In case you were unaware, Baylor fired longtime head baseball coach Steve Smith this past summer after the Big 12 conference tournament.
To be fair, Steve Smith did a fine job. He had some great highs, but I just don’t think he was the best person for the job, and it was time for a change. Smith did a good job of getting the Bears to regionals, but he just couldn’t get them to win on a consistent basis. Out of the thirteen regional appearances the Bears made under his reign, only one of them resulted in a trip to Omaha. He put Baylor baseball on the map, leaving it better than he inherited it, but it was time to pass the torch.
I think this transition in coaching falls under some sort of greater play for Baylor. There have been some big personnel changes recently at the school ranging from the head football coach, all the way to a new President (and later Chancellor). What’s most interesting about these changes is that none of them are coming from within. Nobody is being promoted to these positions. They are all being appointed. And in the sports department, Ian McCaw is appointing them. When basketball needed a facelift, McCaw appointed Scott Drew. When it was time for the football team to try and end a 13-year bowl drought, the man to do the job was Art Briles. So when it was baseball’s time for an upgrade, he went outside the Baylor bubble all the way to California (with a small layover in Dallas, apparently).
Enter Steve Rodriguez.
In English soccer, they swap managers around the same way we trade stocks. If there’s anything that follows a new manager though, it’s energy and excitement. There’s always excitement with a new coach, and it never fails to spread to the players. I mean, who doesn’t get excited over new things? This feels even more appropriate because it’s the New Year with resolutions and all. The question that looms though is whether or not he can do it.
On paper, Rodriguez’s accomplishments don’t differ too much from Smith’s. Coming out of a generally weaker “West Coast Conference” he produced seven tournament appearances and five conference championships since 2004 when he took over as head coach. In that same time period, Smith made seven tournament appearances and won two conference championships, including the trip to Omaha that’s absent from Rodriguez’s history. So what makes him different?
The key lies in the timeframe. Rodriguez accomplished all of that in his first 11 years as a head coach, while Smith held the position for almost double that. Now that’s not to say Smith didn’t have accomplishments pre-2004, but there isn’t much more to write home about. I think that Rodriguez’s Pepperdine career was moving upwards though as he brought those conference titles after a drought on a consistent basis. He lifted them in their conference. Smith’s Baylor has been inconsistent over the years in that department, only winning three over his career with zero tournament championships.
The biggest difference for me though, is the players themselves. Since 2004, Baylor has had four All American baseball players and they all came from the 2012 season. Pepperdine had seven over multiple years and a lot of them were freshman. Rodriguez seems to know something about recruiting. California is comparable to Texas when it comes to high school and select baseball, but Cali has the upper edge in the department of collegiate competition because of their depth. It’s pretty impressive that a small market sports school like Pepperdine produced they way they did. They reached new heights, which is what Baylor wants.
This is why I think Baylor is such a good fit. Baylor needs good recruiting. Private schools always do because they’re more expensive and don’t have the scholarships that football and basketball do. So who better than someone who succeeded in a similar situation? With Baylor doing so well in other sports, causing their program reputations to rise, it’s a great time to make a coaching change. But what makes it the perfect time to make a switch is that Big 12 baseball is pretty much up for grabs. UT is on the downside with Augie’s career possibly nearing the end. TCU has prevailed over the last few seasons on the national scale, but the conference tournament and the regular season has had just about everyone get a piece of the pie over the last five seasons. Now is as good of a time as any for the (inevitable) change.
I’m not too sure how the first season will go since it’s a bunch of players who aren’t Rodriguez’s recruits. But, they’re talented and I think it will be fun to watch regardless. To be honest, I was hoping for a little more from the California department in his recruiting class for next season, but I’ll trust he knows what he’s doing. The last few seasons have been filled with games where I was more interested in the opposition than I was with the Bears. My personal highlights were going to see a UCLA series (in a season where they ended up being National Champs), and seeing hotshot Brandon Finnegan throw in person (and get rocked by Aaron Dodson in front of more than a dozen scouts). Now, I’m just looking forward to Baylor baseball games, and not games that happen to feature Baylor in them … and that feels spectacular.
Will Steve Rodriguez follow in the footsteps of Scott Drew and Art Briles? I have no reason to doubt he has the capability. I’ll be bold and predict a championship by the time his first recruiting class graduates in five years.
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