It was a year ago, almost to the day, that Tracy Smith accepted the head-coaching job in the Arizona State baseball program.
It was just before noon on June 24th when Smith called Don Bocchi to tell him he was accepting the offer to take over the Sun Devil program, a move necessitated by the departure of Tim Esmay. Esmay resigned just two weeks earlier after taking the program to the College World Series in 2010, but failing to realize the same kind of success in the years since.
Bocchi, ASU’s senior associate athletic director, was part of a three-person hiring committee that included Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson and Steve Webb, the school’s executive director of athletic compliance and a former college baseball player. The trio came to unanimous agreement that Smith was their first choice among the list of candidates they had assembled.
The 49-year-old former college and professional baseball player was on a roll as head coach at Indiana University, where he had just completed a season of 21 conference wins, the most in the history of the program. He was also a former national Coach of the Year and Big Ten Coach of the Year.
But the committee convinced him he would find an even better opportunity in the Pac-12, where he could take over a baseball program in Tempe that traces its origins to 1907, steeped in tradition, with five national titles. And play in a major-league venue since the Devils moved into Phoenix Municipal Stadium last year.
The last national championship for the Sun Devils, however, dates back to 1981. It will be Smith’s job to return the program to that level again and lead a team back to Omaha to the College World Series.
His body of work as head coach at Indiana for nine years, and before that at Miami, would indicate he might have the chops to get the job done. Under his guidance, the Hoosiers won consecutive Big Ten conference titles for the first time in school history; the 2013 regular-season title was the first for the school since 1949.
At Miami, he posted eight 30-win seasons in his nine years there.
So far at ASU, the jury is still out.
Esmay went 33-24 in his last season before being pushed out the door, finishing third in the Pac-12. Smith inherited 22 letterwinners from that 2014 team that sported the best team batting average in the conference – but finished the 2015 campaign with a 35-23 record and a three-way tie for third place in the Pac-12, almost identical to Esmay’s results.
Smith’s first ASU squad made it only as far as the Fullerton Regional, where it was knocked off the road to the College World Series by Pepperdine – a long way from Omaha.
On paper at least, that doesn’t really look like progress over Esmay’s 2014 season.
Smith was hired by Anderson for the specific purpose of 1) getting the Sun Devils back to the CWS, and 2) winning a national championship. Anything short of that will be considered failure. And that’s why they are paying him almost double what Esmay was making, giving him a five-year contract with a base salary of $375,000.
In a storied program known for its stability, Smith is just the fifth head coach.
He will have to show some serious improvement next season, when he will have had a little time to add some talent through his own recruiting efforts. He’s recognized as one of the better college coaches in the country when it comes to evaluating and developing talent. And that’s important when you’re competing in the Pac-12. Last year, there were five Pac-12 teams, including ASU, ranked in the nation’s Top 25 when the season began.
When you think about it, leading off with a less-than-stellar first season might work to Smith’s advantage. His predecessor took the opposite approach. Esmay took the team to the College World Series in his first year as interim coach, then won 43 games and advanced to the super regionals the next year when the ‘interim’ tag was removed. But it was downhill from there.
Smith’s first season in maroon and gold leaves plenty of room for improvement. But maybe that’s a good thing.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)