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February 11, 2013

Expectations a hot topic deep into Bianco era


OXFORD, Miss. -- Whether it's Saturday, Sunday or next week, Ole Miss will lose a couple baseball games sometime in the near future.

And as soon as the out is recorded that clinches it, message boards and Twitter accounts will use caps-locked text to predict the end of the season and demand changes. It's an easy prediction, as execution of the argument could have been timed with a countdown the last couple seasons.

There's a vocal segment of the fan base that routinely takes to the Internet to point out several statistics: Ole Miss is one of four Southeastern Conference teams to not make the College World Series since 2005 (new members excluded), and the Rebels have hosted just one regional in the past five years, mingling that with the fact that Swayze Field hosted five regionals from 2004-2009.

Mike Bianco, entering his 13th season as head coach, created a monster with early and consistent success, but the dozen years of close calls to Omaha have the noted vocal section typing and talking louder and faster than ever.

Two questions come from the situation: Is this segment indicative of the average fan or just a loud minority venting frustration? And what's the logical expectation level?

NUMBERS POINT TO VOCAL MINORITY: The numbers normally used to gauge interest, excitement and commitment point to a program with fans and spectators that remain engaged and content.

As of this past Friday afternoon, Ole Miss had sold 5,320 season tickets for the 2013 season. That's 78 more than all of last season. In 2010 and 2011, Ole Miss sold 5,677 and 5,515 tickets, respectively. The Rebels were top five nationally each season in paid attendance.

Ticket revenues have also increased recently. Last season, tickets brought in $792,108, ahead of $735,586 in 2011 and $789,035 in 2010. Priority seating at Swayze Field also mirrors those numbers. Ole Miss made $1,423,000 in fiscal year 2010 off priority seating, $1,553,000 in fiscal year 2011 off priority seating, and that amount elevated to $1,613,000 in fiscal year 2012. As a comparison, priority seating totals in football and basketball both declined from 2011 to 2012.

"Tickets and revenue are a major tool we use to gauge the program," Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said. "People are excited. Numbers tell you pretty fast. Look at football tickets sales. There was a high of 45,000 that went to just under 35,000 when things weren't going well."

Ticket sales are a factor, but with long seasons, attendance starts to decrease late in the year if excitement subsides. The item more convincing, at least to this writer, is concession sales for the season. Concession sales declined from $109,876 to $104,540 from 2010 to 2011 but saw a high of $126,231 in 2012.

Recent Swayze Field Revenue
After a drop off from 2010 in 2011 in ticket revenue and concession sales, those plus priority seating were all at their highest marks of the past three seasons in 2012.
YearTickets/ ConcessionsPriority Seating

"The core people when talking about baseball what they speak to is what Mike has done in his 12 seasons," Bjork said. "Where the facilities were before. They believe in Mike Bianco as the leader of the program."

BUILDING THE EXPECTATIONS: Bianco is completely credited with transforming the expectations and interest around Ole Miss baseball. That creation has also turned into some criticism a dozen years later.

Prior to Bianco, Ole Miss had been to two regionals since 1977 (1995, 1999). In his 12 seasons, Ole Miss has 10 postseason appearances, an SEC title, another SEC West title, four super regional berths and an SEC Tournament title. The numbers are known. The Rebels also have the fifth most SEC wins over the last 12 years and have a winning or even record against every SEC team except South Carolina during that span.

In his first season, Bianco achieved a No. 2 regional seed with a roster that had no business doing so, and that established credibility immediately. The first regional host was 2004, when Ole Miss lost to Western Kentucky and Washington in back-to-back games.

Year five saw the first super regional and the first of three weekends over the next five seasons that have kept Ole Miss from jumping into the top tier nationally. The Rebels under Bianco are 0-6 in games to clinch a College World Series berth, losing to Texas in 2005, Miami in 2006 and Virginia in 2009. The most recent was the toughest, as Ole Miss was five outs away when a disastrous 10-minute sequence switched the momentum and allowed the Cavaliers to breakthrough under Brian O'Connor.

Texas won the national title in 2005 and Miami's young talent made more plays against Ole Miss' young pitching staff.

"The 2009 season is the one that stings because that was there to lift the burden off," Perfect Game national writer Kendall Rogers said. "Instead Virginia got the postseason failure tag off. That goes the other way, and Ole Miss and Virginia might be in opposite places right now."

The near-misses are the main fuel for critics which have routinely referred to Ole Miss' inability to reach Omaha in the same conversation as UM basketball coach Andy Kennedy's lack of NCAA Tournament appearances.

"There have been instances where Ole Miss doesn't play well late in games, that's the situation where they seem tight and weren't playing loose and that's legitimate criticism," Rogers said.

"I thought Coach Bianco was more hands-on late in the year and the postseason, but it wasn't really tight," said a former player, who played on two of Ole Miss super regional teams. "I guess it was a little different, but he was trying to communicate and make sure everybody was on it."

Ole Miss traveled to Virginia for the 2010 regional but won 16 games in the conference behind top-five pick Drew Pomeranz. Ole Miss has averaged 16.1 SEC wins during Bianco's tenure, but the last two years have been 14-16 and 13-17, respectively, each ending in a ninth place conference finish. Ole Miss did reach a regional final in 2012, falling to TCU twice after winning the first two games of the tournament.

One more win would have likely changed the perception in 2011, as the Rebels missed the postseason because of a doubleheader sweep at the hands of Arkansas on the last day of the year. One win against the Razorbacks would have put Ole Miss in a five-way tie for the Western Division championship, with LSU alone at 13-17.

While Ole Miss is in that group without a College World Series, they are also in a small group without a complete bomb of a season. Bianco has been worse than 14-16 in the SEC just once, that 13-17 mark in 2011. Every other school except South Carolina has posted a worse conference record during that span, with nine schools losing at least 19 conference games in a season since 2001. Georgia, which has been to Omaha four times since 2001, has done it multiple times.

Polling three national college baseball writers late last week, Ole Miss tied with Texas A&M as the seventh best job in the SEC (facilities, in-state talent, scholarships, etc.) - behind, in no order, UGA, Vandy, Florida, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas.

"Consistency is what sticks out so much about what Mike has been able to do at Ole Miss," a college coach in the Southeast said. "Their attention to detail is the main thing you always notice along with fans and stadium, but the scholarship thing is real, and he's been able to overcome it and be highly competitive every season."

Speaking of scholarships…

SCHOLARSHIP SITUATION: Ole Miss baseball's visible elements are as impressive as anyone in the country. The $18.5 million Oxford-University Stadium renovation puts the Rebels' facility as one of the five super stadiums in the SEC and, likely, nationally, as well. Game day operations are superb, and as has been chronicled, fans continue to fill the seats and purchase premium tickets.

All those are facts, yet it overlooks a key component in college baseball - and especially in the SEC. Program supporters accuse detractors of a "football mentality" and failing to look at the whole picture when judging the Rebels' current program. While football and basketball have set guidelines with few scholarship loopholes, baseball is a different world. Competitive disadvantages are very real, and Ole Miss faces one as steep as any other team in the league.

The NCAA allows a 35-man baseball roster with a maximum of 27 scholarship players. Each scholarship player must receive at least 25 percent of a scholarship. Each team can distribute a maximum of 11.7 scholarships per year. Confined to those numbers, there's not much room for creativity. However, most schools in the SEC supplement those totals with in-state academic scholarships based on performance. Most are referred to as "lottery scholarships."

The SEC schools in Mississippi and Alabama don't have access to this type of program. Conference baseball insiders say Mississippi State does the best job of the four longtime SEC members being creative in the financial aid office by waiving some out-of-state tuition in certain scenarios, but even so, it doesn't compare to the teams these are competing against annually.

Memphis (Shelby, Tipton, Fayette Counties) is a fertile recruiting territory for Ole Miss, and the ability to waive $1,000 per semester of out-of-state tuition is possible, courtesy of the J. Means scholarship, but it requires a student to have a 3.5 GPA and a 28 ACT score. The same benefits and requirements are available to any incoming STEM (science, technology, education and math) majors, though a university source said no current player qualified for either scholarship. Ole Miss also offers a minimum $500 per semester to students - in state or out of state - with a 24 or higher ACT, courtesy of Academic Excellence. That's a tiered award. A couple other in-state scenarios exist, but they are minimal in regards to talent in those areas and aid available.

"Our university has considered the need for (out-of-state) tuition waivers in areas close to Mississippi, and if that's implemented it hopefully helps on the scholarship side," Bjork said. "We have to get the in-state talent, but our brand is growing nationally. We've got to be creative with aid opportunities. With a micro-approach, we have to improve that."

If Mississippi had a lottery system, the potential results would be debatable. The Magnolia State is not annually a deep factory for college baseball talent. Mississippi is known for athletic outfielders mainly and projects at the professional level. Two years ago was the exception, and Ole Miss parlayed that strong in-state class into a No. 3 recruiting ranking. However, the Rebels wouldn't annually see equity with a lottery program, due to the talent levels of surrounding states.

Ole Miss' competition has certain scholarships similar to the ones mentioned, but it's the broad programs that are the major differences. Here are a few examples.

Arkansas, courtesy of the Arkansan Non-Resident Tuition Scholarship Award, bills students from any state that borders Arkansas (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma) at an in-state rate if they have a 3.25 GPA and at least a 24 ACT. It requires a 2.75 GPA in college keep continue the aid.

LSU in-state students receive TOPS, which awards $2,591, $2,791 or $2,991 per semester depending on GPA and ACT score. The minimum requirement is a 2.5 and a 20, second tier is a 3.0 and a 23 and the honors tier is a 3.0 and a 27. The lowest tier still completely covers LSU's in-state tuition.

The Georgia HOPE Scholarship Program is eligible to any in-state student with a 3.0 high school GPA. A student at the University of Georgia with that award receives $3,181.50 per semester - more than 60 percent tuition.

Florida takes advantage of the Bright Futures scholarship, a tiered program that offers as much as $100 per semester hour. Requirements start at a 3.0 GPA and 22 ACT score and have three different tiers. Florida's semester tuition and fees are estimated at $3,085.

Vanderbilt receives arguably the best advantage from these supplements. Exact aid isn't known since VU is a private institution, but with the Commodores' education available and financial assistance, Tim Corbin has been able to put together back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes. It should be noted that Vanderbilt's tuition is more than $30,000 per semester, so any remaining percentage is still a significant burden on families.

"They've got that incredible financial aid office-they're dealing with about 30 scholarships," an SEC coach told Baseball America's Aaron Fitt. "But how they beat the draft is they've got that incredible education. You have to really pay them to get them away from Vanderbilt. When you've got that kind of scholarship for that kind of education, it's hard to say no."

SO, HOW DOES OLE MISS COMPETE?: Notable college baseball people point to two factors for why the Rebels have been able to attract top college talent despite the disadvantages: a commitment to baseball and top-tier recruiters.

Ole Miss baseball has established a regional and national brand that is appealing to prospects. The Rebels are routinely among the national leaders in recruiting rankings, and most of the star power is from outside the state's borders.

In 2012, 29 percent of Ole Miss' roster consisted of in-state natives, according to the Birmingham News. That was the lowest number in the SEC. Vanderbilt had 33 percent from Tennessee, and Mississippi State had 34 percent from Mississippi. Florida and Georgia were the highest and 88 percent and 76 percent, respectively.

"There's not great in-state talent, so you just have to develop them," Fitt said. "Mississippi kids are more raw than other places. But with Ole Miss' facilities and campus and charm, they can recruit nationally. Surprised they don't go North more because I think that could be an easy sell, but they do a great job with pipelines and selling what they have to offer. Kids can be stars in a great place."

The pipelines have been prominent in recent years, as a quick count shows 15 of the Rebels' 35 players have history with one of three travel teams - Dulin's Dodgers, Texas Sun Devils and Orlando Scorpions. Ole Miss also routinely recruits Marucci Elite out of Louisiana. In addition, all five 2012 signees not on the roster are from Marucci or the Sun Devils.

Dan McDonnell was the driving force behind the Rebels' collection of talent that changed the program perception in the early 2000s, and current assistants Carl Lafferty and Cliff Godwin receive consistent high marks.

Lafferty is a former Ole Miss catcher and is able to sell the Rebels on several personal levels. He's also become a notable talent evaluator. Godwin was named a top 10 assistant coach nationally by multiple publications in recent months. Most believe he'll be a head coach within the next five years.

"You hear nothing but good things about Lafferty, and I clearly think Godwin is a monster on the recruiting trail," Perfect Game national writer Kendall Rogers said. "The talent is going to come back. The program is in good shape."

TALENT COMING BACK?:: The talent part of Rogers' quote is one shared by others, who agree the Rebels' overall talent and depth have been down in past years.

While it's easy to get complimentary quotes from college baseball experts about McDonnell, former assistants Stuart Lake and Kyle Bunn, Godwin or Lafferty, most point to the tenure of former recruiting coordinator Rob Reinstetle as the downward trend of the program.

Reinstetle came to Ole Miss following McDonnell's departure to Louisville in 2006 and he stayed three seasons before Lafferty replaced him as recruiting coordinator in December 2009. Those three years featured three regional berths and two super regionals, but even in the Rebels' third year without McDonnell, the 2009 team had a majority McDonnell presence. Jordan Henry, Logan Power, Brett Basham, Drew Pomeranz, Scott Bittle, Jake Morgan, Brett Bukvich, Zach Miller, Matt Smith, Nathan Baker, Phil Irwin and Evan Button were all recruited or signed by McDonnell.

Obviously there were some successes by Reinstetle, as well. He found Kevin Mort as a late addition and got Matt Snyder, Tim Ferguson, Alex Yarbrough and Bobby Wahl, among others, to campus. However, on a whole, it's those recruiting classes that have seen a decrease in Ole Miss' success. There was also an increase in junior college recruiting, which results in quicker roster turnover.

"There was that whole No. 3 starter puzzle for a while, but I think the big thing is the latest teams haven't had a lineup guys had to fear," said Mark Etheridge, publisher of SEBaseball.com. "Plenty of good players, yes, but not a group to keep pitching coaches up at night."

As mentioned above, the 2011 class was a top-3 class nationally and brought nine players drafted to campus. This past class wasn't as lucky, as three first round picks - Gavin Cecchini, Ty Hensley and Stryker Trahan -- skipped college, there was an academic casualty (Zach Irwin) and another top prospect (Chase Nyman) left campus after just a few days.

There's a much larger class signed for 2013, and it's a critical one to avoid depth issues. While it's a nationally relevant class, Ole Miss should avoid first-round picks, which are unlikely to see college baseball. The recent collective bargaining agreement could favor Ole Miss' pursuit of its signees this summer.

"Mike is laser-focused to make this program top tier," Bjork said. "I think we've recruited very well. There were the three first round picks and a couple unfortunate scenarios, but if you're not competing for those guys then you're not going to win. Our depth is really strong this year and we have balance."

Fitt added: "Last year was a bridge year. I think Ole Miss is a true contender again."

LOOKING AHEAD: It's important for Ole Miss' program to jump back in the hosting discussion after three seasons of postseason location uncertainty. The Rebels return starting pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, who stack up against pretty much any one-two in college baseball.

Career saves leader Brett Huber is back for his final season and a retooled lineup should be more balanced in year two of the Godwin era.

With all the discussion and expectations, Bjork thinks relaxing is the way to go. He points to Ole Miss' situational offensive stats as an example of possible pressing last season. During conference play, the Rebels hit .232 with runners in scoring position and .148 with the bases loaded. With the bases empty? .305.

"Some of that pressure, we need to just let it go and play baseball," Bjork said. "We have all of the tools, so we need to control what we can control and just play, play the game each day and see where we end up. Let the talent and the process take care of it."

Consistency and putting the program in the best position to be successful are Bjork's and Bianco's general goals but the athletics director doesn't shy away from the "O" word that prompts much of the animosity when things go less than ideal for a stretch of games.

After all that's the ultimate destination and the only thing left to be accomplished. And no matter the percentage of people who see it as the deal breaker or the number of fans that just enjoy each season until that time comes, the lack of College World Series appearances remain the blip, the one thing that keeps the Rebels from jumping from consistent winning program to nationally elite. From accomplishing what Bianco came here to do.

The Rebels are one of 19 teams to go to a regional nine of the last 10 seasons and one of 24 to go to six regional championships in the last 10 years, but until Ole Miss is one of eight to travel to Nebraska in mid-June, the ammunition - fairly or not - remains within grasp.

"We have to give Mike a ton of credit for raising the expectations," Bjork said. "He was the first one to talk about Omaha and the College World Series. One game, series or pitch never defines a program, but we want to compete at the highest level.

"Omaha is the brand and the destination. We've been close. We've been within pitches Now let's break that ceiling. Let's fight through the plateau. We're ready for that step."

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