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Mike Bianco did not want to be a coach while he was an LSU catcher in 1988 and ’89, even though he learned much from and deeply admired his coach – Skip Bertman, who would go on to become arguably the greatest ever in college baseball with five national titles from 1991-2000.
“So, uh, you going to be a coach one day?” Bertman asked Bianco on a flight back home from a game in 1989. (When Bertman wasn’t flying first class, he would sit alphabetically next to Bianco.)
“Ah, no sir,” Bianco replied.
“Why?” Bertman asked. “You’d be good. I like what you do at our camps. You understand the game. You’re a catcher. I call the pitches through you. I’ve watched you in the pitcher-catcher meetings and in the position meetings. You know all the plays and all the bunt defenses. You know what every player does. I know you’d be good.”
Bianco, who even in his early 20s could be as gruff as Bertman, answered, “Because you guys don’t make enough money.”
Bertman, whose base salary of $75,000 in 1989 was not bad for a college baseball coach at the time and there was radio/TV show and camp income, laughed.
“Well, you make good money, but nobody else does,” said Bianco, who had noticed while he was a a player that LSU’s graduate assistant coaches lived in the same type apartments he did.
Bianco has made extremely good money for decades now and is currently earning $1.2 million a year in his 22nd season as Ole Miss’ baseball coach. That will likely rise soon as he just won the Rebels’ first national championship in baseball on Sunday, 4-2 over Oklahoma at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
“For me personally and the greatest assistant coaches in the country, it’s neat,” Bianco, 55, said. “It’s satisfying. And I can’t wait to kiss my wife and hug my kids. It’s a great day.”
But this was not his first plan.
Bianco saw “Wall Street” with Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas in 1987 and wanted to be a stock broker.
“Not that I wanted to be a criminal like them, but I figured I’d just work hard in finance,” he said in a recent interview for the book, “Skip Bertman – Everything Matters in Baseball,” by Acadian House Publishing due out this winter.
Bianco went on to graduate from LSU in December of 1989 with a degree in business, returned home to the Tampa, Florida, area with his fiance Camille. He got his Series 6 finance license and began working as a financial planner for First Investors Corporation in Tampa on commission.
“My wife loves this story. So, every day for two months, I drive over the bay to Tampa in my coat and tie and make cold calls,” Bianco said. “And at the end of two months, I got a check for $15.46.”
But that wasn’t the worst part for the future Gordon Gekko.
“I hated it,” he said. “I hated the drive. I hated calling people. It just wasn’t me. I thought if I just worked hard, like I did in baseball, then I’ll be a success. That’s not true. You’ve got to have a passion and love what you do.”
Soon, Bianco called Bertman.
“Listen, if I’m going to be poor, I might as well be a poor coach,” Bianco told him, and Bertman laughed again.
Soon, Mike and Camille married, and Mike became a “poor” graduate assistant coach at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, under Coach Jim Wells, who was one of those “poor” graduate assistant coaches Bianco played for at LSU. Soon, Bertman hired Bianco as an assistant at LSU, where he coached from 1993-97 as the Tigers won three national championships (1993, ’96 and ’97) and reached Omaha four times in all.
And Bertman was right … again. Bianco was an excellent assistant coach and became a head coach at McNeese State in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1998 and stayed through 2000. In 2001, he became Ole Miss’ coach, and the rest is history.
Ole Miss became an SEC contender and NCAA postseason player with 11 trips through 2013 as Swayze Field was expanded twice and became one of the best and most attended venues for college baseball in the country with a 12,152 capacity. But Bianco lost four best-of-three NCAA Super Regionals between 2005 and 2009, including three at home after winning the first game, before he won his first one in 2014 to reach Omaha.
Mike Bianco: From Nearly Fired To The National Championship
But there were two more Super Regional losses in 2019 and ’21 and a job interview last year with LSU, which hired Arizona coach Jay Johnson instead after he beat Bianco in the Super Regional.
The interview angered much of the Ole Miss fan base and some key power brokers there as well. So did Bianco’s 7-14 start in the SEC in 2022. But the Rebels gradually turned it around and swept three at LSU, where Bianco at times wanted to coach again.
But Ole Miss lost its last regular season series to Texas A&M to finish 14-16 in the SEC for eighth, then lost its SEC Tournament opener. Had the Rebels not received a bid to the NCAA Tournament on Monday, May 30, Bianco may have been let go.
“He was sitting on the bubble,” said ESPN analyst and former LSU pitcher Ben McDonald, the first pick of the 1989 MLB Draft by Baltimore who was teammates with Bianco and remains a close friend. “It would’ve been wrong, but it could’ve happened.”
Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter had been trying to stand by Bianco, but it was getting more and more difficult.
“Poor guy, he’s lost 20 pounds from taking all the heat of people wanting Mike fired, which is just absolutely crazy to me,” McDonald said. “And there was some heat taken along the way by Mike.”
Then the checks just started cashing, so to speak.
Ole Miss went 3-0 in the NCAA Regional at Coral Gables, Florida, to advance after its bullpen did not allow a run.
Then it swept the Super Regional at Southern Mississippi with its first two shutouts of the season, 10-0 and 5-0.
The Rebels won its first two in Omaha, 5-1 over Auburn on June 18 and 13-5 over Arkansas last Monday as their pitching continued to dominate. In addition, one of the worst fielding teams in the SEC during the regular season with 52 errors had committed just six through its first seven games in the NCAA postseason.
And McDonald made a prediction.
“For all those Ole Miss fans out there who wanted Mike Bianco fired about six weeks ago, they better be figuring out where they’re going to build that statue of him out there in front of that ballpark,” McDonald said last Tuesday while announcing Texas A&M-Notre Dame in the CWS on ESPN. “That’s kind of where it is right now.”
Bertman called Bianco that day as he was 2-0 in Omaha and in the driver’s seat that Bertman kept warm throughout the 1990s.
“He said to be conscious of the time off coming up and to make sure that you keep them busy,” Bianco said. “Make sure there time is structured, that you know what you’re doing, but give them time to enjoy it, to stay loose and stay calm.”
Bianco didn’t take many other calls.
“The only one I’ve spoken to is Coach,” he said.
And Bertman watched from his home in Baton Rouge as his first assistant of many to become a head coach won it all. Wells, a former Bertman assistant, did very well at Alabama from 1995-2009 with CWS trips in 1996, ’97 and ’99, but there were no natonal titles.
“Mike’s team looked like they’d been in Omaha the last five straight years,” Bertman told OutKick Sunday night after the championship. “They played calm. Mike’s a great coach. That showed out to me the whole series.”
Bertman, who was LSU’s athletic director from 2001-09 after retiring from the dugout, tried to hire Bianco as LSU’s head coach after the 2006 season. But Mike and Camille wanted to stay at Ole Miss. He was just getting things going.
“He’s a wonderful pitch caller,” said Bertman, who called all the pitches when he was Miami’s associate head coach in the 1970s and ’80s under Ron Fraser with a national title in 1982 and called all the pitches at LSU.
Bianco, like Bertman, has been calling the pitches since he became McNeese’s head coach in 1998.
“He reads the batters’ swings very well,” said Bertman, who also did that. “He knows his pitchers really well and knows what to call. He picks out the hottest guys to pitch around and knows who he can get out consistently. He’s just really a good coach.”
As at LSU under Bertman, Bianco’s pitchers at Ole Miss got better as the season went on, particularly late in the season.
Junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia was in the bullpen until Bianco began starting him on the weekends in April and soon made him the ace. He was the College World Series MVP after holding Arkansas to four hits in nine innings with seven strikeouts and no walks for Ole Miss’ 2-0 win over Arkansas on Thursday to get the Rebels in the championship series.
Before that, DeLucia beat Auburn, 5-1, in Ole Miss’ CWS opener by allowing four hits and the one run with 10 strikeouts and no walks. In the Super Regional opener, he shut out Southern Mississippi on four hits over five and two thirds with nine strikeouts and two walks.
“DeLucia was the best pitcher in college baseball the last month of the season,” McDonald said.
He finished at 8-2 with a 3.68 ERA.
Like Bertman before him, Bianco made sure he set up his best pitchers.
“He had a lot of guts and looked at the game differently than a lot of people,” Bianco said. “He had a lot of guts. What I mean by that is he would try things with pitchers. He was always getting them ready for the postseason. His teams were almost always best when it mattered most..”
Bianco chose not to pitch DeLucia last Wednesday in an elimination game against Arkansas, instead going with John Gaddis, who hadn’t started since April 9. Ole Miss lost 3-2, but Gaddis pitched well, and Bianco had his ace – DeLucia – for the Thursday do-or-die game with an extra day of rest. And DeLucia won.
It was freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott’s turn to pitch on Saturday in the CWS opener, but Bianco had the guts to gamble and went with sophomore right-hander Jack Dougherty instead. Dougherty had not started since March 26, but like Gaddis, he had proven himself in the bullpen. Dougherty pitched well, holding Oklahoma to two runs on three hits in five innings with six strikeouts and one walk for the win to go to 4-3.
This gave another day of rest to Elliott, who allowed just three hits and two runs in six and two-thirds innings on Sunday with six strikeouts. Gaddis came in to get the win in relief, and very well-rested closer Brandon Johnson struck out three in the ninth for his 12th save. It was just his second inning of the CWS and second appearance since the Regional in Coral Gables.
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The reason Bianco could rest his studs is because he could go to his second-line pitchers instead as they had developed and got better during the season. That’s what Bertman did.
“He didn’t want to throw Hunter Elliott, the freshman, in that first game,” McDonald said. “Most coaches probably would’ve run their No. 2 guy out there. But he knew Elliott wasn’t ready on short rest. He gambled in some ways, but it wasn’t just a hunch. Dougherty had been lights out for his last several appearances. Mike had the guts to do that.”
McDonald saw this coming in more ways than one.
“I always felt like Mike would be a Skipper even when he was a player at LSU,” he said. “He always was asking Skip questions that nobody else did. He wanted to learn and know the game.”
Like Bertman, Bianco had to struggle with getting close, but not winning the big ones.
Bertman did not win it all in Omaha until his fifth trip in 1991 after being criticized for not being able to win the big one amid comparisons to Duke Coach Mike Kryzewski, who did not win his first national title until that fifth Final Four also in 1991.
Bianco didn’t get to Omaha until his fifth Super Regional amid choke criticisms, but won it all in his second CWS as a head coach.
“We’ve had so many great teams over the years, but so many times, we came short of this place,” Bianco said Sunday. “And it has been really disappointing.”
But Bianco had the magic touch this time as he went lights out in the NCAA postseason, bringing up his mentor Bertman frequently at press conferences along the way.
“I learned from my mentor a long time ago,” he said after the 13-5 win over Arkansas put Ole Miss at 2-0 in Omaha. “The most important thing to win a baseball game is dominant pitching. We’ve had that. The second most important thing is the timely hit. And we’ve had a ton of those over the last three weeks.”
Bertman wasn’t in Omaha, but he was there when Ole Miss played.
“I mean, there was not a better coach to learn under,” Bianco said. “Not a better mentor than Skip Bertman. I learned the foundation from him. And a lot of stuff we do today I learned in 1988.”
Meanwhile, No. 1 national seed Tennessee, the No. 1-ranked team for most of the season and its gaudy 57-9 record didn’t make it to Omaha.
“There’s a big lesson to be learned there,” Bertman said. “One of the last teams into the NCAA Tournament won it all, and the first team in didn’t get through the Super Regional. That’s baseball. It has happened before.”
Indeed, and Bertman was there.
Tennessee, it should be remembered, is not the greatest team by record not to reach Omaha. In 1989, No. 1 Texas A&M stayed home at 58-7 after losing to Bertman, Bianco and McDonald in the NCAA Regional at A&M, and LSU reached the College World Series.
That was Bianco’s first trip to Omaha when he still wanted to be a stock broker.
“You know, I still have that check for $15.46,” he said.
Hang it up next to the national championship trophy.