Mike Smith is leaving fingerprints on Ole Miss softball

Posted on Mar 3 2017 - 8:01am by Brian Scott Rippee

unnamed-2Ole Miss head softball coach Mike Smith slowly paces back and forth near the third base bag at the Ole Miss Softball Complex on a crisp March night. Miranda Strother – one of four seniors on the team – looks at him for a sign, steps up to the plate and digs in. The Rebels are up 2-1 in the third inning against Louisiana Tech in their home opener and looking for some early insurance.

Strother slaps a two-out base hit into left field, taking a hard turn around first and then retreating back to the bag. It’s her final home opener, and she’s got only so many of these nights left on the diamond. But that’s okay because these are easily the highest moments of her collegiate career.

In the dugout behind Smith, Strother’s teammates cheer loudly, a group that is collectively pretty good. In fact, it’s really good. Earlier this week, the Rebels slid into the top 25 in the major softball polls for the first time in program history. Ole Miss run-ruled No. 23 South Florida the weekend before, twice.

The Rebels went on to beat Louisiana Tech on a walk-off home run that night and are currently 13-2.

But it hasn’t always been this way, and the man pacing up and down the third base line in front of the Rebels’ dugout has his fingerprints all over a program that was once a joke in the SEC.

Smith arrived in Oxford in May 2014 to take over as head coach of the softball program, one that had never scored a run in the SEC Tournament. Forget winning a game – the Rebels had never made a full trip around the base paths.

“My ultimate goal when I first started coaching was that I wanted to coach on the highest level on the collegiate level,” Smith said. “I knew that there were going to be challenges here. Challenges competing on a daily basis in the SEC, challenges in recruiting that we are still dealing with.”

Before he accepted the job, he called some colleagues he knew in the SEC and around the softball world.

“A few of them said, ‘I think it is a dead end job’ or ‘I think it is a career killer,'” Smith said. “I don’t think you can win there. Honestly, that just fueled my fire even more. My coaching career has always been about going into somewhere with nothing and building it into something.”

Smith is an ex-professional baseball player from San Diego with a knack for proving people wrong. He got his start in softball at an NAIA school called Biola University in La Mirada, California. The school was transitioning its club softball team into a full-fledged program, and it needed a head coach.

Smith was notified of this in October before the coming season. He had no rime to recruit for a team that possessed a 17-131 record all-time. The team went 22-23 in Smith’s first season, finished ranked No. 15 nationally in his second year and No. 4 the year after that. He then moved on to California Baptist, where he won a national title in 2009. All eight of his teams there won their conference and went to the NAIA World Series.

He then went to McNeese State in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He defeated Arizona State – the defending national champions – in his first season and was named Southland Coach of the Year in 2014.

Smith is the son of a military man who worked with Navy Seals and says his mother is the most organized person he knows, so naturally his desire for structure and attention to detail is off the charts.

“I’m not a perfectionist, but I am a detail-oriented coach, so I pay attention to details,” Smith said. “Sometimes players think I am a perfectionist from that standpoint. If I am perfectionist for details, I am OK with that because it’s the little things that are the difference between winning close ball games and losing.”

But this was the SEC. This was the highest level of softball. This may have been his dream, but was he set up for failure? Not to mention, softball is a sport where you have to recruit years into the future. For example, Ole Miss’ 2017, 2018 and 2019 classes are all complete.

How was he supposed to compete with the blue bloods of the sport?

“They want a program that the parents and players can be proud of, and Ole Miss wasn’t like that,” Smith said. “That was part of the problem. When you’re recruiting kids three and four years out, they only know of what they see and hear from the Alabamas, the Floridas, the Auburns. So when you are competing with those programs, we are losing out sometimes because they have a history and a legacy. They have facilities. They have the marquee coaches.”

He did the two things he’s done his entire life: work with what he had and prove people wrong.

“We took the kids that we had,”  he said. “We took their skill set and improved on it. That is all we had. That is all we could do. You can’t turn a pony into a thoroughbred over night.”

There had to be a culture change. The cupboard was bare, with little to no structure. Strother would know better than anyone. She’s seen it all, and it wasn’t good before Smith.

“Practices were kind of just lackadaisical,” she said. “We would do random things that made no sense. We didn’t know if we were going to be running a lot or what we are working on.”

Smith quickly changed that. His practices are timed down to each minute, broken up into who is doing what during each section of practice, down to each swing or ground ball. He sends his players a detailed itinerary of how practice will go each day. He uses video instruction, scouting reports and spray charts, which the players have access to, as well.

There are no surprises with Smith.

“I like structure,” Strother said. “I like that he was firm. He is very blunt. He doesn’t sugar-coat things. He tells you what he wants you to do or what he wants you to follow.”

It wasn’t for everyone, though. Some players didn’t like the culture shock. Some left, but there were others, like Strother and starting catcher Courtney Syrett, who bought in.

“You either buy in to what we are trying to do, or you aren’t going to be successful in our program,” Smith said. “Once you can buy in and get over the hump and do things differently than you have done in the past, then I am an easy coach to play for. If you don’t, I am not, because I am going to be on you until you do.”

The results soon followed.

Ole Miss finished 30-25 his first season. It took its lumps in the rugged SEC but shattered every offensive program record kept in the books, which gave him a recruiting tool. In his second season, the Rebels made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history with the third youngest roster in the country. He gained another tool.

If Ole Miss was able to come this far in two short seasons, think how far the ascent could go when a player from the 2020 class sets foot on campus.

That’s his pitch.

“Now the top talented kids are giving us a chance,” Smith said. “We couldn’t even get them on campus. They would talk to us on the phone, but we couldn’t get them on campus. Now, we are getting on campus, and they are seeing ‘Oh my gosh, Ole Miss is a special place,’ and we are getting a lot of those kids now. We feel our recruiting classes two, three and four years out are going to be really special.”

The success has come so fast that he’s even surprised himself with how quickly it has happened. His desire to win and his desire to push his players down to the smallest details has accelerated this process. When he’s short on talent, he out-strategizes opponents, puts pressure on the defense with hit and runs, squeezes and stolen bases.

“One, he is really smart game strategy wise,” assistant coach Ruben Felix said. “Two, on an everyday basis, he reminds me of a major league manager. When I coached major league baseball and when I coached in the minor leagues, the really good managers are detail oriented in the way they take an every day approach to practice and an attention to detail. They work on fundamentals to an extreme, and that’s something he does really well.”

Smith and Ole Miss are doing what some thought couldn’t be done. But that’s nothing new to him in his playing and coaching career.

“People have told me every step of the way that ‘You don’t know how long it’s going to take. It is going to take time,” Smith said. “I don’t know if you can do this.’ It just fuels my fire even more. It’s not that I want to prove people wrong … Maybe I just want to prove to myself that I can do it.”

Smith feels more at home in Oxford than he’s ever been. He and his wife Ellen traveled a lot when he played pro ball. They often discussed raising a family somewhere smaller than a big city.

“We talked about how great it would be to raise our kids in a place where it was a small town,” Smith said. “Where maybe they had a minor league team, and we could get season tickets and go out to the ballpark and just be invested in something small, something different than the big city.”

When his two kids, Ashlee and Tyler, came along, the moves didn’t stop. The trek from California to Lake Charles when Ashlee began high school wasn’t easy, and the move to Oxford wasn’t either. Ellen stayed with Ashlee the first year so she could graduate high school, and Tyler went with dad to begin high school at Oxford High.

But now they’re all back together. Ashlee is a sophomore at Ole Miss and works for SEC Network. She operated one of the TV cameras during the walk-off win.

“We actually went back to the house and watched the entire game as a family and got to watch what she really likes to do,” he said.

A few miles down the road, Tyler plays for Oxford High’s baseball team, the defending state champion. The family is all settled while Smith continues to build his prized project.

“We’ve just fallen in love with the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi,” Smith said. “We are Mississippians now. We aren’t Californians anymore.”

He’s not over the hump yet, and he knows it is still an uphill climb. He also knows he couldn’t have done it without some senior leadership, which Syrett and Strother have provided.

“They’re good softball players, but they are even better individuals,” Smith said. “They have bought into what I have wanted and what we have been able to do here. They’ve done a tremendous job of taking this program and putting Ole Miss softball on the map.”

The two are in their final years at Ole Miss, and though they may not be the team that brings home a championship, they’ve paved the way to make it possible.

“It’s cool that even though we might not be that team that goes to the national championship, we are the ones setting that foundation right now,” Strother said.

The two are roommates, and after their 5-0 weekend in Florida, they sat at home and reflected on how far everything has come.

“We were like, ‘This awesome. We would have never expected this,’ but we aren’t stopping,” Strother said. “We sit down and we back on it, and it is humbling. The freshmen can’t necessarily do that, but Courtney and I can. We can know that we have helped build this program.”

Strother describes her coach as “all gas, no brakes.” He’s always moving forward and building toward the future. He’s put a winning product on the field, and now the next step is getting fans in the seats. He knows it’s not like baseball at Ole Miss, and he doesn’t necessarily want it to be. But he thinks getting 1,000 fans per game isn’t unreasonable. The energy he coaches with shows through how his team plays, and now wants others to see it, too.

“I think we are creating a buzz, not just on our campus and the community but across the country for Ole Miss softball,” Smith said. “I would love to get 1,000 every night into our stands. Our games our free. It costs nothing to come to our games. People just need to come out and see what we are about and the excitement. Our team is fun. The players are into the games. People just need to get out and experience Ole Miss softball.”

Smith’s desire to build for the future doesn’t mean he lets the present moment go by without appreciation for where he’s come from or where he is.

“I am proud to wear Ole Miss across my chest every day,” Smith said. “I don’t take this game for granted. I don’t take this job for granted. I don’t take the people I work with for granted. I am at a special place, and I enjoy everything about this program.”