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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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McNeese State Cowgirls softball coach Mike Smith. (Rick Hickman / American Press)<br>

McNeese State Cowgirls softball coach Mike Smith. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

This day was inevitable for Smith

Last Modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 5:48 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Proving that if you can beat them you can join them, Mike Smith is headed to the SEC.

He will now reap the rewards of his conquests.

The McNeese State softball coach is taking his talents to Ole Miss. The school is expected to make the announcement as early as today.

Apparently beating Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M looks pretty good on a softball coach’s résumé, especially to an athletic director at a struggling softball institution like Ole Miss.

It is a promotion well deserved.

When Smith first hit town three years ago, he promised to raise the profile of the McNeese program.

He vowed to work hard, have his kids be a big part of the community and to turn the Cowgirls into a regional brand.

Smith delivered.

He never once said he was going to retire from McNeese.

In fact, anybody with a good pair of glasses could have read between these lines. Smith wanted to play with the big boys and girls of college softball from the start.

It’s why he went out and scheduled the best competition he could find. He would take on anybody anywhere, traveling to some of the nation’s best softball campuses for a game or tournament.

The move worked, not only for Smith but for the university.

Even in the face of such a schedule, Smith’s teams set program records for wins in each of the last two years, claiming the regular-season Southland Conference championship both times.

More importantly, Smith and his Cowgirls got the program and university noticed right from the start when they traveled to the desert and defeated the top-ranked and defending national champion Arizona State.

It was just his third game at the helm of McNeese and Smith had already hit a grand slam.

More home runs followed.

A program that was far from rock bottom when Smith took over was soon hitting new heights on a weekly basis.

With the wins came attention.

UC Riverside flirted with the idea of luring Smith back to California after his first year in Lake Charles. Last summer he interviewed to be Montana’s first coach. Smith’s probably pretty happy now that didn’t work out.

Two years had not only produced two job adventures, but also a bunch of attention for the program.

So it comes as no surprise to anybody that Smith would jump at a chance to lead an SEC program after his third season.

Those who feel jilted should be ashamed.

This is what doing business in the college sports world is like now.

McNeese AD Bruce Hemphill knows the game.

“That comes with the territory,” Hemphill told the American Press in April. “We want to get the best coaches we can and keep them for as long as we can. We want their loyalty while they are here.”

Hemphill even went on to say he hoped to help his coaches move on if that is what they want to do.

“Part of my job is to help our coaches get where they want to be professionally,” he said. “If they want to get some place else they think is better for their family, then we will try to help them. What we want first and foremost are people who are willing to work their tails off while they are here.”

You can’t blame a guy for trying to get his family to a better financial place.

This is not the case with all coaches. Some have stayed on at winning programs despite having chances to move on. They are also part of the story.

McNeese has hit it right with Matt Viator (football) and Brooks Donald Williams (women’s basketball), both have won and stayed put. It is a nice comfort for the school, but at the level McNeese plays you have to expect the opposite as well.

Smith was a coach trying to climb the ladder from the start. He had his eyes set on a bigger prize.

He also found out the reality of playing in the Southland as well.

Despite running away with the league’s regular-season title and playing one of the toughest schedules in the land, the Cowgirls were left out of the NCAA tournament thanks in large part to the Southland’s bad Rating Percentage Index and losing in the conference tournament’s title game.

No matter what he did, no matter who he beat, the Southland was still a one-bid league when it came to the NCAAs.

Granted, that probably didn’t play much of a part in Smith’s decision to leave, but it didn’t help either.

“I don’t know what more we could have done,” Smith said after learning he was left home while teams he beat got a chance to compete for a national title.

Apparently what he did was find a way to join the bigger schools.

It is a burden McNeese and other smaller universities are left to deal with.

Now it’s up to Hemphill to find the right person to replace Smith and keep things going.

The standard has been set. Picking the next person in line won’t cut it if the program is to keep going.

The only thing that matters now is picking the right person.

The job should be more attractive now.

For that, McNeese fans should thank Smith.

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

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