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Simmons Field: Searching for Missouri's New Baseball Coach

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The question is not just Who should MU AD Mack Rhoades hire to replace Tim Jamieson? Better yet, What should he be looking for in a new head coach for Mizzou Baseball?

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Asst. Coach Tony Vitello talks to SS Ian Kinsler, Big 12 Tournament 2003
Asst. Coach Tony Vitello talks to SS Ian Kinsler, Big 12 Tournament 2003
Len Laskowski
We know how the process works for hiring a new coach for a major sport: we get rumors, we get SOURCES!! ... and then we get a hire that might not have had any link to the rumors and sources. ...Tracking coaching rumors is a sport in and of itself. As with recruiting, there are "winners" and "losers" in this fake game. And as with recruiting, there are hot boards. Lots of hot boards. Let's keep track of them. (Missouri basketball coaching search: The April 18 hot-list hot list, RockMNation, April 18th, 2014)
I suppose the key phrase there would be "major sport".  Since baseball hasn't been considered a major sport at Mizzou for at least half a century, it's only logical that the Mizzou Baseball coach search is not going to resemble what Tiger fans have gone through during the past three basketball coach searches.

I've got a hot list.  The national college baseball sites will have their short lists, which they'll share and then move on to other things. But don't expect a lot of other lists.

As for SOURCES, I have a few. I doubt, though, that they'll be any more reliable than the basketball search SOURCES were.

Mostly what I have, though, is information about how the D-1 College Baseball world works, and some ideas on who might be - or should be - on the hot list.

Actually, none of us have much of a clue how this is going to go. This will be Mack Rhoades' first hire as the Mizzou Athletic Director.  His hiring habits at Houston show virtually no predictable patterns or tendencies at all, according to Bill Connelly's analysis.
In these three major sports, Rhoades made five hires at Houston. Two were old hands, three were young up-and-comers, and one of the three young guys was a bit of a loyalty hire. After the hire of Kim Anderson, I joked that Mike Alden clearly doesn't have a type. Rhoades perhaps doesn't either. And that's fine. But Rhoades made it clear that he has a shorter leash than Alden over these last few years. He also proved that, at least while running a mid-major program (the rules might change now that he's in the SEC), he's willing to take on a redemption project and hire someone with the "shady winner" label.
I wouldn't at all be surprised if there's an announcement of a hire before I even have a chance to get all my speculations posted. But here are my thoughts, such as they are:

What Mizzou Should Be Looking For

A couple of Mizzou players from the '50's told me at the reunion weekend a couple of years ago that what the Tigers need is "a hard nosed coach like Hi Simmons was.  Gotta be an SOB to compete and win." There are some successful current D1 coaches who would definitely fit that description, but I'm not so sure Hi Simmons' demeanor would fit well into the MU culture of 2015. If you win, you can apparently get by for a decade with being a joyless misanthrope, but not necessarily an out-and-out SOB.

To me, what made Hi Simmons successful for so long was that he was an innovator.  He was ahead of the curve on the constant changes in college baseball during an era when the sport was evolving constantly.  He was a leader among NCAA Baseball,  helping to drive those changes and staying a step ahead.  It was only when he got older and began relying on what had worked for him in the past that the program slowed down.

Mizzou's next coach needs to be someone who is ahead of the curve in today's rapidly changing D1 Baseball environment.  The failure to stay a step ahead, in my opinion, is the main reason why Missouri Baseball has struggled to get traction and move aggressively forward with sustainable growth, even before the move to the SEC.

Most people blame the move to the SEC for this team's problems.  There's no doubt SEC Baseball is a challenge. As I've said before, though, the SEC may be the best baseball conference, but not by the leaps and bounds most people like to think. However you estimate the SEC's superiority, it's definitely a conference that requires an energetic, adaptive approach.

As Arkansas Assistant Tony Vitello (one of the guys on my short list, below), said in a Media Day interview before the 2014 season, "The SEC: You've either gotta run from it or run to it."

Personally, I think the change to the BBCOR bats in 2011 was a bigger factor in MU's slide than the switch to the SEC. Whether it's TJ's approach, the recruiting, or a combination thereof, this program has not adapted well to that change. This team has struggled to hit well in the Big 12, the SEC, and in non-conference games over the past five years.

Hunter Mense, the new hitting coach, has made some progress the past two seasons, but the offense has continued to be a drag on the pitching. Many top hitting recruits have been heading elsewhere as a result.

Mizzou's new coach, and his assistants, needs to be able to coach players to hit, field and pitch within the new realities of the game as it's played in D1 and the SEC.

This coach will also need to be able to creatively and aggressively recruit elite players to Mizzou.  That will mean a combination of nailing down the top recruits in the state (not just from St. Louis), competing aggressively with the SEC for top recruits in the Southeast, and also attracting elite players from other parts of the country with the promise of playing in the high-exposure SEC without having to spend three years living in the Deep South.

Several of the SEC schools have state sponsored, often lottery-funded, subsidies for in-state students, which gives them an edge in being able to spread their limited scholarship money to out-of-state players who aren't eligible for those perks.  Former Chancellor Bowen Loftin talked about finding ways to counteract that disadvantage, but no progress has been made on that front so far.

It would also be helpful if the new coach arrives with more enthusiasm for innovative promotion of the program to the fans in Columbia, both on campus, in Mid-Missouri, and in St. Louis and Kansas City.  It's been shown historically that the Olympic sports that get the best buzz and attention are the ones led by a coach who takes an active role in promotion. Tim Jamieson was never an active promoter of his program.

Lastly, it would be preferable to hire someone for whom Mizzou is a destination job. It does this program little good to hire a hot coach who makes an impression and then leaves for another elite conference team closer to his home stomping grounds.

Having said all that, perhaps the biggest qualification is to find someone who is eager to build a competitive program in spite of having the deck stacked against him from day one. Dave Matter said as much on the Tiger Sidelines podcast (5/27/16):
Frankly, I don’t know what coach could come in and magically make this program competitive and relevant in the SEC, because they’re so far behind in facilities and resources and weather, which you can’t change.

Where Mizzou Should Be Looking

Interesting note: Missouri has never - as in not ever - hired a Head Baseball Coach from outside Mizzou. Prior to Hi Simmons, the baseball coach was sort of an after thought.  Somebody from the football staff was or some other faculty member (or even an upperclassmen) was told they were to add coaching baseball to their job description for a year or two.The Big 3 - John "Hi" SimmonsGene McArtor and Tim Jamieson - were all hired from within. Simmons was already on the football staff with Don Faurot when he was handed the baseball job in 1937; McArtor was an assistant to Simmons when he took over in '73; Jamieson, likewise, was an assistant to McArtor when he was promoted in 1994.

Tim Jamieson was the last surviving MU coach hired by Joe Castiglione (now the AD at Oklahoma) and not Mike Alden. Now Mack Rhoades is the Missouri AD and he needs to find an SEC-caliber baseball coach.

I have no doubt one of the first people Mack Rhoades will consult is former Missouri Baseball Head Coach Gene McArtor. He will be a unique and valuable resource in this search. He is no longer officially with the MU athletic department, but from 2008 through 2015 he was the NCAA National Coordinator for Baseball Umpires.  That job kept Coach Mac in touch with a lot of people in college baseball.  He also is very aware of the changes that have taken place in college baseball over the past decade, due to the necessity of keeping the umpiring current. He is frequently in attendance at Taylor Stadium and has been the color man on many SEC Network TV broadcasts of Mizzou Baseball, so he is familiar with the details of the program's recent struggles.

We supposed to be SEC


Mack Rhoades might also want to take a look at where the other current SEC Baseball head coaches were hired from:

Internal Hires:
Succesful Head Coach at a Top-Tier baseball school
Succesful Head Coach at a mid-tier D-1 baseball school
Assistant coach in a Tier-1 conference
That list not only shows us where those coaches came from, but there's another story behind that list as well. All but two of those head coaches (Gary Henderson and John Cohen) had previously taken a team to the College World Series as either a head coach or assistant. When SEC athletic directors hire a new baseball coach, they're not just looking for someone to put new life into their program or step it up a notch.  They want someone who has been to Omaha and has an idea of how to get a team the College World Series.

My Short List

Here's my short list of possibilities that may be, or ought to be, considered. It's certainly not exhaustive. Rhoades may have someone else in mind.

Internal hires:
  • Assistant Coach Hunter Mense and Volunteer Assistant J.C. Fields are the only current Mizzou assistants who have enough experience to make them possible choices, and that mostly because of their Missouri roots. Truthfully, though,neither of them has had the sort of success anyone would expect from a serious candidate for an SEC head coaching job. They'll get their chance some day, but they'll likely have to build their resume elsewhere first
Alumni
  • The most experienced MU alum in college coaching would be Tony Vitello, who left the Tigers for TCU in 2010, and moved to an assistant job at Arkansas for the past two seasons. I would be very surprised if Vitello isn't at or near the top of Rhoades's short list.
  • Former Mizzou pitcher Matt Hobbs just finished his third year as pitching coach at Wake Forest after four years on Mizzou's staff. He previously was an assistant at the University of San Diego and UC-San Diego. If he shows interest, he should get some consideration.He did a good job during his time shepherding the Missouri pitchers.
  • There are a couple of other MU alums with extensive experience in coaching - in the minor leagues. Former Tiger 2B Torre Tyson spent several years coaching in the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles organizations, and former Mizzou CF Jayce Tingler worked his way up through the Texas Rangers organization and is now a coach on the major league Rangers' staff. Both would be intriguing choices as MU head coach.  They've proven themselves as developers of talented ballplayers and their pro ball experience would be a plus in recruiting. The timing may be wrong for Tingler, who is finally in the big leagues. Tyson left the coaching ranks after the 2014 season and is currently working for the Scott Boras agency.
  • Another MU alum who is an assistant D-1 coach is former outfielder Bryson Leblanc (UC Riverside). He is doing good work, but UC-Riverside's record during Leblanc's tenure is not gong to attract a lot of positive attention from anyone looking to hire an SEC head coach
If Mack Rhoades is looking to hire a #MizzouMade coach, Tony Vitello is probably the top pick, although Tyson or Tingler would also be intriguing choices.

Successful Head Coach in a D-1 conference
  • Dan Heefner, Dallas Baptist.  Heefner has turned DBU, a religious school without a conference affiliation, into a perennial contender in the Missouri Valley and nationally. In 2015 he took DBU to the #1 spot in the RPI rankings and deep into the postseason.  He's been in Texas for awhile, but his roots are in Illinois and Iowa. A move to Missouri and the SEC could be appealing to him.
  • Darin Hendrickson, St. Louis Billikens.  In eight years he has built the SLU program into a competitive program. His roots are in Illinois and Missouri.
  • Todd Whitting, Houston. Whitting was hired away from TCU by Mack Rhoades to take over at Houston, where he has taken the Cougars to a Regional and a Super Regional.
  • Tony Robichaux, Louisiana-Lafayette, has been very successful at La-La.  He has deep roots in the South. If Rhoades is looking for a candidate with strong recruiting relationships in SEC country, he could do no better than Robichaux.
  • John Szefc, Maryland Terrapins: In his third year with the Terps, Szefc had his team in the 2015 Super Regionals after a long career of being a part of successful programs.
  • Darin Erstad, Nebraska Cornhuskers. "The Cornhuskers have made a steady climb under their former All-American outfielder and punter. Last week’s suffocating sweep of Texas means this year appears to be a breakthrough season. Wonder if he’d ever leave his alma mater though?" (d1baseball.com)
  • John McCormack, Florida Atlantic Owls. Known as a excellent recruiter, his roots are in South Florida and New York.
  • John Calvi, South Alabama. Former assistant coach at South Carolina, has done well at South Alabama.
  • Steve Bieser, SEMO Redhawks. A SEMO alum, Bieser was head coach at St. John Vianney HS in Kirkwood, MO, prior to returning to SEMO, initially as pitching coach. He has made SEMO a successful competitor in the Ohio Valley Conference.
If the new A.D. is looking to hire someone with D-1 head coaching experience, Dan Heefner is the top choice from this list, with Darin Hendrickson a strong contender as well. It's also not out of the question that Mack would go after Todd Whitting, repeating the baseball hire he made at Houston.

Assistant Coach at a school in a Top Tier conference
  • Andy Sawyers, Kansas State. Sawyers has extensive experience as an assistant coach for both Texas A&M and KSU.
  • Travis Jewett, Hitting Coach, Vanderbilt. It would be nice to have the architect of Vandy's hitting working for Mizzou rather than against them.
  • Rob Walton, pitching coach, Oklahoma State. Highly respected pitching coach, previously successful at ORU.
Any one of those men would be a great head coach at Mizzou, but the truth is, if Rhoades wants to hire a top assistant coach, the more obvious choice is Tony Vitello, the home grown candidate.

My Top 3

Not that AD Rhoades is going to ask my opinion, but my top three candidates for the job would be:
  1. Dan Heefner: Some would see this as a risky choice, going for a head coach at a mid-major school. Heefner's record of success at that small school, though, makes him a great candidate to excel at a school in a top-tier conference.

  2. Tony Vitello: Vitello, in my opinion, would be better as a head coach than he's been as either a pitching or hitting coach. And he'd probably stay at Mizzou for a long time.

  3. Torre Tyson: Tyson's personality would send a jolt through Mizzou. He'd probably be the best pick for promoting the program to the fans and community. This would also be a pick that signals we want to be a program that produces pro players.
That's a good list to begin with. Over the next few days, if AD Mack Rhoades isn't too quick on the trigger, I'll be taking a look at a few of these men, their careers, their Mizzou/Midwest connections, their recruiting and coaching chops, and my own thoughts.

In a PowerMizzou.com podcast (5/26/16), Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com talked about what Mizzou should be looking for if Tim Jamieson is to be replaced:
If you're going to do something like that, is Tony Vitello your hire? And as much as I like Tony, I just don't feel like at this point that you send Tim Jamieson packing to hire an assistant at Arkansas. I'm just not sure that's your end-game. So I'm of the belief that if I'm Missouri, if I truly feel like I need to make a change, you need to go out and make a splash hire.

Feel free to share your own ideas about what or who Mack Rhoades should be looking for in a new head baseball coach.