M ike Bianco just completed his ninth season as Ole Miss baseball coach and will carry a 365-203-1 career record into 2010.
He sat down with Daily Journal beat writer Parrish Alford last week to discuss his philosophy, an SEC co-championship and a disappointing super regional loss among other topics.
DJ: How would you assess your coaching philosophy, and has that changed through the years?
MB: The philosophy in general is we want to score runs. Personnel changes from year to year. As a coach you try to coach to players’ talents and what they can do. There are years that we’ll hit more home runs. There are years that we’ll bunt better. This team probably hit as well with runners in scoring position and were able to put innings together better than teams that I can remember in the past. The 2006 team was very good at that. Even though we didn’t hit the home runs as we did in 2005, they were able to score more runs than the 2005 team. It just depends from year to year.
On the 2005 team, we were fortunate that we had three guys in the middle of the lineup that were older, that were having really good years. When you look at that team it was Stephen Head, Brian Pettway, Mark Wright, three guys in the middle who hit double-digit home runs and all had terrific years. Two of them were high draft picks. Then you had guys sprinkled in that hit five or six. They hit the most home runs we’ve ever hit here, but they only hit 74.
My days at LSU, we hit a lot of home runs, but so did everybody else. That was back in those years with the minus-5 and bigger barrel bats. In 1997 we hit 188 home runs, Alabama hit 150-something and Florida hit 130-something. Everybody hit more home runs back then.
Another thing, when you look at the park we play in, it’s not real conducive to home runs. We want to hit more. I’d like to hit more than we hit this year. But last year we hit the second-most that we’ve ever hit here, and nobody talked about that.
When you don’t reach the College World Series and you want to look at a reason why, and it’s not wrong to do that, as coaches we look, I don’t think we didn’t get there because we didn’t hit home runs. The team that beat us didn’t hit home runs. We actually hit two that weekend, and they hit none.
DJ: In Game 2 of the super regional you get a leadoff double from Jordan Henry, then Logan Power swings, and it’s a home run. In Game 3 in an identical situation Power bunts. Why was that call different?
MB: To be honest with you, I wanted to score first. I thought it was important to score first. I’ve always bunted with a runner at second. The better question might be why didn’t you bunt in Game 2, rather than why did you bunt in Game 3.
In Game 2, actually we asked Logan to hit the ball the other way and move him over, that was the signal. Logan is a solid bunter, not our best bunter, so I let him swing in that situation. In Game 3 the reason I bunted was because I wanted to score first, and I felt that was our best option to score first. I wanted to push a run across and get the crowd into it.
DJ: How did the absence of Scott Bittle affect chemistry and confidence on the team?
MB: I don’t think it affected chemistry at all. If anything, Scott was loved so much by his teammates and was there to the end, was in the dugout. I don’t think chemistry had anything to do with it. As far as confidence, you never know how that’s going to work, but I thought guys really worked. I thought the bullpen stepped up. I thought Brett Bukvich and Phillip Irwin really pitched well down the stretch. We pitched well enough to win. If we would have won, you could have written, ‘Hey, they did it without Scott Bittle.’ If we had ended up winning Game 3 I think that would have been in most of the articles. The last weekend was all about pitching for both clubs, the performance by (Drew) Pomeranz, confidence-wise I think our staff did terrific. The thing is, it affects everything else, who you pitch, how you pitch and so on.
DJ: Did Bittle’s day-to-day status become a distraction at the end?
MB: No. It was difficult for him. Sometimes it was frustrating, but I understand you guys have a job to do, but I don’t think for the team it was a distraction at all.
DJ: Were you pleased with the level of contribution you received from your newcomers this season?
MB: You recruit all of them to play. It’s a different mentality than it is in football or basketball because of the scholarship limitations. I don’t think you ever recruit kids to come in and say, ‘Maybe in a couple of years …’ I don’t ever remember recruiting a kid scholarship-wise to say he’s going to redshirt. We never do that. Obviously some kids will be more ready to play than others. You’re not looking down the road, but it does happen. Look at Phillip Irwin. Then some others play immediately. Some junior college guys do it immediately, like a Garret White, and fill a need, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there’s a guy like Fuller Smith, they come in and you think it’s going to happen, but somebody beats them out, then the next year they hit .350 as a senior. I don’t think it’s right or fair to say junior college … We recruit more high school kids than we do junior college. Sometimes there’s an immediate need like with Kevin Mort. We had to have a shortstop. Sometimes a junior college kid, at 21 years old, is more likely to step in and fill that role. There’s no guarantee. If we had a choice, the high school kid is going to be here for three, four or five years maybe. A junior college kid might be here for less than a year when you count August to June.
We had kids that played great and had kids that didn’t have the year. That’s obvious, not only from our expectations but also theirs. There are others, Mort and (Matt) Snyder and others, who did terrific.
DJ:What does a shared SEC regular season championship mean to the program?
MB: It means you’re the champions of the No. 1 baseball conference in the country. When you win 20 games in the SEC … to put that in perspective I think it’s only been twice since I’ve been here that someone has won 20 or more games in the SEC. I think Vanderbilt won 22 a couple years ago, and I think South Carolina won 21 games. If I’m wrong, I’m only wrong by a game or two. That’s nine years, 12 teams, and only twice that somebody’s won more than 20 games in the No. 1 baseball conference.
It’s been 32 years since the last SEC championship here in baseball, basketball or football. It’s something we’re very proud of.
As far as the impact on recruiting, that’s for you guys to judge. Certainly we’ll use it in recruiting, but it’s like the stadium, it wasn’t built for recruiting. Will it help recruiting, I’m sure, but it’s something I don’t know how to measure.
DJ: How do you assess the program’s strengths and weaknesses moving forward?
MB: Sunday hurt a lot. It was very disappointing for everybody involved, coaches, players, managers but including fans, and I understand that. There were almost 30,000 people here this past weekend. Everybody wanted to win, expected to win, and we were good enough to win.
When you get that close and it doesn’t happen, it’s very disappointing, but I thought this team played as hard, expended as much energy and emotion, did everything in their power to win the super regional. At the end you’re disappointed, but we’ll survive, and we’ll go on. As time goes on you’ll look back and realize that we did everything we could. Maybe we didn’t make the play or make the pitch. Certainly, I don’t think we played our best weekend, but I certainly don’t think we played our worst, and we played against a very good team. We talk about offense, and before the super regional we talked about how they were the second-best pitching staff in the country. We didn’t score very many runs, but they didn’t score many runs either. I thought it was a very well-played regional. We played well, but they played a little bit better than we did.
Moving forward, I think we had a great year. It didn’t finish the way we’d like, but to win the Southeastern Conference, to win 44 games, to host a regional and super regional, I think we had a pretty good year.
DJ: How do you see the makeup of next year’s team?
MB: It’s really too early to tell. I don’t know if you know that until after the fall. Once you get through the fall you start to get a feel for who will play in certain positions. It’s too early to look at that. On paper, depending on who signs and who doesn’t from the draft, it looks like a team that will pitch again. Defensively, I think we’ll catch the ball as good as we have. We’ll lose some outfielders. We’ll have to find who will be the guys running the balls down, because we’ve been very good in the outfield.
Offensively we return some people. We’ll return Matt Smith, who made big improvements this year, We’ll return Matt Snyder. When you return your 3-4 hitters it makes you feel pretty good. Miller and Ferguson return. You look at Taylor Hightower at catcher, could have played this year but had two seniors ahead of him. It was tough to get him in games, and I wish he could have played more. He’s champing at the bit ready to go, and I think we’ll have some recruits who can step in and help us.
On paper, the club looks as good or better than this club did.