Skip Bertman discusses Mike Bianco's Ole Miss baseball success, trying to hire him at LSU

OXFORD — In another life, Mike Bianco might've been a good realtor.

Three decades before he led Ole Miss baseball to its first College World Series championship, Bianco turned down the MLB Draft. He had opportunities to keep playing baseball after two solid years at LSU, but he wanted to be practical. Real estate was his calling, remembers Hall of Fame LSU coach Skip Bertman, Bianco's mentor.

Those plans were put on hold in 1991 when Jim Wells, himself a Bertman protégé, asked Bianco to join him as an assistant coach at Northwestern State. Two seasons there led to five seasons as an assistant back at LSU with Bertman. Which led to his first head coaching opportunity at McNeese.

And, three years later in 2001, the chance to take over his very own SEC program.

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Twenty-two seasons later, the would-be real estate agent joined Bertman on the short list of SEC coaches to win a College World Series.

"He built (Ole Miss)," Bertman told the Clarion Ledger. "If nothing else, he built the program to be equal to all the other programs in the country that were bigger than most. I think that's a wonderful thing."

Knocking on the door

During Ole Miss' 11-day stay in Omaha, Bertman was the coach Bianco from whom sought council. The advice wasn't what anyone would expect.

Bertman didn't share tricks of the trade he learned on his way to five national championships. He reminded Bianco of the family dinners they'd have on off-days. He advised setting strict boundaries for players. Their conversations were less about strategy and more about maintaining focus.

"If you don't control your kids in Omaha, they'll brunch with their girlfriends and be with their mother and father every other night," Bertman joked.

The same traits that made Bianco a valuable assistant on Bertman's championship teams paid off for Ole Miss during its championship run. Particularly his ability to mentor pitchers and catchers. Bertman said he recognized that from Bianco's early days coaching at LSU. Those skills came through in a big way in Omaha, where his pitchers had a 2.00 ERA with 64 strikeouts versus 46 hits and walks.

Bertman wants to make clear that Bianco's skills as a coach didn't manifest overnight 22 years into his Ole Miss tenure. The qualities that led Ole Miss to its first championship are the same ones that gave Bianco his other nine 40-win seasons and had the Rebels in striking distance of winning it all for decades.

"Other people have the tendency to think, 'Well, how long has it been since you've been to Omaha?'" Bertman said. "That's like saying, 'When did you play in the Final Four in football or get to the basketball Final Four?' That's not the way to look at it.

"The way to look at it is, 'Does the guy give you a performance every year where the team does well, the kids do well and both are happy? And the coach is pleased with what happened?' He does that about as much as any other coach in the United States."

Bianco's strengths have been great for Ole Miss. And, on more than one occasion, nearly great for his alma mater.

Should I stay or should I go?

Bianco's Ole Miss program was in a good place after the 2006 season. The Rebels had hosted three regionals in a row, hosted back-to-back super regionals, won the SEC West once and the SEC Tournament another time.

Bertman, then the athletics director at LSU, offered Bianco the Tigers' open coaching job. Bianco turned his mentor and his alma mater down. With all the effort he'd put into building Ole Miss, he wanted to see it out.

He raised money. He helped lead the charge to renovate the playing surface and the grandstands at Swayze Field. He built relationships with his players and was well-liked by his presidents and athletics directors.

LSU was the team of the '90s. Bianco had Ole Miss poised to be the team of the future.

That didn't happen.

Super regional losses in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. Regional losses in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013. The Rebels finally broke through to the College World Series in 2014, but that was a blip. More disappointing postseason exits piled up.

Regression in 2015. Swept at a home regional in 2016. Missing the postseason in 2017. Losing a home regional as a national seed in 2018. Losing super regionals in 2019 and 2021. Twenty-one years into his Ole Miss tenure, Bianco's teams were 1-8 in games that could've sent them to Omaha and 40-37 in the NCAA Tournament overall.

Then the LSU job came open again. Bianco interviewed this time, but didn't get the gig. Outside pressure from disgruntled fans bubbled up. Not only was Ole Miss missing the College World Series in the most excruciating ways, but the coach who built the program was flirting with an archrival.

When Bianco turned down LSU in 2006, his reward the following season was a super regional at Arizona State where the Rebels were swept. When LSU went a different direction in 2021, his reward the following season was an up-and-down year that tested his and his players' resolve before culminating in 18 wins in their last 22 games and the championship Bianco had been working towards for years.

Bertman beamed talking about Bianco's achievements, even if they came for one of LSU's biggest rivals.

"I'm proud of him," Bertman said. "People don't realize how many coaches go into this field and don't make it. They quit or they get fired. He's been there for 22 years. He's done it right, and I'm glad the fans got to see him at his best."

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Skip Bertman talks Ole Miss baseball title, trying to hire Mike Bianco