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Postcards From Omaha
Job security in coaching a thing of the past

By John Manuel
June 19, 2004

OMAHA--Andy Lopez is more than familiar with the Southeastern Conference. He didn’t need to be reminded about how strong the league is by reaching the College World Series, only to find four SEC teams in the field with him.

The Arizona coach is back home in Omaha with his third school, making him the third coach to accomplish that feat (joining Larry Cochell, now at Oklahoma, and Mississippi State’s Ron Polk). One of the programs Lopez led to the CWS was Florida, back in 1996 and ’98. You might have heard of some of his players—the ’96 Gators featured an infield with Brad Wilkerson at first base, David Eckstein at second, Mark Ellis at third and Josh Fogg in the bullpen, among others.

His teams earned regional bids every year except for 1999, when the SEC had just six teams that made it to the postseason. (Can you even fathom that happening now, when the league annually gets eight or now nine bids?) In other words, Lopez had success at Florida.

So he was the perfect person to assess the league at Thursday’s pre-CWS press conference. He noted that the SEC is a tough league, a deep league—and a dangerous league. Even when you have success as a coach, Lopez said, you can lose your job.

It happened to Lopez. He was fired at Florida before landing at Arizona, which he has led to back-to-back regional bids and now to a surprise trip to Omaha. This offseason, it happened to Steve Renfroe at Auburn, one of the college game’s true gentlemen. The common refrain around coaches here has been one of, “How did that happen?”

All of them have remarked, as Lopez did, on how the game has changed. Somewhere along the line, college baseball became a sport where coaches started to have less and less job security. Expectations went up with operating budgets.

Renfroe found out the hard way. Auburn had several key injuries this season, with two of the biggest involving righty Chris Dennis (a key swing pitcher who could start or relieve) and first baseman Karl Amonite. The team had other maladies that wracked the lineup, and with the SEC having its best season in years in terms of quality depth, Auburn stumbled down the stretch and finished 12-18 in league play.

That spelled doom for Renfroe, who had continued the Tigers’ regional streak in his first three years after stepping up from being Hal Baird’s top assistant. Until this season, Auburn had reached regional play every year since 1997, and Renfroe had been a part of every team.

Did he suddenly forget how to coach? Not likely. Auburn doesn’t have the depth of many of its SEC brethren, in part because the state of Alabama lacks a program like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship. States such as Florida and Louisiana have similar plans that help pay basic tuition to state schools for all high school students who reach some very attainable academic goals. (Such plans are paid for in these states by lotteries.) Polk took advantage of the plan when he was at Georgia and led the Bulldogs to the CWS in 2001; now he laments not having it at Mississippi State, which finished ninth in the SEC at 13-17, one game ahead of Auburn, but still got a regional bid.

The SEC also has seen veterans Roy Mewbourne (Vanderbilt) and Keith Madison (Kentucky) forced out as those schools ratcheted up their commitment to baseball. That phrase means they decided to spend a lot more money on the sport, and those schools expect results. Every SEC coach has pressure to win now, and much of the rest of the country is following suit.

So, the hotel lobby has been abuzz with job rumors. Let’s run down a few as the games begin today.

• Auburn has not filled Renfroe’s shoes yet. Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin was their first target, and he turned the Tigers down to stay with the up-and-coming Commodores program. Baird remains part of the Tigers administration and is said to be heading up the search for a new coach. Auburn is believed to be trying to find an established, name coach. Tulane’s Rick Jones had his name put atop the rumor mill; his track record oozes success and he has longstanding ties to Baird. However, Jones said Thursday in a brief telephone interview that he had not been contacted about the Auburn job, and doesn’t expect to be. Another name that has been bandied about is that of Northwestern State’s Mitch Gaspard, a former Alabama assistant. Three of the SEC’s current 11 head coaches are former Northwestern State head coaches—Alabama’s Jim Wells, Arkansas’ Dave Van Horn and Kentucky’s John Cohen.

• UCLA will be replacing retired coach Gary Adams. Lopez is a UCLA alumnus whose name has been linked to the Bruins position ever since he led Pepperdine to the 1992 national championship. Lopez also is believed to be very, very happy at Arizona, a program of equal (if not superior) stature to UCLA considering it has won three national championships and now is back in Omaha. However, Lopez admits his name will be linked to UCLA until the Bruins have someone else in place. The question is, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has known Adams was retiring for a year. Why hasn’t a replacement been named? Does the delay mean Guerrero is waiting for his friend Lopez, who flirted with the UC Irvine job when Guerrero, a former UCLA teammate, was AD at Irvine? Or is he waiting for Cal State Fullerton’s George Horton, who wouldn’t have to relocate but would have a hell of a commute from Yorba Linda to Westwood if he switched positions? Bruins sources say the school is in the interview process now, with current Anteaters coach John Savage and Bruins assistant Vince Beringhele among those receiving interviews. A dark-horse candidate would be alum Torey Lovullo, currently managing at Class A Kinston in the Cleveland Indians organization.

• Wake Forest is moving quickly to replace George Greer, who was essentially fired and given an administrative job after the program’s collapse. UNC Greensboro coach Mike Gaski, a member of the Division I baseball committee who is here in Omaha, was rumored to be the front-runner. The latest rumors have him outside of AD Ron Wellman’s list of three finalists. Sources indicate the Demon Deacons' frontrunner may be Kent State head coach Rick Rembielak, and that the short list includes Cypress (Calif.) JC coach Scott Pickler, who coaches Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League and has funneled several players from Cypress to Wake in past years. Few teach the game as well as Pickler, but it would also be highly unusual for a California JC coach to take a Division I job on the East Coast.

• Seton Hall interim coach Rob Sheppard remains in the mix to become the full-time replacement for his father Mike, who was forced out of his post last summer. One hot name connected to the Pirates position was former big leaguer John Valentin, a Seton Hall alumnus. However, Valentin should probably talk to Memphis’ Dave Anderson and New Orleans’ Randy Bush if he’s thinking of getting involved in the college game. Both Anderson and Bush, also big league alumni, resigned this month after short terms as college coaches brought modest returns.

The joke among coaches is that minor league managers can play 18 holes of golf a day before their games during the season, but when they take jobs as college coaches, their golf games suffer because they never can fit 18 into their schedules.

Now, not only will their golf games suffer, but the biggest lure of college coaching—job security—might be a thing of the past.

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