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Before Nick Saban came to town and morphed into a living immortal with a statue, Mitch Gaspard was part of a group of men who woke up each morning trying to set a standard in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Technically, they wanted to recruit baseball players and develop them into better baseball players, with the byproduct being a program that could hold its own water in the SEC and make Omaha, Neb., a little June getaway that supporters visited regularly if not annually.
|Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard is trying to bring the Crimson Tide back to Omaha.|
Fundamentally, they wanted Alabama baseball just to stand for something.
This was 1995, and Gaspard, then 30 and hungry, arrived in Tuscaloosa as an assistant, following Jim Wells from Northwestern State, who was hired to replace Barry Shollenberger as head coach of the Crimson Tide. Todd Butler, now an assistant coach at Arkansas, also joined Wells' staff from McNeese State. They inherited some good players but not the town's unbridled adoration. They needed to win that.
"The timing was really good when we came in," said Gaspard, in his fourth season as Alabama head coach. "The first year we went to a [NCAA tournament] regional, which was unexpected, and then made it to Omaha in '96 and '97. We were able to energize the program and bring in some good players and have some instant success. Our energy came from the opportunity to prove ourselves as coaches. The folks here rallied around the baseball team, and it was a blast."
That was Gaspard's Tuscaloosa nearly 20 years ago. He left, off to do what young and ambitious professionals do -- search for opportunities to plug their résumés and fulfill their visions. He went back to Northwestern State to be a head coach, accumulating six seasons of learning how to lead a program and redefine the standards by which he expected himself to coach and his players to play.
And then he was pulled back to Alabama, back to Jim Wells, back to a place he and his family loved. The fall of '07 means something special to Gaspard. He's a Port Arthur, Texas, man, but Tuscaloosa had become home in his life.
"I thought it would put me in a good position [professionally] to be back this league, but I also just love the pride and tradition of Alabama," Gaspard said. "There's so much of that here. Once you get it in your blood, it doesn't leave you."
That fall means something special to the university and town, too, because another individual entered their lives.
"Nick Saban and football have raised the bar to a much higher standard," Gaspard said. "We talk about that a lot with our players. There's a standard that we have to meet and deal with. You have to be able to perform. You're rewarded when you do and criticized when you don't, but that's what it is when you play at the highest level.
"You have to be comfortable in those situations that are sometimes uncomfortable."
Gaspard learned that in his first trip through Tuscaloosa, before Saban's arrival. Coming off a '99 trip to the College World Series, the Crimson Tide were ranked in the top five entering the 2000 season and, for the first time, people expected elite success. Alabama had been to three World Series in four seasons and won 41 games in 2000, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was uniforms were hung back up and stored away for the summer after the regionals. The program had reached the standard it yearned for, and now Gaspard and the other Crimson Tide coaches were eating the burnt leftovers of the meal they cooked.
They faced criticism. They faced a public perception of failure. They faced the blunt realization that their "best" wasn't good enough. This was the level of athletics where good efforts and nice tries were absolutely measured by the lifeless digits of a scoreboard, and there are plenty of ways to make a living out there if you don't like it. This is where the profession is stripped bare for coaches: Be good or be gone.
"We all hit that as coaches," Gaspard said. "It hits you that this is real, and it's not easy every year. But then you find out what you're made of. Are you gonna duck and hide and blame the players? Or you gonna roll up your sleeves and work? You have to have a realization of who you are and what it takes to compete for championships."
I swear that's Mitch Gaspard speaking, not Mr. Saban himself, although there's an identity that has become associated with Alabama football on a national level after Saban's program has won three of the past four BCS championships.
It's an attitude of intense discipline and focus and efficiency. Really, it's the standard Gaspard was after 18 years ago in Tuscaloosa, only on a heightened and more visible level. But the pure pursuit of excellence is still the same.
"When you say 'Alabama,' there is a certain toughness to it," Gaspard said. "Toughness in football, you think defense and running game. You want to play that same way as it translates to baseball -- getting dirty, playing hard every night, having great energy and enthusiasm."
Gaspard will ask those things from his club this weekend when the Crimson Tide travel to Auburn. It's the Iron Bowl of baseball, and no, you likely will not hear about it if you don't live in the state. It doesn't carry the same heat on the national level as football, of course, and Auburn is 15-10 (0-6 SEC). Alabama is in a little different position despite a similar overall record, 16-10 (5-1 SEC) and winners of eight of its past 10 games.
The Crimson Tide are coming on, trying to bury the 21-34 season of a year ago that Gaspard calls "a disaster." They're chasing the standard that the program set more than a decade ago. Getting back to Omaha, getting back to a level where the town expects something of you, drives the Tide each day, Gaspard says.
Back to the standard that Saban has mastered and made the universal expectation at Alabama.
"There is a level of pressure here that you have to enjoy, and that's what makes it special," Gaspard said. "It's hard to even explain sometimes, but when you're in that culture and live it daily, there's an expectation that drives you as a coach. You have to embrace it, you really do."
Life at Alabama, life with Nick Saban, life in the big leagues.
Josh Holliday left home at Oklahoma State to go out and find himself as a coach. He knew what one looked like. He spent his entire childhood watching his father, Tom, now on the staff at NC State, run the Cowboys' program, but he needed to leave the comforts of Stillwater, where he played and then began his coaching career, to become his own man.
So he stopped at NC State and Georgia Tech and Arizona State and Vanderbilt, until last June when he returned home to Oklahoma State as the Cowboys' new head coach. In his first season, his club is off to a 19-5 start and ranked No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll.
"It's been a lot of fun reconnecting with old parts of yourself," Holliday told me this week. "You go off on a decade-long journey to grow and get better, and you come back and realize how emotionally connected you were to some things here. It was unique to come back to something I love."
Given Holliday's family history with the university, there's a deep sense of pride for him in leading the Oklahoma State program, and he finds his vision for how a team should operate resembling that of his father.
"I'm sitting at the same desk my dad put 30 of his best years into, and you have a sense of pride to take care of what the people before you put in place," Holliday said. "The most revealing characteristic I got from my dad is a sense of competition and toughness. There's no soft edges on him when it comes to the game. He has plenty of love and compassion when it comes to family and the time when a man has to be a man in that regard, but there was never a soft moment in our house as far as athletics and competition."
Oklahoma State gets Texas in Stillwater this weekend, the first big-time Big 12 series for Holliday at OSU, and it's another step in a season of reconnecting roots and re-establishing a family identity.
Apologies to USF (13-12, 3-0) and Pittsburgh (16-6, 3-0), who currently lead the Big East standings, but the conference series I'm most looking forward to this weekend is No. 21 Notre Dame (15-6, 2-1) at No. 17 Louisville (19-5, 1-2).
Louisville is probably the most talented team in the conference, scoring 7.0 runs per game -- second in the conference to Pitt (8.5) -- and ranking sixth in the country with a 2.07 team ERA (as of March 25). Junior right-hander Jeff Thompson is putting up ridiculous numbers on the mound, with a 0.46 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 39 innings, and sophomore righty Nick Burdi waits at the back end of the bullpen with his high-90s fastball.
The Cardinals have hitters who get on base and put pressure on you. They take aggressive leads and seek opportunities to run, ranking third in the nation with 70 stolen bases (center fielder Adam Engel is 23-of-26).
Notre Dame got a boost with basketball season ending, as Mik Aoki's Fighting Irish get sophomore right-hander Pat Connaughton back from basketball duty. He started against Kent State on Tuesday, throwing his first two innings of the season, and will be gradually built back into pitching shape. This could be one of those early conference series that play a big role in deciding postseason seeding at the end of the year.
The weekly SEC Thursday night game kicks off this week on ESPNU with Texas A&M at South Carolina, two teams that are both in interesting positions in the league.
The No. 14 Gamecocks were expected to be good coming into the season, and they have been, although getting swept last weekend at home against Arkansas took a little shine off the record (19-6, 2-4). But there's nothing to worry about with South Carolina. As we mentioned last week, from Nolan Belcher to Jordan Montgomery to Tyler Webb, on down the line, Chad Holbrook is loaded with arms.
The more interesting story to me right now is the Aggies (18-8, 5-1), who have put themselves in a good early position in the SEC and have won eight of their past nine games. Rob Childress' boys took two of three last weekend at Ole Miss. If they can get two in Columbia -- and to be sure, it's hard enough to win one there -- they get Auburn at Blue Bell Park in College Station next weekend and a chance to establish themselves somewhere near the top of the league with the final six weeks of the season ahead.
Texas A&M still has to go to Arkansas, but it at least gets LSU and Mississippi State at home.
Entering this season, Arizona carried some respect as the defending national champion, but the Wildcats are currently 15-11 and 0-6 in the conference as Andy Lopez tries to plug some holes in his club.
No 24 Stanford has the single best starting pitcher in the league in right-hander Mark Appel, but overall the Cardinal are 11-8 and 1-2 in conference. Arizona State seems to always be a threat in the league, and Sun Devils head coach Tim Esmay has some arms to work with, including freshman Ryan Kellogg, who threw a no-hitter at Oregon State last weekend. Problem is, ASU is offensively challenged, the primary reason why it's 13-7 and 2-4 in the league.
Right now, No. 3 Oregon State (21-2, 5-1), No. 7 UCLA (17-4, 5-1) and No. 9 Oregon (19-6, 5-1) have created a tiny bit of separation at the top of the league. I'm keeping an eye on the Bruins this weekend as they go to Tempe, Ariz., to play ASU. It's a swing series for the Sun Devils -- they can play well and re-establish position in the league race, or they can get run over by the Bruins and sink to the Pac-12's bottom tier.
This weekend doesn't mean nearly as much for UCLA, as it has earned some room for error, but it could validate some preseason opinions of the Bruins in a very small way. John Savage has a ton of talent on his club, which is why folks liked UCLA as an Omaha pick this season. The Bruins could stockpile a couple wins with a tough week coming up -- No. 6 Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday and then the Beavers come to Westwood for a weekend series.
Speaking of Oregon State, it goes to San Diego this weekend to play the Torreros, where you need to watch Kris Bryant at Fowler Park. Here's what Bryant has done so far this season: .364 batting average, .537 on-base percentage, .886 slugging percentage, 12 home runs, 31 walks to 17 strikeouts.
Those numbers are silly, and they illustrate how Bryant's talent has advanced beyond the college level -- he could probably hit in high-A minor league ball right now. Bryant -- listed at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds -- won't be a masher in pro ball, but he's a first-round lock this June and could be the first college hitter selected in what is viewed as a weak class overall.
Bryant is a good athlete, but he's big for his position and some evaluators wonder if he can stay at third base over the course of his pro career. If he has to move to a corner -- either a corner outfield spot or first base -- it places even more of a premium on his power production.
Today in Omaha: High of 54 degrees, mostly sunny with a slight chance of rain, 79 days until CWS Game 1.