This was back in December of 1975. Ron Polk, who was 31, had just been hired from Georgia Southern as the baseball coach at Mississippi State for a salary of $15,000 a year.
A month before, Clarion Ledger published news of Polk’s hiring in a three paragraph story on page 4 of the sports section. A story previewing a Millsaps football game ran on the sports front, along with a story about football coach Bob Tyler’s contract extension and a story about a Delta State women’s basketball exhibition game. College baseball just wasn’t front page news.
Back then, I was the sports editor of the Hattiesburg American and Polk had come to the Hub City to speak to a State alumni group. The late John Buckley, perhaps the most avid Bulldog fan ever, invited my dad and me over to his home to meet Polk.
Three things I remember most about first meeting Polk nearly 48 years ago: 1) he wore two-tone loafers, brown and white; 2) he had a cowlick in his close-cropped hair toward the back of his head; and 3) he was as confident-bordering-on-cocky as any man I had ever met.
Polk told us he was about to change college baseball in Mississippi forever. He said he was going to sell season tickets by the thousands, and it wouldn’t be long before Dudy Noble Field was expanded. He said he was going to hold clinics to educate Mississippi’s high school baseball coaches, who at the time were mostly assistant football coaches. Mississippi baseball, he said, was about to get a lot better. He spoke about all that as if it were a matter of fact. At the time, it sounded like so much heresy.
Later, after we had left, I asked Dad what he thought. “Cockiest little banty rooster I’ve ever met,” Dad said.
I agreed. We both laughed and then agreed that if Polk were able to do all that, Mississippi State would need to build a statue in his honor. We laughed even harder.
Now, nearly half a century later, that bronze statue will be dedicated Friday afternoon prior to the first game of the Ole Miss-State weekend series at the entrance down the right field line at what is now Polk-Dement Stadium. All Polk said he would do, he did a long time ago. He has done a lot more.
This column will not be so much about Polk’s 1,373 career victories, the six different Hall of Fame inductions, the eight different teams he took to the College World Series, the 10 different SEC Championships and how he really did change college baseball in Mississippi forever.
No, this hopefully will tell you more about the man. We’ll begin with perhaps my favorite Polk anecdote. This was the spring of 1998, the year after Polk had retired (for the first time) as State’s baseball coach. Pat McMahon’s Bulldogs were hosting an NCAA Regional and Polk was watching from the press box. Polk reached into his briefcase, took out a fat, 8-inch Honduran cigar and fired it up. Just over his head was a “No Smoking” sign, which I pointed out and told him, “I know you’re old and retired but I didn’t know you had forgotten how to read.”
Ron smiled, took a huge draw and exhaled a huge plume of smoke. He pointed to the centerfield wall where his name was prominent.
Said Polk, “Seems to me, you are the one who can’t read.”
From the same year, same regional, same press box: Polk joined broadcaster Jim Ellis to do an inning or two of commentary. I dropped into the booth to listen. State’s fine shortstop Brad Freeman, now an NFL official, was at the plate when Polk said, “You know, Jim, Brad is so conscious of reaching that outside slider, he’s really crowding the plate. If he gets a fastball inside, it’s gonna hit him.”
Sure enough, the next pitch was a heater, in, and plunked Freeman flush on his left shoulder. Polk never missed a beat. “You know, Jim,” he said, “this radio commentating is pretty easy stuff.”
Polk retired, briefly, as State’s baseball coach in 1995. He planned to take the job as director of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) and turned his resignation into the athletic director Larry Templeton, who subsequently offered the job to Pat McMahon. A couple days later, Polk had a change of heart and told Templeton he wanted to stay.
Templeton told Polk he’d already offered the job to former Polk assistant McMahon, then the head coach at Old Dominion. Templeton told Polk he’d see what he could do. So Templeton asked McMahon if he would consider assisting Polk as associate head coach for two years. McMahon, because of his immense respect for Polk, agreed to do just that.
Two years and another MSU trip to the College World Series later, McMahon took over.
Said Templeton, “I told Ron I needed him to help me raise the money to add skyboxes to Dudy Noble and he agreed.”
Polk spent the 1998 and ’99 seasons out of a dugout for the first time in more than three decades, helping Templeton as a special assistant. Says Templeton, “I have never seen anyone as miserable as Ron was away from the game.”
And then Templeton’s phone rang and the guy on the other end of the phone line was Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley. “I need a baseball coach,” Dooley said. “Got any suggestions?”
Templeton said he might know just the guy. He walked down the hallway and into Polk’s office and told him about the Georgia situation. Long story short: Polk went to Athens, interviewed with Dooley and was offered the job. Polk took it.
Polk came back to Starkville and told Templeton he was the new Georgia baseball coach. Templeton congratulated him and asked him what Georgia was paying him. Polk told him and Templeton said, “That’s not right.”
“So I called Vince and I told him that we paid Mississippi State assistant coaches better than what he was going to pay Polk to be the head coach,” Templeton said. “Vince explained that he had asked Ron what he wanted and that Ron told him, ‘Just pay me what the previous guy was making.’”
Templeton said Dooley asked him what he thought would be a fair salary, and Templeton told him.
“That’s all it took,” Templeton said. “Ron got a $75,000 raise before he ever coached a practice.”
Polk, as always, earned his keep. Georgia was 25-30 the year before he got there. His first Georgia team won 32 games. The second won 47, the SEC championship and went to the 2001 College World Series.
Polk was still in Omaha with Georgia when the news broke that McMahon was leaving Mississippi State to take the Florida baseball job. This time, it was Templeton who called Dooley.
He told Dooley: “Vince, now I’m the one who needs a baseball coach, and I am calling you because it’s time for Ron Polk to come home.”
That’s exactly what happened. Polk came back to State and coached seven more seasons and went on to five NCAA Tournaments and one College World Series.
Says Templeton, “The whole time I was the athletic director I never had to worry about who was going to lock the doors of the athletic department at the end of the work day. Ron was always the last one to leave, often after midnight, and he always locked the door behind him.”
Again, when Polk was first hired at State (by Charley Shira at a State-LSU football game), the news ran on page four of the sports section of the state’s largest newspaper. There was no press conference. There was no need for one. It simply wasn’t big news. Contrast that with when Polk finally retired for good. The news was the lead story on the front page of the Clarion Ledger and there were several more stories in the sports section. The press conference was packed with reporters and TV cameras.
That might be the best measure of how Polk changed college baseball in this state. He made it matter. That’s all he did. He made it matter.