Last year the Georgia baseball team needed a deep run in the SEC Tournament just to increase its overall record to .500 in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They responded with a series of improbable wins and were rewarded with the program’s third NCAA Tournament bid in four seasons.
Georgia seemed in much better shape heading into the home stretch of this season. They had split with defending national champ South Carolina, and they had swept Auburn. They headed into the final series against a weak Alabama team needing to win two of three games to clinch a winning conference mark. Instead of closing strong as they did a year ago, Georgia awaits the NCAA bracket with four consecutive losses and a two-and-BBQ exit from the SEC Tournament.
The Diamond Dawgs took the first game in Tuscaloosa but haven’t won since. During the four-game slide, Georgia has managed a total of just seven runs. The final game against Auburn ended in a way that summed up Georgia’s year-long struggles plating runners. Needing just one run to tie, the Dawgs could not bring home a runner from third with one out. Georgia’s batting average is third-best in SEC games, but only Tennessee scored fewer runs. In individual games, the inability to drive in runs could be seen as bad luck. Sustained problems in this area over the course of a season, coupled with a lack of power hitting in general, was not a good sign for a team that entered the season with much higher expectations.
The Diamond Dawgs began the year ranked in the top 20 and rose to as high as #8 on the back of a 10-1 record. A sweep by UCLA hinted that Georgia wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and losing three of their first four SEC series raised further questions. Georgia’s strength at pitching never became dominant, and an injury to closer Tyler Maloof diminished the bullpen. The team was able to point to close losses against good conference peers at Florida and LSU, but the inability to break through in those opportunities helped to turn Georgia from a conference contender to a team sweating its NCAA Tournament selection.
It’s debatable whether Georgia fans have ever been truly united behind David Perno – except for a few weeks in 2008 of course. The native Athenian and former Bulldog player was a controversial choice to follow the legendary Ron Polk if only because of Perno’s relative inexperience. Perno’s first two seasons didn’t do much to ease concerns. The Bulldogs didn’t post a winning conference record in 2002 or 2003, and there was already grumbling about the need for a change.
If Perno was ever in danger at that early stage, the 2004 season all but extinguished that talk. Georgia finished atop the SEC East and rolled into its first College World Series since 2001. But if fans put one foot on the bandwagon after 2004, the 2005 season kept them from taking that second step. Georgia followed up the trip to Omaha with a sub-.500 SEC mark. Thus began one of the more black-and-white sequences of success and failure you’ll find in sports. The Diamond Dawgs reached the College World Series in 2004, 2006, and 2008. They followed up each of those seasons with SEC records at or below .500. You’d think a program that made three trips to Omaha in five seasons would have established itself as a conference – if not national – power, but those valleys in between the peaks have made fan opinion regarding Perno as disparate as the records.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing since the near-miss in 2008. The remnants of that 2008 team gave Perno his first consecutive NCAA Tournament bid in 2009, but that squad was only .500 in the SEC and fizzled out in the regionals. The program went off a cliff in 2010 and posted an abysmal 16-37 (5-23 SEC) record. Georgia bounced back somewhat in 2011, but it took some magic in the SEC Tournament to even get to an overall .500 record. A promising 2012 season hasn’t gone much better. The valleys of the past decade were at least followed by memorable teams and deep postseason runs. It’s now been a while since 2008, and Georgia hasn’t been much more viable than a bubble team since.
To be sure, there have been some tough moments for the baseball program recently. The catastrophic injuries to Veazey and Taylor left deep marks not only on the emotional state of the team but also on the lineup. Maloof’s season-ending injury took away another key asset this year. These events, not to disregard their human toll, had real implications on Georgia’s competitiveness. At what point, though, do those tragic events become crutches for unrelated performance problems?
This stagnation led to more and more questions regarding Perno’s future, and it’s come to the point that athletic director Greg McGarity has had to address those questions. McGarity confirmed in no uncertain terms that Perno would return for 2013. “It’s not even an issue,” McGarity declared at a meeting of the athletic board.
This isn’t meant to be a defense or an indictment of Perno. It is, though, an attempt to understand the expectations that the athletic department has of the Georgia baseball program. McGarity will be held to his own rubric for evaluating coaches which includes this expectation: “Develop a program that is competitive in the SEC and nationally, understanding that the definition of ‘competitive’ is different from sport to sport.”
That’s what’s puzzling about McGarity’s statements about the state of the program. Over the long term, and that matters, Perno has taken Georgia to half of its College World Series. His teams have been competitive, but whether they are now and will be is up for discussion. What’s troubling is that McGarity seems to be defining “competitive” down when it comes to baseball. Pointing out that most everyone, save for a few top teams, is roughly .500 is fine – unless your goal is to be one of those top teams. Imagine a discussion of Georgia football’s competitiveness that began by excluding Florida or Alabama. Yes, the Diamond Dawgs are competitive relative to the middle of the pack in the SEC, if that’s how the definition of ‘competitive’ works for baseball.
The timing is also important because there’s more at stake than the immediate well-being of the baseball program. In addition to some minor work slated for Foley Field in the short-term, McGarity spoke today of his plans for about $10 million of more significant improvements to the long-neglected facility. McGarity plans to raise the first $5 million before coming to the board for the rest. It stands to reason that the head coach would be central in any fundraising activity. Even with Perno’s position secure for another year, this major facilities project begins with a polarizing coach at the helm whose future will be a topic as soon as the tarp comes off the field next season.