Gary Henderson, normally low key, was any thing but when he celebrated after Mississippi State defeated Vanderbilt to advance to the College World Series.

For what it’s worth: I would have named Gary Henderson my baseball coach first thing Monday.

And first thing Monday means after the Bulldogs defeated Vanderbilt in extra innings in the wee hours of Monday morning to win a Super Regional and become the 10th – and most unlikely team – in Mississippi State history to advance to the College World Series.

I don’t need to see how the ‘Dogs do in Omaha to make my decision. Henderson already has made it for for me.

Just this morning, Henderson deservedly was named Perfect Game/Rawlings National Coach of the Year.

Rick Cleveland

Henderson took over a young, deflated, 0-3 team in the first week of the season and guided it to success nobody anticipated. Well, maybe Jake Mangum anticipated it. Let’s go back to a rainy February night at Jackson State, when the Bulldogs played their first game under Henderson, the day after Andy Cannizaro was dismissed and Henderson took over as interim coach.

State played well and defeated JSU 12-1 that night. Afterward, Mangum was asked about Henderson.

“I trust Coach Henderson 100 percent….I respect him so much,” Mangum said. And then he said, “We’re about to win a bunch of games.”

To be honest, at the time, it sounded like false bravado. But let’s move ahead three and a half months to Sunday night – actually early Monday morning in Nashville. This was after State defeated Vanderbilt 10-6 in 11 innings in the rubber match of the Super Regional.

Mangum, the heart and soul of the Bulldogs, asked again about Henderson said, “Coach Henderson took over and gave us an identity when we had none.”

It wasn’t instantaneous. The Bulldogs also would lose their first three SEC games and start 2-7 in the SEC. But Henderson kept a steady hand on the young Bulldogs’ shoulders. Slowly, and then picking up speed, they began to improve. The Bulldogs are 23-12 since April 1. They are a truly incredible 10-1 against teams ranked in the top five in the USA.

They won three of four against a much more highly rated Ole Miss team. They won 13 of their last 21 games in the most difficult college baseball league in the country. They swept No. 1 ranked Florida in their final regular season series. After dropping a 20-10 laugher to Oklahoma in the first game of the Tallahassee Regional, they came back and won four straight games and the regional. First, they had to eliminate host Florida State, the No. 7 national seed, on its field to stay alive. Then they beat Samford, and then they beat Oklahoma, the team that had embarrassed them, twice.

They keep beating the odds, these Bulldogs do – and that’s a credit both to them and to their head coach and his staff.

Something else I like about Henderson: He doesn’t hesitate to credit his staff.

“I really admire our coaching staff,” Henderson told us early Monday morning. “Those guys got on board, no hidden agenda. It was: ‘What do we need to do.’ Then I let them do it. I told them what I wanted and they did it. (Mike) Brown and Jake (Gautreau) get all the credit for what happened offensively. That development has been unbelievable. You don’t see that often. Those guys are good. They are real people, my coaching staff.

“The kids got on board,” Henderson continued. “They were looking for leadership, we gave it to them…”

True, Henderson is not your shiny new sports car model of a college baseball coach. He’s more even keel than brash and outspoken. He’s more about work than he is about talk. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said that night back in February at Jackson State, and he has gone and done it.

Yes, when he resigned at Kentucky, Henderson said this: “Coaching in the SEC is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. All aspects of the job, from recruiting to players development, are all-consuming and require a 24/7/365 commitment. After 30 years in coaching, I have decided it is time for me to step away for the time being.”

It looks from this viewpoint as if the time being is over. If Henderson lost his fire at Kentucky, he surely has it back at State. Early Monday morning, Henderson said, “What an honor it is to be the head coach at Mississippi State.”

At this point it would seem, State would be honored to have him.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.