Mike Bianco’s 2022 Ole Miss Rebels spent time early in the spring as the top-ranked team in the country before hitting a skid that resulted in a 7-14 SEC record two-thirds of the way through the season. Left for dead by fans and media alike, the Rebs would eventually respond with a magical run, ending with the program’s first national championship.
Inside Pitch: Tell us about the mountaintop...was it euphoric? Was it a weight off your shoulders? Did you realize that a lot of teams you had in the past were actually just as close as the one that finally did it in 2022?
Mike Bianco: That’s a question I really struggle answering! I think initially it’s euphoric...you’re just super proud of the team.
It wasn’t a Cinderella story. It was a team that played really well at the beginning of the year, then we had a six-week stretch where we won five league games and lost 13. We had gone from number one in the country to unranked with a 7-14 league record. We just struggled. In the beginning of that skid we didn’t play great baseball, and towards the end we were playing better but still didn’t get the results we wanted. At one point I was just proud of our guys for climbing out of that 7-14 hole, for believing in one another.
We couldn’t have done it without an older team, without a bunch of seniors that ultimately won more games at Ole Miss than any class ever had. To their credit, as bad as it was, I don't remember a time in a meeting or practice or in a game where I felt like we couldn’t win. They just kept showing up.
As far as the rest goes, you’re just appreciative of it and how much it means to our university and all the Ole Miss fans, who showed up in droves in Omaha. I remember looking in the stands 20-30 minutes after the game during the trophy presentations, it still seemed full of Ole Miss fans—there had to be 20,000 people still there.
IP: How have you handled the great fan support at Ole Miss and withstood the lack thereof on the other end of that sword?
MB: I want to say I’ve evolved. When I first got here in 2000, I had all the local newspapers, read the articles from the beat writers, didn’t think much of it. But as time went on and social media blew up, you learn pretty quickly that you can’t win. Even if 99 percent of the time people are congratulating, all it takes is one bad apple, one person that sent something negative, and it takes away all the positive comments. And I get it. I’ve done this. I’ve been in this profession since my early twenties. We get paid to win. We get paid to run a good program and develop young men. And we wanted the expectation when we showed up here. But I told our AD Ross Bjork at the time that I was going to get off Twitter, he just challenged me to “Just put stuff out, don’t bring anything back in,” and don’t read the mentions and the replies. And man, it changed that part of my life, because you’re using it for the reason that’s it’s probably intended to, putting out your content.
There’s a difference between followers and fans, and it is America so people have a right to say what they’re going to say. But I do think it’s a loud minority as far as that goes. We’ve broken season ticket records 20 times since I have been here, which is a testament to the growth of college baseball, but it’s also an indicator that people are showing up and buying tickets and supporting our program in a big way.
IP: Kudos to your self control for being able to avoid that “notifications” icon…
MB: All you have to do is try it for a little bit. You’ll realize that, man, it’s a lot better. There are so many other occupations that aren’t judged like we are judged, but that’s part of our deal. My job isn’t to listen to every single fan. My job is to coach my team.
IP: How do you evaluate your program on an annual basis?
MB: We’re in a result-based profession. You ultimately are judged on your win-loss record and I get that. But the way that you get the wins is different for every program, so when it comes to evaluating your team, your coaches, yourself, and what you do, you have to take a step back. We have a retreat in the summertime where we sit as a coaching staff for a couple days in a conference room at a local hotel and we just pick apart the program. What do we need to improve? What are we good at, what do we want to keep? From a recruiting visit to marketing to the way we teach up on defense.
You can’t blame the players. If they’re not succeeding, if they’re not getting the job done, then that’s our fault. That means we have to do a better job coaching, we have to do a better job recruiting. At the end of the day you have to look yourself in the mirror.
IP: You oversee the pitching staff and call pitches, but as head coach, are you able to observe every bullpen throughout the season? How has that dynamic evolved in terms of all the other obligations you have as head coach?
MB: It’s one of the things that I learned from Coach Skip Bertman. We have co-pitching coaches, if you will, two pitching coaches. When I coached at LSU, I was his assistant pitching coach. Skip had always known that pitching is the most important position, the position with the most players, so why would you have one coach for the most important position, that’s got the most players?
I work with the pitchers along with Carl Lafferty. And I’m at almost all the bullpens, but there are times I will be pulled away and he’s right there to take the reins or start a drills session or whatnot. To me, it just makes a lot more sense to have two guys. It doesn’t make any sense to be the guy calling pitches if you’re not down there working in the bullpen as well. How do you decide what your weekend rotation is if you’re not the guy who works with the pitchers? So as a head coach in this system I learned from Coach Bertman, that’s my job.
IP: How much time do you spend getting your pregame motivational speeches together?
MB: Everybody works hard when they’re trying to be good at something they enjoy. But whatever you do in life, whatever your job is, there are going to be parts more difficult, parts that maybe you don’t hate, but certainly you don’t like. It’s a lot of work to determine what the team needs, find a story that fits what they’re going through, and tell it in a way that captivates them before every single game. Now if I’m being honest, I stole a bunch of them from Coach Bertman, who asked me one day to put together all of the stories he was using into one big book with a table of contents. Well, I didn’t make one book. I made two and I took one with me.
Maybe I’ll pick one out that’s about adversity or bouncing back when we lose. And if we’re winning I’ll pick one about consistency or the long run. You just try to find a story that matches up with where you are. And I try hard not to repeat the story every three-four years, so you’re talking about 200-250 stories so they’re not hearing the same one every other year.
IP: Does that work with your team because of the quality of the stories or the culture of your program?
MB: You have to have some feel for the pulse of your team, but we have a system that goes beyond culture. It’s not just emotion or a moral foundation. It’s beyond that. There is real structure to what we do. And there are certain things that, hell, we did it when I was a player at LSU, then we did it when I was a coach at LSU. Then I did it when I was a coach at McNeese and I still do it today.
One of the great things about Coach Bertman’s system is it’s ever-evolving because, let’s face it, life evolves, with technology and more information. But one of the main quotes that I use when I speak, is “I can get them to do anything,” meaning I can get my players to do anything if we focus on it, talk about it often, compliment it when we achieve it and make sure that they understand when we don’t get it. But there’s a back half of that statement as well, “…I can’t get them to do everything.” So when I go to a convention and get all these neat things, and then we try to do 22 things in the first week back and everyone is lost. They may all be great ideas or concepts, but what works for one program might not be what works for Ole Miss or your program. But once you find what fits, repetition is the mother of skill. You have to find ways to repeat it, because you can get them to do anything, you just can't get them to do everything.