are staying put at their respective schools.
And since then, Henderson has checked off that requirement–he’s taken a team to Omaha. Henderson, who wants the job, has previous head coaching experience as he replaced Cohen as Kentucky’s head coach. He served as the Wildcats head coach from 2009-2016. He went 258-199 and made regionals twice. But he never won a regional, finished better than fourth place in the SEC East just once and went 105-134 in conference games.
The argument against Henderson is that his previous resume is not sufficient for a program looking to hit a home run with its next hire.
But there is a pretty compelling counter argument to that. Cohen was the head coach of Northwestern State and Kentucky before he came to Mississippi State. And in his four years with the Demons and his four years with the Wildcats, his teams also made two NCAA regionals appearances, but never made it to the super regionals. The Bulldogs took a chance on Cohen, an alumnus, by naming him to replace Ron Polk. Cohen responded by taking the Bulldogs back to Omaha in 2013, where they lost in the finals to UCLA.
Cohen will have to decide how much the success of this year’s team counts in Henderson’s favor.
But Henderson’s current team could make that decision an easy one. As impressive as Mississippi State’s history is with 10 CWS appearances, the Bulldogs have never won the title. They’ve only made it to the finals once–Cohen’s 2013 club. One more win in this CWS will tie the 1985 Bulldogs club for the second-best finish in school history. Two more wins would equal Cohen's 2013 team's three wins.
A couple of more wins than that and Henderson's club would do something that has never been done by any Mississippi State team, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where Cohen doesn’t remove the interim from Henderson's title.
And if that happens, this group of Bulldogs will have stories to tell for a lifetime.
"We always kind of kid around and say 'Hey, if we win the whole thing they may have a 30-for-30 (ESPN documentary on us)'," Alexander said. "Just kidding around."
And then he paused briefly.
"But hey, they might."