Sunday, June 12, 2011

Now There Was a Coach...

As I watch the field take shape for the College World Series, it's easy to see what this year's NCAA baseball championship tournament will have in common with the last 11: Oklahoma State is once again watching at home.
If you were an Oklahoma State baseball fan in the 1980s and early '90s, you thought it would last forever.
The conference titles. The College World Series appearances. The domination.

Sigh. Now look at them.

Under the leadership of the comatose Frank Anderson, the Cowboys have consistently squandered talent and underwhelmed their fans. Following a shocking Big 12 Tournament championship in his first season (2004), Anderson has managed to put more distance between the team and its glory years.

The Gary Ward Era
Gary Ward came to OSU in 1978 from the Arizona junior college circuit. He immediately transformed a moribund also-ran into the dominant baseball team in the old Big 8. The numbers speak for themselves:
  • 16 straight Big 8 championships 1981-1996
  • 13 Top Ten finishes in final Baseball America poll (since 1981)
  • 10 College World Series appearances.
  • 3 appearances in the national championship game.
  • 953 wins against 313 losses. Oh, and one tie.
The Cowboys never broke through and won the College World Series under Ward (the school's lone national title in baseball came in 1959), but they were always relevant. They were always right there. Any serious discussion of college baseball in the 1980s had to include Oklahoma State.

Ward taught the science of hitting, producing All-Americans like Robin Ventura and Pete Incaviglia. But more than that, he taught attitude. The Cowboys swaggered. They carried themselves like champions. Incaviglia would warm up in the on-deck circle by swinging a sledgehammer.

Nowhere was that attitude more in evidence than in the Big 8 Tournament, which the Cowboys owned for 16 consecutive years. In some years, it looked like the Cowboys run might come to an end, at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners or an upstart Kansas team. But the Cowboys always came through in the end, staving off all challenges in the double-elimination tournament.

That success never translated fully to Omaha and the CWS. Ward's two best teams fell short in the final game to Stanford (and Jack McDowell) in 1987 and Georgia in 1990. Pitching usually let down the Cowboys in Omaha, and indeed, was always the team's Achilles' heel in the Ward era.

After making one last run to Omaha in 1996, Ward announced his retirement. He blamed a chronic back ailment, but in truth, lack of support from the OSU athletic department at the dawn of the Big 12 conference era pushed Ward out the door.

So naturally, they hired Tom Holliday, Ward's longtime pitching coach, to replace him. The same Holliday who was reponsible for the pitching that never measured up to the offense. Holliday made one trip to Omaha, and then was fired after seven mostly-underwhelming seasons.

The funny thing is, Holliday had more success than Frank Anderson. Anderson, however, soldiers on with the support of the athletic department. And Cowboy fans are left with memories of the days when they had a real baseball coach.

Postscript: I took this photo of Gary Ward during the Big 8 Tournament at old All Sports Stadium in Oklahoma City during the late 1980s. I believe he was threatening to make the shortstop walk home if he made another error (kidding). Baseball uniform buffs will note the sans-a-belt pants look, along with the pullover jersey. Those were great uniforms with "Oklahoma" in block lettering and "State" on the black baseball bat underneath. They frequently wore orange or black jerseys with the white pants. And black stirrups, by God.

Next time: More fun with black and white photography...

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