John Cohen was a favorite of mine. From the moment he arrived in Lexington, I had an unhealthy “man-crush” on the guy that I believed could convince even David Koresh to drink the kool-aid first. My annual summer fling left me heartbroken when he departed the friendly confines of Lexington, Kentucky for the greener pastures of Starkville, Mississippi to chase his dream job coaching at his alma mater last June.
The hiring of Gary Henderson was albeit, a strange one. While the college baseball world was focused on the upcoming College Baseball World Series, the MLB Draft had just gotten underway when an email arrived in our inbox with a press release on the hiring of Henderson, sporting only a short line discussing the departure of Cohen, who had left to take another job. Former UK associate AD Greg Byrne, who had just taken over as athletic director at Mississippi State, moved so quickly in announcing Cohen, many UK fans hardly knew they had a reason to worry before the exit door slammed. That day was odd, but it may help to bring to light the circumstances surrounding why Gary Henderson was named UK’s baseball coach so abruptly and rightly so.
College Baseball doesn’t have many friendly windows for coaching searches. When a college baseball season concludes, the next phase is arguably a program’s most pivotal – the MLB Draft. When you recruit amongst the elite, this time becomes even more stressful for programs. After the 2008 season, UK had several young rising prospects which made up one of the top recruiting classes in the history of the school and most were getting their names called during the draft when the announcement of Cohen’s departure hit the wires. To make matters worse, rising senior Chris Rusin was drafted by the Athletics and was seeing dollar figures in excess of six-figures in an attempt to keep him from finishing out his college career and entering the draft again in ‘09.
It was the perfect storm.
With money being thrown around like a night out with Lil Wayne in Atlanta, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart needed to respond – and fast – if UK was to have any shot at keeping its class intact and help escape a disastrous free fall for a program that was on the fast track in the nation’s toughest conference. Mitch responded with Henderson, a move that allowed the majority of the recruiting class to hear a familiar voice in their decision process, keep assistant coach Brad Bohannon (arguably Cohen’s ace in the hole), and the remaining players a reason to believe that nothing would change.
The move worked. Rusin stayed in school, the recruiting class lost fewer standouts to big-league money and the majority of the talent remained in Lexington to make Gary Henderson’s first team in Lexington look like a formidable College World Series candidate. Baseball pre-season polls agreed, placing the Wildcats in the top 20 in pre-season for the third straight season.
All seemed right when the ‘Cats headed for Myrtle Beach and its seasons opener versus Troy, James Madison and No. 22 Coastal Carolina when the luck ran out.
That first series of the year was supposed to be merely a pre-season tune-up, against some perennially competitive teams. What it turned into was a nightmare. The ‘Cats dropped two of four games in the Palmetto State, but the losses hardly told the story. The ‘Cats would have gladly taken home another two L’s to have saved themselves from the injury bug that started a once promising season on a downward spiral.
Opening weekend starter Sean Bouthilette, a 18-year old freshman who gave up just one hit in five innings against James Madison, would come home with an injury and pitch just 12 innings the rest of the year. Prized JUCO sidewinder Nick Kennedy, who garnered a three-inning save in the first game of the year against Troy, would follow suit hours later, lasting just one appearance before being lost for the year, needing shoulder surgery thus ending his 2009 campaign.
To Henderson’s credit, his club bounced back despite the tough start. UK won nine straight games heading into Southeastern Conference play, pushing its record to 11-2, good enough for 29th in the country, as they traveled into conference play in Baton Rouge. Undermanned, fragile and treading against the river current, it was two weekends into conference play when finally the band-aids wore off for the Wildcats bullpen.
Tyler Henry, whose role had to be expanded after the loss of Kennedy, was bumped off the team for violating team rules. Add Henry’s loss to an already depleted bullpen, and it wasn’t surprising that in the middle of conference play Coach Henderson eventually turned to position player Braden Kapteyn, an 18-year old freshman, to close games.
The ripple effect of the Henry dismissal was felt early and often. The ‘Cats would lose 11 of the next 14 and watch their 29-game non-conference home winning streak fall to the wayside with it. Ultimately, despite a valiant effort towards the end of the year, Kentucky could not recover from the bullpen woes and never had the offensive makeup to withstand it from the start.
A week after the season concluded, adding insult to injury, the dreaded rival 70 miles west won its second regional in three years, nearly writing its second ticket to Omaha since hiring former Ole Miss assistant Dan McDonnell three years ago. As has become customary when UofL does something UK doesn’t, the masses have an opinion and it comes with fingers pointing directly towards Barnhart and Henderson.
Word to the wise: Be careful.
One thing that fans have been correct on is that UK Baseball is most definitely not Louisville. That’s because the SEC is most definitely not the Big East. In the SEC, you’re competing every week against a ranked opponent, in front of crowds of over 7,000 fans (all of which bark before every pitch to home-plate and at every mistake you’ve made since middle school). In the batter’s box, players aren’t just facing off against the best player in a respective area, county or state, but against last year’s fifth round pick. Some cases, even an Olympic medalist.
There is a huge difference between a pitcher who has gone through the rigors of an SEC schedule and a pitcher from a program that only asks 5 innings of its starter and throws anybody out of the pen to get the job finished. Additionally, just below your best may be good enough to go through the order against Rutgers, but try holding back against Arkansas or Ole Miss. Take 5 miles-an-hour off your fastball and you could be down 10 runs in six minutes.
The programs are different and that’s perfectly fine with both administrations. If UK wins a game or two in the final weekend of the year this year, they get into the SEC Tournament and end up getting a bid into the NCAA Tournament. In 2008, if Kentucky finds a way to win one of two games against Ole Miss, UK is not heading to Michigan for Regional play, it’s hosting for a second time in three years.
All things being equal, UK is not nearly as far away from Omaha as one would think listening to its fan base. Is it disappointing that the Wildcats didn’t capitalize on arguably its greatest starting pitching staff in the history of the program? Perhaps. But that wasn’t the point of 2009. The point of the year was surviving. With all the freshmen on the roster, the staff needed to rely upon youth to get them through.
Thanks to Barnhart, the ‘Cats did just that.
Recruiting was reason number one why Henderson was handed the reins so promptly. He’s proven himself capable of recruiting the nation’s best players to Kentucky, even while playing in arguably the conference’s worst facility and housing the conference’s worst recruiting base. Even despite this, Henderson followed up the nation’s 4th best recruiting class with another banner recruiting year, already securing verbals for 2012.
Will the growing pains of 2009 turn into success in 2010? After yesterday’s draft, one can certainly think so. Seven signees and four Wildcats will be relying upon a familiar voice during the decision making process ahead this summer. From highly acclaimed standout pitching prospect Jordan Cooper to Covington Catholic star catcher Luke Maile, the phone calls will pour in from across the country with advice.
In Lexington, a familiar voice is waiting on the other end.
This post originally appeared on http://www.kentuckysportsradio.com on June 12, 2009.