Ole Miss coach Mike Smith, chancellor Jeff Vitter

Ole Miss coach Mike Smith, left, and chancellor Jeff Vitter celebrate the Rebels’ SEC tournament championship win.

OXFORD

Somehow Mike Smith didn’t hear from the SEC’s ministry of propaganda.

As he considered leaving the mid-major program he’d built into a dominant Southland Conference team, Smith’s first efforts at learning about Ole Miss softball did not reflect well on Ole Miss.

Sure, coaching in the nation’s top conference had appeal, but at what risk?

“A few people said, ‘That’s a potential career-ending job. It’s not a great job. They probably don’t put a lot of money in their program. You may want to look for something else,’” recalled Smith.

Clearly, Ole Miss softball had an image problem. The good news for Ole Miss was that Smith had not been in great jobs before. He had taken jobs and made them great.

He was 112-51 in three years at McNeese State, the Cowgirls’ improving each year. His last team in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 2014, went 40-17, 3-1 against the SEC, but did not win its conference tournament and did not receive an NCAA bid.

Prior to McNeese, Smith coached at the NAIA level with California Baptist. In eight seasons his teams finished in the top four seven times. His 2009 team won the national championship. His 2011 team won 66 games.

Smith knew he would never miss the NCAA tournament with a 40-win team at Ole Miss. He didn’t listen to the detractors.

“That just fueled my fire even more. When people tell me I can’t do something it’s just going to make me work even harder.”

In any move timing is also important. Smith had the good fortune of coming on early in the tenure of vice chair for athletics Ross Bjork, who typically runs from mediocrity.

Hiring coaches is like recruiting players. There’s no such thing as “can’t miss,” but Smith’s body of work suggested Ole Miss had a real chance to clear up that image problem.

As with his previous stops there’s been steady improvement, but Smith never thought he’d be coaching the SEC tournament champion in his third season.

Ole Miss softball has now had its best seasons back-to-back, and this one isn’t finished. If you can win the tournament in the nation’s deepest conference – there are four teams ranked in the top 11, including No. 1 Florida – it stands to reason you can win a regional at home.

Advance and conquer all you can, but Ole Miss is playing with house money now. No matter what happens from here the program took down the Gators and won the SEC tournament.

“Recruiting is going to change for us,” Smith said.

Looks like it will take that Ole Miss image with it.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at Djournal.com.

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