OXFORD • Softball practice began at Ole Miss this week with a Rebels team loaded for another postseason run but unwilling to talk about the coach most responsible for unprecedented success within the program.
Former coach Mike Smith went 187-112 in five seasons. Under his guidance, the Rebels reached the NCAA Tournament four times and advanced to super regionals twice in the last three years.
The school abruptly announced Smith’s resignation on Dec. 8 and named Ruben Felix, Smith’s top assistant, as interim coach.
Felix takes over a team that loses one of the program’s most recognized players, outfielder Kylan Becker, but otherwise returns seven starters and adds the No. 17-ranked signing class.
“We’re not focusing on the past. We’re just really looking forward to this season. I think we’re going to have a lot of success and a lot of fun together as a team,” senior pitcher Molly Jacobsen said.
The Rebels went 41-20 last season and finished fifth in the SEC regular season at 14-10. They defeated No. 7 Louisiana-Lafayette twice to win the Oxford Regional.
In late November Smith was placed on paid administrative leave as the program went through what was described as a “non-financial” external audit.
In announcing Smith’s resignation, athletics director Keith Carter referenced the “culture” of the program.
“Our primary focus is to foster success for everyone involved with our program on and off the field,” Carter said in a prepared statement.
Three days later the Softball America website published an article detailing a dispute between the father of an unidentified walk-on player and Smith over potential scholarship money.
The story went on to quote the father as describing himself as “vindictive” and delved deeper into unsubstantiated allegations of impropriety within the program.
Carter has declined to comment on the Softball America story.
Junior utility player Jessica Puk said that under Felix the Rebels plan to “just maintain the same family environment and continue building a family atmosphere.”
She added, “The guidance to continue moving forward has been our thing to do. We tackle every day as it is. We’re just excited about the future.”
Felix, a 2000 Texas Tech graduate, joined the program when Smith was hired five seasons ago and was eventually promoted to associate head coach and recruiting coordinator.
He plans to continue to build the team around pitching, defense and speed.
Felix’s biggest challenge during the transition was to reassure recruits and their families. He says the 13 current commits spread over the next two signing classes are still “coming for sure.”
He stresses the need for players to look internally to move the program ahead.
“We just need to be as good a people as we can just to have good things happen to us,” Felix said. “Softball’s going to take care of itself because we’re talented. The quicker we turn the page and look forward and be positive with each other … I think the sky’s the limit for this program.”
Ole Miss opens its season Feb. 7 with games against Louisville and N.C. State at the Leadoff Classic in Florida