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Sizing Up The NCAA Coaching Carousel In 2019

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Eric Valenzuela (Photo courtesy of St. Mary Athletics)

The coaching carousel last year slowed down after a couple manic summers that saw more than 60 head coaching changes combined. Reading this summer’s market at the outset of the season isn’t easy, but it could again be a busy one.

As the investment and interest in college baseball has grown, so too has the scrutiny on coaches. For many programs, it is no longer enough for a coach to graduate his players and keep them out of trouble. Now, more and more programs are looking for results on the field, to go with the off-field expectations.

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.

Florida State’s Decision

Mike Martin last June announced this season—his 40th as Florida State’s head coach—will be his last. The Seminoles have yet to announce a succession plan for the winningest coach in NCAA history and will go through a search process. This will likely be the biggest job on the market this summer and could affect the rest of the carousel.

Martin said he will not have input in the search for his successor, but his preference is clear. His son, Mike Martin Jr., has been on his staff for 22 years and, as Florida State’s recruiting coordinator, has hauled in five straight top-10 recruiting classes, including this year’s third-ranked group. The succession should be straightforward, but there are some complicating factors.

Florida State is operating with an interim athletic director. Stan Wilcox in August left his post at Florida State for a job with the NCAA, and David Coburn, who had no experience running an athletic department, was named interim athletic director. The search for a permanent AD continues in Tallahassee.

Martin Jr. has never coached anywhere but Florida State and has no head coaching experience. His track record as a recruiter and coach—he famously suggested Buster Posey move from shortstop to catcher—is impressive. But a search would deliver another set of strong candidates for the job. And though Martin has become synonymous with the Florida State baseball program—the Seminoles play on a field named after him—40 years is a long time. There is also the uncomfortable fact that for as much success as it has experienced, FSU does not have a national title and is just 5-21 against Florida since the start of the 2012 season. There are some in Tallahassee who would prefer not to see a continuation of the current administration.

If Florida State looked away from the current staff, it could still stay within the Seminoles’ family. Link Jarrett played and coached at Florida State and has impressed as a head coach at UNC Greensboro, in 2017 leading the Spartans to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years. Former Seminoles great Doug Mientkiewicz is entering his ninth season as a minor league manager but lacks any experience in college and may still have a chance to manage in the big leagues. Former catcher David Ross, a Tallahassee native currently working for ESPN, has been mentioned as a potential big league manager and has publicly said he would listen if Florida State approached him, though he has never coached at any level. And if Florida State is willing to completely leave the family, any of the nation’s top young coaches could be in the mix for a plum job.

College baseball’s favorite parlor game has long been speculating on Martin’s successor. The final answer will be revealed in just a few months but expect another spring full of guessing. Ultimately, the expectation in the coaching ranks is that Florida State will stay in house and promote Martin Jr.

The Wild West

Florida State’s decision may be the highest profile because of Martin’s status as the game’s winningest coach, but the most action this summer figures to be on the West Coast, and specifically in the Pac-12 Conference.

It starts at the top with the defending national champion. Oregon State will be led this year by interim head coach Pat Bailey, who was elevated to that role after Pat Casey in September surprisingly announced his retirement. But Casey’s agreement with Oregon State includes a unique clause that gives him the opportunity to change his mind this spring and return as head coach.

Casey built Oregon State into a national power and has won three national titles. He is just 59 and few around the sport believe he will actually stay away after recharging his batteries. But Bailey, 63, has been a loyal assistant to Casey for a decade and may not get another head coaching opportunity. Will that play into Casey’s thinking? Oregon State also gave pitching coach Nate Yeskie a big raise this summer to remain in Corvallis. He’s just 44 and it won’t be long before he gets a chance to be a head coach. Can Oregon State risk letting a future star get away?

That all makes for a complicated situation for Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes to navigate.

A few of Barnes’ Pac-12 colleagues would gladly change places with him, however. Arizona State, Oregon and Southern California are all also facing potentially difficult decisions of their own, but without the recent national titles.

Arizona State has missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons, and athletic director Ray Anderson gave coach Tracy Smith a vote of confidence following last season. The Sun Devils last season were exceptionally young and at times showed their promise in a 23-32 campaign.

But Anderson also said he expects to see the Sun Devils progress in Smith’s fifth season as coach.

“Now you have three very solid recruiting classes that should be able to put it together and play competitive baseball at the level we anticipate,” Anderson told reporters. “2019 is a very important year for us, and we expect to see significant improvement in (pitching and defense)."

At Oregon, George Horton is entering the final season of his contract (there is a mutual option for 2020). Horton has been the Ducks’ coach since the program was revived in 2009 and the early returns were strong. Under his guidance, Oregon advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times in his first seven seasons, won at least 40 games four times and hosted a super regional in 2012.

But the Ducks have slipped over the last few years and are coming off a 26-29 season, their first losing year since 2009. Making matters worse, the Beavers are coming off another national title and have dominated the rivalry series, winning all nine meetings over the last two years by a combined score of 49-17.

USC athletic director Lynn Swann has done little to shake up the department since taking over at his alma mater in 2016. And with the football and men’s basketball programs struggling, Swann’s attention may be elsewhere this spring.

But the Trojans, winners of 12 national titles, have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2015 and are coming off back-to-back losing seasons. Coach Dan Hubbs is universally liked and inherited a mess when he took over the program in 2013, when Frank Cruz was fired for violating the NCAA’s limit on practice time. USC isn’t the behemoth it was under Rod Dedeaux and Mike Gillespie, but how would another subpar season play in Los Angeles?

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College Podcast: 2019 Signing Day Special

Texas coach David Pierce, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis join the podcast.

Rising Stars

As the spring begins, it’s also a good time to look at which coaches are on the rise. Last year, it was Matt Bragga who rose to prominence as he led Tennessee Tech to a banner season capped by a super regionals run. Following the season, he was hired to take over at Rice.

So, who is this year’s Bragga? Here are five mid-major head coaches who may be a little off the radar now, but could this spring elevate their profile.

T.J. Bruce, Nevada: Bruce last year led Nevada to the Mountain West Conference regular season title, its second since joining the conference in 2013. The former UCLA recruiting coordinator has continued to land high-end talent at Nevada. With another strong spring, Bruce could be one of the hottest names in the West.

Lane Burroughs, Louisiana Tech: John Cohen’s former assistant coaches have done remarkably well in the last few coaching carousels and Burroughs could be the next to move up. He has won 75 games in his first two years at LaTech and enters this spring with a veteran team that is expected to contend in Conference USA.

Reggie Christiansen, Sacramento State: Christiansen has quietly transformed Sacramento State into one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast. The Hornets are one of two programs in California to win at least 30 games in seven straight seasons. Christiansen guided them to their only two regionals appearances in program history and has the makings this spring of another contender.

Andy Stankiewicz, Grand Canyon: Stankiewicz has an impressive resume that includes experience in pro ball, as an assistant coach in the Pac-12 and now leading Grand Canyon through a highly successful transition from Division II to Division I. Grand Canyon is a comfortable spot, but the former big leaguer is well respected.

Eric Valenzuela, Saint Mary’s: Valenzuela has invigorated Saint Mary’s, a program that before he arrived had just two winning seasons since 1991. He led the Gaels in 2016 to their first NCAA Tournament appearance and they enter this season as West Coast Conference favorites. Valenzuela is one of the West Coast’s brightest young coaches and has a team this spring that can makes some noise.

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