McNeese State softball coach Mike Smith. (Pankaj Khadaka / American Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 6:20 PM
Mike Smith claims he isn’t California
dreaming, but some in California might be dreaming of Smith.
The first-year McNeese State softball coach opened up more than local eyes when he turned around the attitude of the Cowgirls program this year.
While the record was on par with past years, the fact is Smith brought new life into the program and raised the expectations for the future.However, Smith’s future with the Cowgirls might be in question.
A day after posting the position for a softball coach, University of California Riverside Athletic Director Brian Wickstrom admitted Smith is a “very attractive” candidate to return to the school.
Smith was the interim head coach of the Highlanders in 2003, but the experience was not a good one. He took over the job just three days before the season began after only being an assistant on campus since the previous September. UCR went 13-45.
“It was a tough situation,” said Smith, who believed he had the job after the season only to be fired by then-AD Stan Morrison while on a recruiting trip.
“I was unofficially told it was mine,” Smith said. “I don’t want to say I was stabbed in the back, but I was misled.”Smith went on to turn NAIA California Baptist, also in Riverside, into a national power before coming to McNeese. He still owns a home in Riverside.
“Mike is an outstanding coach,” Wickstrom said. “He is a winner, has ties to the Inland Empire and knows the travel ball and high school coaches. And kids love to play for him.
“I would say he fits the profile.”
Wickstrom said the job must be posted for two weeks, but he wants to move after that. “We don’t want to wait on this position,” Wickstrom said. “This is a competitive market for softball and this is the prime recruiting time.”
Wickstrom said he has received 14 phone calls from people recommending Smith for the job.
“He is well-liked and well-respected out here,” said Wickstrom, who admitted he is likely to at least inquire about Smith’s interest and would certainly go through proper channels if it comes to that point.
“He has a lot of support from our community. This might end up being the perfect storm.”
However, Smith was more coy about his interest.
“I don’t know anything more than what I
read and heard from you guys,” Smith said. “Nobody has called me,
nobody has talked
to me. It is what it is.”
But if UCR calls?
“I would answer the phone,” Smith said. “I would talk to them, but that doesn’t mean anything. Just because you listen doesn’t mean anything. You would be crazy not to listen.”
A return to California, where softball is a big deal, might make career sense on the surface for Smith, but it’s not just as simple as moving back.
Smith said his family has “settled in” to Lake Charles and he likes the direction his new program is headed.
“We got things going right here,” Smith said. “And my family has adjusted to the South. It would be tough to move them back a year later.”
Then there is what he has accomplished with the Cowgirls in one season. A 34-21 record and some high profile wins including one over then-No. 1 Arizona State is only one part of the story.
Smith elevated the program’s visibility in the community and on campus. He also raised the level of interest in the team itself.
“I like what we have done here and what the future looks like,” Smith said. “I want to make McNeese State a place kids want to come to play big-time softball. I want to have this program be talked about when it comes to good softball in the nation.”
But Smith, who grew up in San Diego, admitted too that California “is home.”