WKU Baseball: Pawlowski's Exit is Good, But May Have Come Too Late
WKU baseball is better moving on from its head coach of seven years. Unfortunately, the time to make a move may have already passed.
On Wednesday, Western Kentucky announced that head baseball coach John Pawlowski will be resigning at the conclusion of the season (which ends this weekend against outgoing C-USA member Old Dominion) to “pursue other opportunities.”
Pawlowski’s resignation comes less than four months after he signed an extension with WKU through the end of the 2025 season, a decision that was baffling then and looks no better now.
The state of WKU baseball hasn’t been good for quite some time, and under Pawlowski, it was getting downright depressing.
Even one of, if not the only, bright spots in his tenure, Jake Sanford - a third-round pick of the New York Yankees and the Conference USA triple-crown winner in 2019, the league’s first-ever - had a huge black stain put on it yesterday when it was reported that he was cut by the Yanks after allegedly stealing equipment from teammates and scamming fans out of money, by offering signed items he never delivered on.
With only three games left in his Hilltopper tenure, Pawlowski has compiled a 142-197-1 (65-112-1) record over his seven years, a record which, if not for the cancelation of over half the 2020 season, would see him be only the second head coach in program history to reach the 200-loss mark, along with only program legend Joel Murrie, who coached 26 seasons (and finished with an overall record of 815-656-4).
A weekend sweep against ODU this year would cement that unwanted piece of history for Pawlowski.
Over his seven years, the Tops lost 20 or more conference games on three occasions (including this season) - which accounts for half of his league years with the entirety of the 2020 conference slate being canceled - and qualified for the Conference USA tournament twice and won just one game in each appearance.
WKU finished above .500 in conference play in Pawlowski’s tenure once, in 2019 (16-13-1).
Pawlowski’s departure from the program, whether truly his choice or just publicly facing that way in an attempt to save face for someone who is highly respected in college baseball circles for his work in past jobs, is a long time coming.
Unfortunately for WKU, both fans and the program, it may have been too long a time.
Conference USA is an appealing baseball conference. Last year, four C-USA schools went to the baseball tournament (Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Charlotte, Old Dominion) and two of them hosted (Tech, ODU), meaning they were seen as one of the 16 best conferences in the nation.
Southern Miss has been ranked most, if not all of, this year, too, and the latest D1Baseball projections have another four C-USA schools dancing (same four as last year, with only UTSA replacing Charlotte).
If there’s a sport where you’d like to see the Hilltoppers compete with the big boys, baseball is as good as any, with the combination of the Tops’ successes in midweek games (wins against Kentucky and Louisville are a yearly occurrence) plus a strong enough conference where a series loss won’t crush you the same way, in basketball, beating Wisconsin at home in December is immediately negated by losing to FIU on the road in February.
Having said all that, now we have to say this: The C-USA baseball landscape is changing rapidly. Next year, while the conference is gaining tournament mainstay Dallas Baptist, is losing Southern Miss and ODU to the Sun Belt. The following season, Charlotte, UTSA and programs with a rich baseball history such as Rice (even though their best days are, for the time being, probably behind them) and FAU (who had a brilliant flash-in-the-pan run a few years ago) are out the door, leaving only Louisiana Tech as one of the league’s banner programs.
While, yes, Liberty and Sam Houston State (who played in the Super Regionals in 2017) are on their way in as reinforcements, the conference as a whole won’t be nearly as strong.
I say all that to say this: If the Tops really wanted to sell an opportunity to a young, promising, up-and-coming coach that there’s a chance to not only build something but do so in a conference that’s respected, they should have moved on from Pawlowski sooner in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot.
Now, not only does Todd Stewart and company have to try to sell a program that hasn’t had a ton of tangible success since the late 2000s when it last made an NCAA Tournament, but now has to sell trying to build a program in a conference that doesn’t have much of an appeal to it.
“Hey, [insert coaching candidate here], want to come to coach the Hilltoppers where your marquee games are losing to Louisiana Tech and DBU every year?”
Not exceptionally ideal.
If the Tops had cut their losses earlier, it may not be super out of the question that the promise of a competitive league while being promised time to build something is something that could have been used as a selling point for the next head coach.
I suppose the selling of a competitive league isn’t out of the question, but it’s more akin to what we see in most basketball seasons, where it’s competitive without any top-tier talent.
WKU was always going to have an uphill battle when it comes to making the baseball program relevant, in any sense of the word. And while the program is better next week without Pawlowski at the helm, the delaying of the inevitable made that hill that much steeper.