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Wrapping Up Bo-maha: How The SEC Became Dominant In College Baseball



DALLAS – In 1951, Tennessee lost to Oklahoma in the finals of the NCAA Baseball World Series, concluding the second year at its new home in Omaha, NE.


In 1975, Texas defeated future Southeastern Conference member South Carolina, at that time a Southern independent coached by famed New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson.


SC fell again in the 1977 finals, and future SEC power Arkansas (at that time a member of the Southwest Conference) fell in the ’79 title tussle.


Finally, in 1990, the Georgia Bulldogs, coached by former Southern Illinois fireballer Steve Webber (who passed away in Atlanta in 2022) broke the NCAA baseball crown ice for the SEC. LSU followed with its string of titles in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 2000, before winning again in 2023.


How can this 39-year lapse even in the NCAA diamond finals be explained when Texas, Arizona State, USC, even Missouri and Maine, were ruling the collegiate fields for some four decades?


For the SEC resurgence and dominance over the last 35 seasons, you begin with two words: Ron Polk. Okay, LSU fans, we're not forgetting all those nattys that tower over right field at Alex Box, how could we when we just mentioned them above?


But, Ronald George Polk (who should also properly have "PhD" after his name as well) had been a head coach for a dozen years already and made three trips to Omaha with two different schools before his good and longtime friend Stanley "Skip" Bertman joined the league at LSU in 1984. And, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the tutelage and guidance both gained from working for famed Miami (FL) coach Ronald George Fraser (what a name coincidence, huh?).


From the time that "Doctor" Polk (New Mexico, 1967) fast-tracked Georgia Southern into a national power as Head Coach from 1972-75 (with a MCWS appearance in 1973 to play Harvard, of all schools, in those teams’ World Series opener), followed by his hiring at Mississippi State--at the urging of Georgia Southern grad, close friend and then-MSU athletic trainer Straton Karatassos in conversations with MSU Athletic Director Charlie Shira--until now, the SEC baseball brand has simply grown and grown.


When Polk took over the MSU program prior to the 1976 season, it seems incredible now he was the first full-time Head Baseball Coach in the SEC.


LSU was using a football equipment manager as baseball head coach, Kentucky’s head coach worked as a loan officer in a bank half days to supplement a meager salary, Tennessee and Vanderbilt head coaches were football recruiting coordinators for their primary jobs (and always managed to sign some gridiron youngsters who could star on the diamond as well), and others in the SEC were full-time physical education teachers or retired football assistant coaches.


Baseball facilities in the conference ranged from wooden bleachers in a high school configuration with less-than-standard backstops and other facilities, to lean-to press boxes with low ceilings, sporting protruding nails that could cause damage to the media covering games, to football practice fields that were temporarily fenced in just in time around spring football workouts to accommodate baseball games.


SEC baseball – "You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today"…as the 1960s advertisements used to proclaim. And thank Ron Polk…again.


Polk, the former Grand Canyon College second baseman, urged his fellow SEC coaches every chance he got to ask for better fields and full-time positions, spoke frequently with the SEC office in Birmingham, AL to discuss college umpires, lack of game promotions, indifference of some athletic departments to college baseball, lack of tradition, and how SEC schools would continue to lose early-round draft prospects to the professionals without some incentives to play for schools in this conference. And yes, as he began to make headway at that level, he turned his sights nationally to the NCAA as well, a crusade he carried on for the rest of his coaching career and needed little invitation to discuss.


And it worked, through perseverance and, in some cases, downright obstinance. Polk served as the gadfly for positive change as he literally “bulldogged” MSU teams to appearances in the 1979, 1981, and 1985 NCAA World Series, coupled around a final-day pair of losses at the 1983 NCAA Central Region tourney in Austin to eventual national champ Texas, with Roger Clemens, Calvin Schiraldi and several teammates who eventually played in the majors. Polk had a couple freshmen on that team who'd also go on to their own Major League careers, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro.


It was also about that time when LSU hired Polk's protege Bertman, who emulated many of Polk's marketing and promotional practices in teaching the heavily-resourced but lightly-experienced fanbase in Baton Rouge that they too could find success--and championships--in college baseball.


LSU had a few years earlier chosen successful Jacksonville Head Coach Jack Lamabe over Polk's top assistant Mark Johnson (who went on to win 876 games in 21 seasons at Texas A&M), but Lamabe couldn't duplicate his success in the SEC, leading to the arrival of Bertman. In a "what if" speculation, many have wondered if Johnson had been hired instead of Lamabe, would he have been successful enough that the LSU call to Bertman might never have taken place? We'll never know where that other fork in the coaching road would've led.


And the team that the aforementioned Longhorns downed in the title game at Omaha in ’83 for the national championship? It was a 4-3 squeaker over Alabama, led by .525-hitting Dave Magadan. The Crimson Tide had by that juncture decided to devote a much larger budget to baseball and had plans for stadium expansion at Sewell-Thomas Field, thanks to the influence of a fellow SEC coach some 88 miles to the west – yes, Ron Polk.


When Mississippi State met Polk's demands with a new stadium at Dudy Noble Field in 1987, it even set off a succession of new ballparks around the SEC, a veritable arms race of facilities that today counts a third version of Dudy Noble, opened in 2019 that many consider the finest college baseball stadium outside of Omaha. The venue boasts 360-degree seating and sight lines, features loft apartments beyond the famous left field stands, and fans are greeted at the right field entrance by an 8-foot statue of Polk dedicated last season.


While he never won it all, Polk did win more than anyone else, in any sport, in Southeastern Conference history, 1373 victories. Consider this: if you're an SEC head baseball coach and reach the monumental 1000 wins, you'd still need to average 40 wins a year for nine more seasons to threaten Polk's mark.


Since those fateful days in the mid-1970s, recruiting, emphasis on baseball, revamping or new construction of every baseball stadium in the SEC over a 20-year period, and a cavalcade of College Baseball Hall of Fame coaches along with the venerable Polk have converted the SEC into the most formidable conference in college baseball.


Polk was always active in the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA), a partner in the administration of the MCWS, often serving on committees, including one that revamped the bracket format into two four-team units when network TV began to pay more attention to the sport and wanted to showcase the Omaha experience to the nation.


The Polk coaching tree has many branches throughout the world of college baseball. An obvious one is John Cohen, who played on Polk's 1990 team that made Omaha after a dramatic regional win over Florida State, joining the aforementioned Georgia team. Cohen won the SEC title at both Kentucky and Mississippi State, also finishing as runner-up in Omaha to 2013 National Champion UCLA. And, an assistant on Cohen's staff at both Kentucky and Mississippi State? Nick Mingione, who just led Kentucky to its first Omaha appearance. After Cohen retired from coaching and became Athletic Director at Mississippi State, he hired Chris Lemonis, who won the first crown for the Bulldogs in 2021.


And, you can't mention Florida State without Mike Martin, who like Polk was iconic and influential in ACC baseball but never hit the jackpot at the MCWS either. Martin's former player Link Jarrett just led the Seminoles back there himself this year. Speaking of the ACC, two former Clemson assistants, Tim Corbin and Kevin O'Sullivan, watched from the dugout during the 2007 Super Regional that Polk won at Dudy Noble for his last coaching trip to Omaha before retiring from head coaching the following year, his final contest against the Arkansas Razorbacks and Head Coach Dave Van Horn. Polk then became a volunteer for former assistant Brian Shoop at UAB, where he remained until Shoop's own retirement.


With the increased baseball emphasis and opportunity Polk brought to the SEC, Corbin and O' Sullivan both went on win their own national championships, O' Sullivan at Florida (another MCWS berth this year), and Corbin at Vanderbilt, where he also this year passed Polk and Bertman for most victories in the SEC Tournament. Bertman disciple Mike Bianco at Ole Miss didn't have the Omaha frequency of the others but turned a last-in bid in the tournament into a trophy as well.


Simply observe the last five champions in the MCWS – Vanderbilt in 2019, Mississippi State in 2021, Ole Miss in 2022, LSU in 2023, and this week, Tennessee in 2024 (State, UM and UT all winning their first NCAA baseball championship) – and that says it all.


Add to that, 10 of the last 16 champions in DI baseball have been SEC members. And, but for an ill-fated dropped foul ball by Arkansas in 2018 that gave Oregon State a chance they turned into their own title, the victory by Florida in 2017 would make the streak even longer than it already is.


Now back at MSU and serving as a special assistant to the athletic director and part-time radio analyst, Polk probably privately admits he awoke a sleeping giant in the rest of the SEC. It became so competitive that State in 2022 and Ole Miss in 2023 failed to make the 12-team SEC tourney field the year after they won NCAA crowns. Mississippi State returned to Polk-ish ways in 2024 with a 5th place finish in the SEC and regional runner up. Ole Miss returned to the SECT as the 12th seed, only to lose its single elimination opener on a walkoff homer to rival State.


And for SEC baseball coaches, players and enthusiasts, after they say their nightly prayers to the Good Lord, it might be a good idea to thank Him for also sending baseball genius and world-class coach "Doctor" Ron(ald George) Polk down to this globe 80 some years ago. That's the rest of the story, and as Coach often says to explain the quirks of the great game, that's baseball.


*****


Bo Carter is the Executive Director of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and is a long time professional in sports media and information. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and has plied his trade in the Southeastern Conference, the Southwest Conference, and the Big 12 Conference. In addition to his NCBWA duties, he also serves as a consultant and columnist for the National Football Foundation. Follow the NCBWA, which produces ranking polls for D1, D2, and D3, as well as naming All America teams at both the D1 and D2 levels and the Dick Howser Trophy (presented each year in Omaha at the Men’s College World Series) at @NCBWA. And, if you’re a college baseball fan, you don’t have to be media to be a member, check them out at ncbwa.com and join today!

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