A few years back, when Jeff Lebo was struggling as the basketball coach at Auburn, I asked a friend who covered the team if Lebo was in danger of losing his job. The friend shrugged. To be honest, he said, Auburn fans weren’t nearly as concerned about the basketball program as they were with the troubles of the baseball team.
As odd as that might sound in this neck of the woods, that’s true of many SEC towns. The interest meter reads football first, spring football second, baseball third. (And women’s softball is making a push for fourth.) Just Monday, when pairings were announced for this year’s NCAA Tournament, the SEC produced a record four of the eight national seeds. Seven league teams made the 64-team field, second only to the ACC’s 10.
Kentucky did not make it. A 32-25 overall record and 15-15 league mark were not enough for an invitation. Blame it on UK’s No. 67 RPI ranking. Blame it on a late-season fade after the Cats’ 8-3 conference start. Blame it on a 5-2 loss to Alabama in the first round of last week’s SEC Tournament.
When Alabama failed to make the NCAA field Monday, despite considerable money spent renovating its stadium, head coach Mitch Gaspard promptly resigned after going 234-193 with four NCAA appearances. As for Kentucky and head coach Gary Henderson, who has two years left on a $475,000 per year contract, the choice of staying the course or changing direction is not that clear-cut.
“As we do at the end of every season, we will evaluate all aspects of our program to position ourselves for success, from ongoing stadium plans to staffing,” said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart in a statement released by the school Monday.
Henderson is 258-199 with two NCAA tourney appearances in his eight years as head coach. He’s 105-134 in SEC play, including 72-77 over his last five years. His teams have been competitive, but this is the second straight year the Cats are sitting out the postseason.
On the other hand, unlike many of his conference colleagues, Henderson hasn’t enjoyed the benefit of a brand new or even refurbished stadium. UK has talked about it. And talked about it. For one reason or another, however, the first shovel has yet to break new ground.
The latest timeline has UK starting construction in 2017 for a 2018 opening. That’s in question, too, especially considering the latest state budget cuts. For UK, a new baseball stadium seems to be always on hold, a status that has surely hurt recruiting and fan interest.
In Barnhart’s defense, you can’t do everything at once. UK has built a new softball/soccer complex, upgraded its track and field facilities, renovated Commonwealth Stadium and is currently building new football offices and practice fields. Many of those projects benefited from private donors. That hasn’t been the case for baseball, not yet anyway.
Thus, Henderson is in a tough spot. He is certainly a respected baseball man. He was the SEC’s Coach of the Year in 2012. He served as the pitching coach for the USA Collegiate National Team last summer. But a couple of things work against him, however, one being just down the road.
Dan McDonnell has done an unbelievable job at Louisville, taking the Cards to the College World Series three times. U of L’s move to the ACC hasn’t hurt its baseball program one bit. The Cards are the No. 2 national seed for this year’s NCAA Tournament. If Louisville can do it, why can’t UK?
Then there’s the SEC, where college baseball is played for keeps. Four of the last eight College World Series champions belong to the SEC. There has been at least one SEC team in the CWS finals each of the last eight years.
It’s a tough, tough league, especially when you lack the tradition and facilities of your competitors. I’m not saying Gary Henderson would produce a guaranteed winner if his program finally got a new stadium, but I’d like to see him afforded the chance to try.
Gary Henderson’s record at Kentucky