Sizing Up The College Baseball Coaching Carousel In 2020
After a relatively slow coaching carousel in 2018, the market heated up last summer. Since the end of the 2019 season, there have been 41 coaching changes around the sport – from the planned retirements of Florida State’s Mike Martin and UNC Wilmington’s Mark Scalf, to shakeups at traditional powers like Southern California and Wichita State, to the unexpected changes at Nebraska and Washington State.
Included among the 41 new coaches will be four with interim tags, which gives the 2020 coaching carousel an early start. Despite that head start this winter, largely as the result of coaches leaving for jobs in pro ball, the 2020 carousel looks like it will have a slower pace.
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.
Who Will Lead The Market?
Last year’s market was flush with big jobs. Florida State, Oregon State and Southern California all made coaching changes, to say nothing of changes at Long Beach State, Notre Dame, Oregon and Wichita State.
In the wake of all that change, will any major jobs open this summer? The early guess is that it’s unlikely any bluebloods make changes and there will be minimal movement in college baseball’s major conferences. There are, however, a few flashpoints that could upset the status quo if things break wrong this spring.
Texas is coming off a season in which it finished in last place in the Big 12 and missed the NCAA Tournament. That came on the heels of a trip to the College World Series in 2018 and was the first time the Longhorns missed regionals in three seasons under coach David Pierce. But at a place like Texas, where championships are the expectation, last-place seasons lead to increased pressure.
The Longhorns look poised to bounce back this spring and signed the No. 1 class in the country in November. Texas can return to regionals and beyond if its young players take a step forward.
South Carolina and coach Mark Kingston also garnered some hot-seat speculation during the offseason. The Gamecocks made super regionals in 2018, his first season, but then last spring went 28-28, including an 8-22 SEC mark, and missed regionals. That kept the Gamecocks on the yo-yo they’ve been on for four seasons, alternating between super regional appearances and missing the NCAA Tournament.
Chad Holbrook was let go in 2017 after missing regionals twice in three years. Would history repeat itself if the Gamecocks don’t return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020? One important difference would be that this is just Kingston’s third year as coach, while Holbrook had been head coach for five years. As a former coach himself, athletic director Ray Tanner is unlikely to make a hasty move.
A few prominent schools have new athletic directors, which can lead to uncertainty. But none of them inherit coaches who are occupying a particularly hot seat on Opening Day.
So, unless a powerhouse slips in a big way this spring or there’s a surprise retirement, the top of the coaching market should be fairly quiet this summer.
Amid all that major conference change last season, seemingly the lone place the carousel was quiet was the SEC. For the first time since the summer of 2014, it went through an offseason with no coaching changes. Can that harmony continue?
Part of the reason the SEC stood pat this year was both because of the success of its teams (after Tennessee last season reached regionals for the first time since 2005, the longest drought in the conference is Missouri at seven years) and the dual nature of the league’s coaches as either entrenched or relatively new. All but one SEC coach (Georgia’s Scott Stricklin) has held his job for less than five years or more than 10.
This summer looks like another quiet one in the conference. As detailed above, South Carolina has been a popular subject of discussion in the industry, but a move this summer is unlikely. There are three new athletic directors in the conference (Louisiana State, Mississippi and Texas A&M), but all three inherited coaches that have been in their jobs for more than a decade, have made CWS appearances and won the SEC Tournament in the last four years.
With as much fan interest and money involved as there is in the SEC, changes can never be ruled out. But as the season begins, it would be more of a surprise if the conference generated turnover than if it stood pat.
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What To Watch
So then where will the open jobs come from? Lower-end major conference jobs are an area to watch. Without bluebloods in the market, it may be easier for those schools to grab some of the industry’s rising stars and some athletic directors will be looking to take advantage. The same may be true of high-end mid-major jobs.
There are already four open jobs – Charleston Southern, Holy Cross, Pacific and St. John’s all enter the season with interim head coaches. Three of those were generated in the new year due to coaches leaving for jobs in pro ball.
St. John’s is the best of the group and the chance to coach one of the Big East’s powerhouses would interest many coaches. But interim head coach Mike Hampton spent 18 years as an assistant coach in the program and he’ll have the inside track on the job.
Jobs like Charleston Southern, Holy Cross and Pacific may be more in line with the kinds of openings to expect this summer.
As the spring begins, it’s a good time to look at which coaches are on the rise. Last year saw Jason Gill lead Loyola Marymount to an upset of top-seeded UCLA in regionals before falling in the regional final. Following that postseason run, USC hired him away.
Who will make that kind of rise this season? Here are half a dozen mid-major coaches who may be a little off the radar now, but could this spring elevate their profile.
Jordan Bischel, Central Michigan: In his first season at CMU, Bischel led the Chippeawas to a 47-14 record, the Mid-American Conference title and their first regionals appearance since 1995. Matching such a special season won’t be easy, but CMU begins the season as the MAC favorite and has a real shot at going back-to-back.
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. Kent State is coming off a down season by its standards, but in six seasons as the program’s head coach, Duncan has averaged 36 wins a year and has led the team to three regular-season titles and two MAC Tournament titles.
Justin Haire, Campbell: Haire has quickly risen through the coaching ranks, going from NAIA assistant coach to Division I head coach in a decade. He’s done strong work in his five years as the Camels’ head coach, leading them to back-to-back Big South titles and NCAA Tournament appearances. Campbell is the Big South Conference favorite again this spring and a third-straight title would certainly be eye catching on a resume.
Kerrick Jackson, Southern: In 2019, his second year at Southern, Jackson completed one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation. After winning just nine games in 2018, the Jaguars last year went 32-24 and won the SWAC Tournament to advance to regionals for the first time since 2009. Perhaps just as importantly, Southern had a perfect APR score last year after just a couple years ago being ineligible for the postseason due to its poor APR. He’ll need to prove last year’s success is sustainable, but a solid spring would do just that.
Justin Hill, McNeese State: The Cowboys last season went 35-26 and swept through the Southland Conference Tournament to advance to regionals for the first time since 2003. They return much of that team this spring and begin the year as the conference’s favorites in Hill’s seventh season at the program’s helm. McNeese has the talent to be one of the season’s biggest surprises nationally.
Steve Holm, Illinois State: Holm made quite the splash last spring in his debut season as a head coach, leading Illinois State to a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title and its first NCAA Tournament appearances since 2010. Another season like that and he could find himself in the mix for bigger jobs this summer.
Jayson King, Dayton: The Flyers are a touch under the radar right now but have a chance to change that in a big way this spring. They went 32-26-1 in 2019, their most wins since 2011, and advanced to the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship game. If the Flyers this spring can take the next step, King will see his profile rise.