WKU Baseball: Building a Blueprint For Success Under Rardin With Bleed Tech Blue
Bleed Tech Blue's Ben Carlisle stops by to assess if future success is possible for WKU under Marc Rardin.
Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I can’t remember the last time there was this much energy around Western Kentucky baseball.
Which, lets be honest, isn’t saying a whole lot.
Even when Ian Thompson was anchoring the pitching staff and when Anderson Miller was a sure-fire MLB Draft prospect, it seemed like the only Hilltopper fans who knew about them were ones who cared about baseball at all.
But, with the hiring of Marc Rardin, it feels like even casual WKU supporters have given more thought to the baseball program over the last couple of weeks than they have over nearly a decade, if not longer.
The future is always bright when you make a new head coaching hire, but something about Rardin’s hire seems exceptionally exciting. National baseball media members love it and the on-paper track record is hard to argue against.
However, one big question remains: What are the heights WKU can reach under Rardin?
To get a feel of that, as well as to gauge what the road map back to relevance looks like for the Tops, we reached out to Ben Carlisle, publisher of Bleed Tech Blue, the Rivals site covering all things Louisiana Tech, and former La Tech baseball player, to get his insights on what the Tops can learn from the Bulldogs, a team that has soared into national prominence over the last five years.
The Towel Rack: Before we look at the present, lets talk about the past: How rich is the Louisiana Tech baseball history and how do the last four or five seasons play into that history?
Ben Carlisle: To be honest, there isn't a whole lot of recent history when it comes to Louisiana Tech baseball. Prior to 2016, Louisiana Tech had not been to an NCAA Regional since 1987. So when you look at the last 6 years, it's pretty evident that this could qualify as the "Golden Era" of Louisiana Tech baseball. It's a testament to not on the coaches and players, but the administration really started to invest more into the program starting in 2015.
TTR: It sounds like they rarely find themselves in as dire a situation as the Hilltoppers are in now, but they had a stretch of finishing 10th, 13th and 12th from 2013-15. In that span, they changed conferences and head coaches. Aside from the conference change, what happened in those seasons to see such uncharacteristic results?
BC: Following the 2014 season, there was a coaching change. Greg Goff was hired from Campbell, and it was a breath of fresh air. Goff injected new life into the program. Following a 2015 campaign that saw the program finish around the .500 mark, Tech really took off in 2016. A three-game sweep of national-power (at the time) Rice in Ruston in the last regular-season series of the year could be described as a turning point for where we are today. Tech would go on to play in an NCAA Regional at Mississippi State that season, making it to the Regional Final.
Following the 2016 season, Goff left to become the head coach at Alabama. Lane Burroughs was then hired to lead the program into the 2017 campaign. The 2017-2019 were all close calls; the Bulldogs had great RPIs, but were unable to get over that hump and into a regional. Also, in April of 2019, the city of Ruston was devastated by a tornado. JC Love Field was wiped out completely, and the program was forced to build a brand new stadium which was completed at the start of the 2021 season.
One telling point following the 2019 season, keep in mind that the Bulldogs were slated to play their entire 2020 campaign at a high school stadium, not one player transferred. Not one.
TTR: Since 2016, the Bulldogs have won less than 39 games just twice (not counting 2020). What has attributed to this not only turnaround, but consistent turnaround?
BC: Culture. It's cliche, I get it. Like I mentioned above though, Tech didn't have a stadium for nearly two years and didn't see one player transfer out. That's absurd in this era of collegiate athletics. Talk to any player, any fan, any coach around the program, and they'll all tell you about the culture that Lane Burroughs has built in Ruston. Sure, it helps that five all-time greats in Hunter Wells, Parker Bates, Taylor Young, Steele Netterville and Jonathan Fincher came through the program at the same time. That's four All-Americans (Wells, Bates, Young and Fincher), but all five played a huge role in putting Tech on the map in the college baseball world.
If you'd have told me in 2018 or 2019 that Tech would host a regional in 2021, I would have called you crazy. It's been one heckuva ride for me to watch, having played for the program from 2011-2014.
TTR: Okay, lets talk Hilltoppers - what do you see as the most immediate things Rardin has to address?
BC: Culture and buy-in. It's so simple, but it starts at the bottom. As a new HC, you can't have guys that are half-in or half-out. With college baseball only having 11.7 scholarships, it doesn't matter the level/conference at which you compete in, you can legitimately compete for a national championship. We see that nearly every year across the country. Building a culture takes time, it takes players like a Ty Crittenberger that wants to be remembered in Hilltopper history as a guy who really got it going on the diamond.
TTR: Do you think the Tops can get to Tech's level? What would a roadmap for Rardin look like in order for the Tops to have dreams of playing in (yet alone hosting like Tech has) a regional?
BC: I don't see why they couldn't. I'll be honest though, Tech has had a lot going its way with a brand new stadium and five all-time players coming through at the same time. Plus, in Tech's area of the country, there is more baseball talent than anywhere in the country within five hours of Ruston.
Does that mean it can't be built in Bowling Green, KY? Absolutely not. If it were me, I would start with a number of junior college guys and move towards the high school signees once things become more established. JC guys always seem more hungry to prove themselves at the D1 level, in my opinion. Once the program has established a winning culture, that's when you'll see transfer portal kids showing interest in the program.