Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk insists that he doesn't read the Internet message boards where Bulldog fans have spent recent years grumbling about the legendary coach.
"I'm not on the Internet, and I don't read blogs, so I don't know what people have said. I know that grumbling fans are just part of it. That's what fans do," Polk told The Clarion-Ledger.
The grumbling has ended—for the moment—since MSU earned its first trip to the College World Series since 1998 by sweeping Clemson in last weekend's super regional at Starkville, before a pair of NCAA super regional-record crowds.
The Bulldogs will play North Carolina in the first round of the CWS in Omaha, Neb., Friday (6 p.m., ESPN2/620 AM). Polk will be making his eighth CWS appearance in 34 seasons as a college head coach, including six with the Bulldogs.
"I'm a survivor, I guess," Polk told the Sun Herald. "I've been to Omaha (in) five decades as a coach. I can tell these guys it wasn't anything like it is now in the '60s. The fans, the stadium, ESPN, everything is different."
It seems odd to call a coach who has won 1,350 games a survivor. Polk retired as State's coach after the 1997 season. He decided to get back in the game as Georgia's coach and took those Bulldogs to the CWS, too. He returned to State in 2002.
Believe it or not, there was a large contingent of Bulldog Nation that didn't welcome Polk back. They believed that it was time for new blood in MSU baseball. Many thought the game had passed Polk by, that he was spending too much time grumbling about what he calls the NCAA's attack on college baseball and not enough concentrating on getting the Bulldogs back to Omaha. The perception was that since Mike Bianco arrived at Ole Miss, the Rebel program had moved ahead of the Bulldogs'.
Ole Miss is still waiting for its first trip to Omaha under Bianco after losing in three straight super regionals.
Meanwhile, many observers think Polk has done one of his best coaching jobs with the 2007 Bulldogs. State was picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division this season. The Bulldogs won 31 of their first 43 games, but they stumbled late in the season, losing eight of their last 10 games. The Bulldogs went 0-2 in the SEC Tournament and were probably the last of the five SEC teams that made the NCAA Tournament to get in the field.
MSU fans were in full grumble mode at that point. Never mind that the Bulldogs had been hampered with injuries in the latter part of the season and were starting three freshmen in the infield.
State played well in the SEC Tournament, losing 3-1 to Ole Miss and 3-2 to Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs were telling anybody who would listen that they were building momentum for an NCAA run.
"It was a weird feeling," MSU center-fielder Jeffrey Rea told ESPN.com. "We were a hit away in both of those games. We were losing, but we were doing everything right."
The Bulldogs were huge underdogs when they went to Tallahassee, Fla., for the Florida State regional. The host Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference were the No. 6 national seed. State swept through the regional with three straight victories, beating the Seminoles twice.
Next, MSU hosted Clemson, another ACC team (and, coincidentally, the team that eliminated MSU from the 2006 NCAA Tournament), in the super regional. The cowbells thundered at Dudy Noble Field as the Bulldogs swept the Tigers 2-0.
"This time of year, it's more about heart than talent," MSU pitcher Justin Pigott told the Sun Herald. "To be picked last in the SEC West and do this is really something. It's a huge rush."
Now State is the only SEC team going to the CWS. The Bulldogs will face their third straight ACC team, North Carolina, Friday. Do you think the Tar Heels are sweating just a little bit about playing the ACC Killer?
"I'm proud of these boys," Polk told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "They went through a lot of adversity. I'm sure the fans were starting to mumble and grumble. I knew these kids could play.
"This is a ballclub you would not want at your regional."
The way the Bulldogs have played the last two weeks, nobody is looking forward to playing them in Omaha, either.