May 23, 2011 9:17:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Timing is everything in life, especially college athletics.
What is the right time to call a timeout to stop momentum? When is the best time to pull a starting pitcher late in a game? Who do you choose to take the final shot to win a game?
For Mississippi State, the timing is right to look for a new softball coach.
Initially, the decision not to renew the contract of veteran coach Jay Miller appeared to be puzzling. Miller''s knowledge of the game is unquestioned, as are his connections to the highest levels of softball in the United States. Miller was a member of the U.S. National Team coaching staff since 1997 before being replaced as head coach earlier this season, so it''s difficult to believe MSU will find a more well-respected and better-connected coach than Miller.
It''s also hard to deny Miller, who won his 1,000th career game this season, didn''t do a good job with the Bulldogs this season. There were doubts before the season MSU would be able to help Miller reach his coaching milestone in 2011, but it was competitive in the Southeastern Conference and qualified for the eight-team league tournament despite a 10-18 conference mark.
The timing also didn''t appear to be right considering the University of Mississippi failed to renew the contract of softball coach Missy Dickerson after a 14-39 finish that included only three victories in the SEC. Schools never should make decisions based on how they compare to others, but MSU softball accomplished more (six NCAA tournament appearances) than Ole Miss in the past nine years, so the choice not to bring Miller pushes MSU back to Ole Miss'' level, or back to the beginning.
In the end, a 24-32 finish and a second losing season in a row without a bid to the NCAA tournament was too much for Miller to overcome.
But the results in the opening round of the NCAA tournament show programs, even in the ultra-competitive SEC, can make quick transitions. Led by fourth-year coach Rachel Lawson, the University of Kentucky upset the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., to advance to the Super Regionals, or Sweet 16. The Wildcats, who earned their first trip to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and their first national ranking in 2010, will play host to California at 11 a.m. Saturday in Lexington, Ky.
Three years ago, Kentucky was 17-37 and 3-25 in the SEC.
Lawson was an assistant softball coach at Maryland before spending three seasons as head coach at Western Kentucky. She didn''t have a sparkling record (92-84) at WKU, but her program had success against other ranked schools.
Kentucky had seven consecutive losing seasons before Lawson arrived. This season, there are six players from the state of Kentucky on the team''s 20-player roster. That number of in-state players on the team is comparable to MSU, which had two players from Mississippi on its 21-player roster, Ole Miss, which had four of 18 on its squad, and Alabama, which has four players from Alabama on its 17-player roster.
Of the three states, Mississippi likely has the weakest feeder system when it comes to the caliber of its high school and travel ball programs, so it is debatable if MSU''s next coach will be able to build a program better than Miller''s made up largely of in-state players.
The trend for success, at least with Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, the SEC''s other Super Regional teams, appears to be split. Florida and Georgia have 10 and 12 players, respectively, from their home states and six and four, respectively, from the state of California.
MSU had no players from California (one from Hawaii) and two from Florida on its 2011 roster. Those two states are two of the best for high school and travel ball programs.
Given those realities, MSU needs to make a bigger commitment to softball. The decision not to renew Miller''s contract shows the school wants more, so it is time to give more.
But is the school prepared, or capable, of doing that?
MSU''s softball facility needs to be upgraded. If MSU wants a coach to deliver more than a 295-253 record in a league that sent seven of its 11 softball-playing members (Vanderbilt doesn''t field a team) to the NCAA tournament, it needs to give a new coach something to sell, or at least a plan that individual can use to attract elite players.
The softball facilities at Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee overwhelm MSU''s. To be fair, the athletic budgets at those schools dwarf the size of MSU''s pocketbook. And with MSU already planning other improvements to facilities -- most importantly to Davis Wade Stadium, the football team''s home -- it''s unclear if MSU has the resources or the desire to upgrade the 750-seat MSU Softball Field.
As much as a new coach could provide a fresh start or a spark to the program, MSU also needs to do a better job selling its softball program. A bigger softball facility would tell recruits MSU is serious about competing with the best. A bigger recruiting budget also would help MSU identify more prospects and help coaches convince players MSU wants to be a fixture in the national conversation, not just a a school that is content to have a few winning seasons.
In just the past decade, the SEC has developed into one of the nation''s premier softball conferences. Schools like Georgia and Tennessee have upgraded facilities, and Florida has exploded thanks to the arrival of coach Tim Walton.
MSU can experience similar success.
Four SEC teams will compete against five Big 12 teams, six Pac-10 schools, and one Conference USA school (Houston) this weekend for a chance to move on to Oklahoma City for the Women''s College World Series. Even if the talent pool of prep players in Mississippi isn''t as deep as Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, or Texas, there have to be more players out there who want a chance to compete against the best in the nation. It''s up to MSU''s administration to find the right coach who can make that happen.
Why not Starkville? It''s time to make it happen.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.