OXFORD, Miss. – With breakthrough success comes the luxury of laughter, and the breathing room that allows Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco to say that reaching the College World Series took longer than he imagined.
“That was one of the jokes, that it’s a shame it’s taken this long because 14 years ago when I got here I had the blueprint,” Bianco said before the Rebels’ last practice in Oxford.
“We went to Omaha four times as an assistant at LSU,” he said, “and I stayed in the exact same room. It’s amazing how much we had down the routine of the College World Series. Heck, it’s not even the same stadium anymore.”
Arguably, the larger arena of college sports is not the same anymore, either.
Sure, the basic competition is relatively unchanged. Ole Miss (46-19) will play No. 3 national seed Virginia (49-14) Sunday, June 15, at 7 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park. Nine innings per game, three outs per turn at-bat, scratching and spitting in HD.
The Rebels are one of eight teams still standing just a year after Mississippi State finished second at the CWS. But when Bianco speaks of his blueprint having reached its expiration date, he could be talking about so much more than the CWS.
Yes, this is the first Ole Miss baseball team to reach the CWS since 1972. But more telling is that since Bianco was hired in June of 2000, Ole Miss has had four football coaches – David Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron, Houston Nutt and Hugh Freeze – and three men’s basketball coaches – Rob Evans, Rod Barnes and Andy Kennedy.
Bianco received congratulations from both Freeze and Kennedy, and, as Bianco said, “You’re in that coaching fraternity, and you know how difficult it is, and you know how hard you work.”
But here’s something Freeze and Kennedy might know deep down, but probably wouldn’t want to give voice: Bianco and his team have a chance to do something that probably will be impossible going forward for football and basketball at Ole Miss – win a national championship.
Look at what the baseball team had to do just to get to the CWS: rally from a 1-0 series deficit in the Super Regional and beat No. 1-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette twice on the road. In football, Rebel fans still count moral victories for staying on the field with Alabama.
Players grasp these realities, too. The football players know there is always Alabama and Auburn and LSU – and that’s just in their own division. The basketball players know that Kentucky’s John Calipari will always get the most talent and that, say, ESPN’s Jay Bilas has little reason to frequent the Tad Pad.
Meantime, the baseball players actually believe that anything is possible because, well, it is.
“It’s a game of failure and anybody can lose,” said Rebels outfielder Braxton Lee. “(Louisiana-Lafayette) had the best batting stats in the country, and we beat ’em. It’s baseball. That’s what happens.”
Said freshman relief pitcher Wyatt Short (Southaven High School): “In baseball, it’s like anybody can win on any given day. It’s not the best team, necessarily; it's the team that plays the best. The worst team can beat the best team on a given day.”
And Ole Miss is far from the worst team in the eight-team field in Omaha. In fact, the Rebels led the country with nine players selected in the recent MLB Draft.
Bianco probably should be playing up the storylines that benefit the coach – the team’s “toughness” and “chemistry” and blah, blah, blah – but he doesn’t want this team’s talent to be forgotten, or the fact that all those other Super Regional teams he’s had were pretty good, too.
“We’ve had a lot of successful teams,” he said. “They just didn’t get to Omaha. It’s the goal of any team and coach to win a national championship.”
Said first baseman Sikes Orvis: “It’d be something special for Rebel Nation.”
Special and comforting, something to keep fans warm on those cold nights when Nick Saban and John Calipari crush dreams and sign lucrative long-term contract extensions.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.