HATTIESBURG — Mike Bianco and a couple of his star players were holding court Sunday in the postgame press conference after Ole Miss finished its 10-0, 5-0 blitzkrieg of Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional.
Most questions were directed to Bianco, the 22-year Rebel head coach, and most questions were about what the team’s resurgence has meant to him in a season when he faced unprecedented criticism from his own fans.
At one point, Bianco clearly wanted the line of questioning to go another direction.
“It’s not about me, I mean that,” Bianco said. “I didn’t throw, catch or hit a ball out there. It’s about these guys …”
He’s right. This is college baseball. It should be about the players. It should be all about the spectacular Sunday pitching performance of 19-year-old Tupelo left-hander Hunter Elliott, who pitched like a 29-year-old Major League veteran. It should be about Tim Elko, the still-playing Ole Miss baseball legend, who came back for his senior year because he wanted to go to Omaha — and now he will. It should be about Justin Bench, another senior and the Rebels’ best defender at any number of positions who pounded out three hits against superb Southern Miss pitching.
But today, especially today, the story is Bianco, the winningest coach in Ole Miss history — and a class act — who was roundly criticized on social media, fan websites and from the grandstands. This wasn’t a vocal minority. This was the majority of a fan base.
Bianco says he doesn’t read what he calls “the noise.”
“I’ve learned a long time ago I can’t live in that world,” Bianco said. “I know it’s out there but I try to stay away from it, and I think I do a good job of it.”
Most everybody else reads it and hears it. And all that negativism filtered all the way down to Hattiesburg where Scott Berry, the Southern Miss coach, heard it and was dumbfounded by it.
“Whenever (Bianco) decides it’s time to go, they ought to build a statue at that stadium for all he has achieved,” Berry said. “He’s one of the best around, and he always does it with class.”
This was a bitter defeat for Berry, mind you. His team won 47 games, set attendance records, hosted a regional and then a super regional. But still, he was genuinely happy for Bianco.
“Obviously, we wanted to be the ones going to Omaha,” said Berry, another coach who oozes class. “But if it couldn’t be us, I’m glad it is them. That’s a classy program. I’ll be pulling for them to win the whole thing.”
Bianco and his staff do deserve much of the credit for keeping the Ole Miss ship afloat when a team ranked No. 1 in the nation early in the season fell to 7-14 in the SEC at one point. The question wasn’t whether Ole Miss would make the NCAA Tournament. That seemed utterly impossible. The question was whether they could even win enough games to make the SEC Tournament field and whether they would even finish with a winning record.
Bianco deflected any praise for the turn-around to his senior leaders, to his staff, to the starting pitching prowess of the one-two punch of Dylan Delucia and Elliott and to his coaching staff. He even mentioned a talk former Rebel and Major Leaguer Chris Coughlan gave to his team prior to the Missouri series in May.
Coughlan’s message, said Bianco: “He challenged the guys not to listen to the noise. He said don’t you dare let what people are saying on social media take your mind off your goals. Your job is to win the national championship.”
That remains a distinct possibility, truly incredible when you think back to May 1 when the Rebels had dropped to 24-19 overall and 7-14 in the league.
Here’s the deal: College baseball, as has been written countless times, is all about getting hot at the right time. That time is now, and Ole Miss is a red-hot team. The Rebels have won five straight games against top-shelf opposition. They beat two future professional pitchers here, two guys who have been invited to try out for the U.S. National collegiate team Bianco will coach later this summer.
The Rebels are hitting well, pitching well, fielding well. They appear to have genuinely good team chemistry. Now that Tennessee has been vanquished, the College World Series is wide open.
Stranger things have happened. Heck, stranger things already have. Maybe they’ll start on that Bianco statue later this summer.