Column: Has the program reached its ceiling under Mike Bianco?

Posted on Jun 13 2019 - 6:02am by John Macon Gillespie

The power of powder blue finally wore out.

Ole Miss baseball rode a hot streak through the SEC Tournament and regional round before falling in game three of their super regional in Fayetteville to the Arkansas Razorbacks—one win shy of a berth in the College World Series in Omaha. The Rebels bought in to a bit of superstition and wore their powder blue uniforms for the majority of their time in the SEC Tournament all the way through the super regional.

Now that the season is over, the Rebel fan base is divided as to their opinion on the state of the baseball program moving forward. When Ole Miss was swept by Mississippi State at home, dropped a midweek game against Arkansas State and dropped two of three in Knoxville against Tennessee, a coaching change at the end of the season seemed inevitable. Many believed that the air surrounding the program had become stale under the helm of Mike Bianco, who has spent the last 19 seasons in Oxford with one College World Series appearance.

Although the Rebels have been a consistent presence in the SEC West during the regular season, the postseason has been a different story under Bianco’s helm. Ole Miss has never won a road regional under Bianco and has gone 1-5 in Super Regionals during that span, including heartbreaking losses to teams like Texas and Miami in 2005 and 2006. There was also the collapse in last year’s Oxford Regional against Tennessee Tech, a year which saw Ole Miss gain a national seed after winning the most games in one season in program history.

All of these instances seemed to compound to a general consensus that Mike Bianco’s tenure at Ole Miss could be coming to an end.

Then something clicked.

Snapping a six-game skid, the Rebels salvaged a game in Knoxville to conclude the regular season. Ole Miss then got hot in Hoover and advanced to their second-straight SEC Championship game before blowing a lead and falling to Vanderbilt. The Rebels were then awarded a regional host site, something that a week prior seemed completely out of the question.

Head coach Mike Bianco argues with the first base umpire after a Rebel was called out. Ole Miss defeated Murray St 7-6 on Tuesday. Photo by Billy Schuerman

After the Rebels rolled through the Oxford Regional, hope seemed high that they could go intoFayetteville, steal the Super Regional and punch their ticket to Omaha. Ole Miss had won its last four series over the Hogs and was the only team in the last two years to win a series in Fayetteville.

That, obviously, did not happen.

During the SEC Tournament, athletic director Ross Bjork took the same position at Texas A&M. Given the current leadership vacuum at the University, the lack of a permanent chancellor or athletic director, it appears that no one is really in power to make a decision about Bianco’s future.

On the surface, this season seems like a success. Ole Miss won its regional after not playing its best baseball in the regular season and was eliminated in a winner-take-all game in a road Super Regional against a national seed and SEC West champion. The overall culture of the program, however, demands that we take a deeper look at this season’s results and debate of whether or not the program could do better.

In Bianco’s 19 seasons at the helm, the Rebels have only missed the NCAA Tournament three times and have won six regionals. However, Ole Miss’s lone trip to Omaha during this span in 2014 raises red flags as to whether or not Bianco can get the Rebels back to the College World Series.

Many fans believe that Bianco has built the Rebel program into what it is today, but also believe that the program has the capital and recruiting prowess to be a reasonably-consistent team in Omaha. Pair that mindset with seemingly-blown opportunities in the postseason against teams like Texas and Tennessee Tech, and the angst only grows.

Should Ole Miss have made more trips to Omaha during Bianco’s tenure? Probably. The opportunities have been there, and last year’s team was in prime position to contend for a national title had it not fallen in its regional.

Is this lack of postseason success a sign of a systemic problem within the program and, by extension, with the coaching staff? Everyone has his or her own opinion.

If the problem is with Bianco and his staff, could another staff do better? There is certainly a risk with any coaching search, but could another coach bring the same level of consistency that Bianco has given this program in his 19 years at the helm?

What we do know is this: the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2016 failed to make it to Omaha. Names like Ryan Rolison, Thomas Dillard and Grae Kessinger never got to play in the College World Series despite having the talent in place to do so.

We also know that, for now, Mike Bianco’s job is safe. Anything is possible when the IHL Board names the University’s new chancellor who, in turn, would name his or her own athletic director, but for now, change seems unlikely.

With some golden opportunities for trips to Omaha missed the last two years, the question still remains: have we seen Mike Bianco’s ceiling for this program, or are better days yet to come?