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Gazzolo Column: McNeese's Smith knows he has fences to mend

Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 8:09 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

One thing about Mike Smith, he has always been a straight shooter.

Another thing, he is a pretty good salesman.

He now must be at the top of his game in both areas.

Smith, the man who came to McNeese State and pumped ultra-energy into the softball program, now must work some more magic.

He might have to do a little bit of groveling as well.

Earlier this month Smith interviewed to become the first head softball coach at Montana, which will start the sport in the spring of 2014.

That news came as a surprise to his players.

“I did not do what I should have done,” Smith said. “I should have gone to them first and let them know what was going on before the news became public.

“That is my fault.”

Smith didn’t get the job in Montana, finishing as a finalist after the school had approached him during the summer.

“It is flattering that somebody was interested in you to start their program,” Smith said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t like it here at McNeese. That is not the case.”

McNeese hit a home run when it hired Smith from Cal Baptist in Riverside, Calif., in the summer of 2011. He was the perfect coach to elevate the program.

In his two seasons the Cowgirls have gone 72-36 and won their first outright Southland Conference championship in 30 years.

So of course there will be interest in a coach with his credentials. That is the easy part. The hard part is explaining that to a bunch of girls who have given their heart and soul to a program and that coach.

“It is always about the girls,” Smith said. “I understand how some of them are upset. I hurt some players and they might be a little unsure.

“I know I have to mend fences.”

Smith started to do that last week when he held a team meeting, opening his door afterward for any player who needed more convincing.

“They are passionate about softball, about this program and about this community,” Smith said. “They let me know they are hurt. I get that. I respect them for that.

“I get why they are hurt. Their leader let them down and I understand that. It will take time.”

Smith is saying all the right things.

“I let them know that I’m all in, I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “I promise to work just as hard with them as before.”

Knowing Smith, that isn’t the question. However, any future recruits will have a least some doubts now.

Smith knows this and knows that working hard and winning is the only thing he can do to prove his words right.

“I think everybody is on board,” he said. “We all are on the same page.”

Fall conditioning begins Monday so Smith will find out for sure rather quickly.

“This is about us as a team,” Smith said. “It is what it is, it’s time for all of us to move forward.”

That means the club has unfinished business ahead.

Despite winning the Southland’s regular-season crown last year, the Cowgirls went two-and-out in the tournament, meaning another year without a big to an NCAA regional.

That is what McNeese must do to take the next step forward.

“We still have work to be done here, and I am committed to this program and getting it done,” Smith said.

He has built programs before, but this will be the first time he will have to rebuild his own mess.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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