LAFAYETTE, La. -- Sometimes one win can change the entire complexion of a college baseball program, and even a head coach.
At least for head coach Mike Bianco and the University of Mississippi Rebels, that time finally arrived Monday night in the heart of Cajun Country, as his talented group of hard-nosed Rebels used a balanced performance to beat national seed Louisiana-Lafayette 10-4 to advance to the College World Series for the fifth time overall, but just the first time since 1972.
Years of postseason frustrations for the Rebels, suddenly, gone ... just like that.
Mike Bianco's Rebels punched through to Omaha for the first time since 1972. (Ole Miss photo)
Ole Miss finally breaking through and getting to the College World Series has significant ramifications in the Southeastern Conference. It's also a big deal in the State of Mississippi, as the Rebels are in Omaha on the heels of rival Mississippi State reaching the CWS Championship Series last June.
As the final out was recorded in Lafayette Monday night, a few Ole Miss memories hurried through my head. I remember when the Rebels had a 1-0 series lead over Texas (2005), Miami (2006) and Virginia (2009) in NCAA Super Regionals, only to stumble in the final two contests of those respective series, forced to watch the CWS from afar.
Another memory that crossed my mind had a maroon and white tint to it. Last year in Omaha as Mississippi State went on a magical run to face UCLA in the title series, I remember walking to the ballpark one day, peering across the parking lot at a tailgate with plenty of maroon-clad faithful, seeing a sign, that at the time, made me snicker -- not out of disrespect for Ole Miss, but for the mere love of intense in-state rivalries.
That sign, with huge red letters, spelled out "O-M-A-H-A". Below each letter, in what you could call Ole Miss blue, said the phrase "Ole Miss at home again." That phrase was one MSU faithful attached to the Rebels, joking about their past failures.
For the past few seasons, that's the phrase Ole Miss fans, players and coach Mike Bianco have had to listen to, whether they cared or not. Now, though? Chances are good that sign has found its way to either a trash dumpster or someone's garage. Because as of Monday night, it has no meaning, only ancient history. The only thing to say about Omaha is the Rebels will be there this weekend, beginning tournament play against Virginia Sunday night with an epic pitching matchup that likely will feature righthanded pitcher Chris Ellis for the Rebels, and lefty Nathan Kirby for the Cavaliers.
Mike Bianco has been coaching college baseball for many years. He was an assistant coach under legendary coach Skip Bertman in the early 1990s, spent three seasons at McNeese State, before heading to Ole Miss, where he's tallied a 555-321-1 record, 12 NCAA postseason appearances in 14 seasons with the Rebels. Also, Bianco has guided the program to five NCAA Super Regionals.
Now he's got a CWS appearance to his credit.
"I just tried to coach them up. I told our kids our road to Omaha was going to be bumpy and windy. But to be honest, I didn't think it would take this long," Bianco said after the ULL win. "I told the boys in right field afterward that when I left LSU after winning three national titles, I thought, boy, Skip Bertman sure made this look easy.
"As a coach, you just hope you get your program there [Omaha] at some point," he continued. "I didn't think it would take 17 years, but this has been a great, great run. We've had some teams that should've been in Omaha. I'm just very thankful and very happy for this group and university. We deserve this."
Bianco deserves this the most, though. Though a number of Ole Miss faithful have been calling for a change of direction the past few seasons, they were boisterous and completely void at looking at the situation from an overall perspective. Yes, they were disappointed the Rebels hadn't been able to get to the CWS. Bianco and his coaching staff, certainly, even more disappointed.
But now, with a CWS appearance to Bianco's credit, here are some astonishing aspects of his tenure with the Rebels: Before Bianco's arrival, Ole Miss had reached the NCAA postseason on seven occasions in program history. Bianco has done it 12 times. Even more striking, the Rebels averaged a whopping 1,900 fans in Bianco's first season. Now? The Rebels averaged 7,997 this season and have established one of the greatest home field advantages in college baseball.
Bianco would deflect all credit of this to his players and fans, but it's no coincidence this all has happened under his watch.
Finally, I feel like Bianco and his coaching staff did their best coaching job of their tenure in 2014. The Rebels tallied a 38-24 overall record last season and competed in the NCAA Raleigh Regional. With the departures of righthanded pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, along with other key players, it was supposed to be a down year for the Rebels. Chris Ellis had question marks abound going into the spring, and Christian Trent had high acclaim from his junior college, but there was supposed to be a massive difference between JUCO ball and competing in the SEC. There are countless other examples of guys stepping up, such as speedy outfielder Auston Bousfield emerging as an elite hitter on the national stage.
Ole Miss entered the spring picked to finish sixth in the SEC West Division. Now it's headed to Omaha.
One final memory about this Ole Miss run came to me while finishing up this column. It was in Monday's press conference as I asked Bianco what this run and trip to Omaha meant to him, only on a personal level. Bianco gazed straight ahead, showed a light, quick, smile, then proceeded to answer the question.
For Bianco, it was all about what this meant to the university, not him.
Say what you want, but Mike Bianco is Ole Miss baseball.
Let's just hope Ole Miss fans don't take that for granted again.