Former Mississippi State baseball legend Ron Polk, the Southeastern Conference’s winningest coach ever in any sport, is 67 years old. He should be lounging at a beach condo near a golf course, enjoying a stress-free retirement. His only decision everyday should be where to eat lunch. But if you know Polk, forever a stickler for time management who once admitted to reading books while behind the wheel on long drives, the man who once spent time around a pool in Hawaii addressing Christmas cards, you understand kicking back is not in his DNA.
Polk’s idea of retirement is renting an apartment in Birmingham though he has a new house in Starkville, and serving as the most overqualified unpaid volunteer assistant in the history of college baseball. He’s serving his third year in Conference USA on the staff of Alabama-Birmingham coach Brian Shoop, a one-time Polk assistant at Mississippi State. “I’m the bullpen coach during games,” says Polk enthusiastically, who sounds like he’s 17 again. “They don’t even mind that I smoke my cigars in the bullpen.” Throw in the facts that Polk isn’t allowed by NCAA rules to recruit on the road or make recruiting calls because he’s a volunteer assistant, and that he isn’t the man making the primary gameday decisions. It seems he’s found his horsehide nirvana.
If there is anybody who has ever earned his day in the sun, or a place where he can puff cigars while in a game uniform, it’s Polk who’s universally considered “The Father of SEC Baseball.” In his 31 years as a SEC head coach – 29 at Mississippi State from 1976 to ’97 and ’02-’08 and 2 at Georgia from ’00-’01, he won 1,218 games, five SEC regular season championships and took teams to the College World Series seven times (plus another in his first head coaching job at Georgia Southern).
But more importantly, for the longest time, he was the lone wolf howling about the SEC’s rules governing baseball, bylaws that were more severe than those of the NCAA, restrictions that put SEC baseball on an uneven playing field with the rest of the nation. Polk was bound and determined to prove SEC baseball could be financially viable, a success on the field and at the box office. It’s no accident that since 1990, the SEC has had nine different schools reach the College World Series 40 times, with three teams (LSU 6, Georgia and South Carolina 1 each) winning eight national championships).
Nobody upped the ante like Polk. When he pushed through a $3.5 million expansion of State’s Dudy Noble Field in ’87, it was a call to arms to the rest of the league. It’s safe to say that today the SEC has some of the most beautiful and modern stadiums in college baseball. “I think you can put Ron Polk up there with Bear Bryant in football and Adolph Rupp in basketball for what he did for baseball in the SEC," former Auburn athletic director David Housel once said. "Ron showed you that if you win and win big, that you can build it and they will come.”
All of this would have never happened if Polk would have been a 6-8 power forward or a 300-pound offensive lineman. Instead, the Good Lord stopped the Boston, Mass.-born Polk’s growth at 5-8. So as he entered high school in the Phoenix area, his sport of choice became obvious. “At 5-8, you’re a shortstop and second baseman,” says Polk, whose father played some semi-pro ball back in the day. “Baseball was the only sport for a little guy like me. And I liked the fact baseball weather is usually warm and sunny, and you can be in a ballpark just about all day.”
It was easy for Polk to make baseball his vocation. When he graduated from tiny Grand Canyon (Ariz.) College in 1965, it took him just seven seasons to become head coach at a four-year college. He was hired at Georgia Southern in 1972 at age 27 where he stayed four seasons, guiding GSU to two NCAA tourneys, including the College World Series. From GSU, he went to Mississippi State in 1976. On Polk’s resume, there’s no mention that he actually quit as Georgia Southern’s coach to become a University of Miami assistant under the legendary Ron Fraser for three months before landing in Starkville.
But here’s how it happened. If you know Polk, you understand he’s a man who doesn’t mind drawing a line in the sand when thinks something is unjust. So at the end of his last season at GSU, he resigned because of budget problems. “They were unable to meet some things we needed to do for the program,” Polk remembers. “All I wanted was a dugout with a roof on it that didn’t leak and one that would cover more than 10 players. “I was also teaching five classes, taking care of our baseball field maintenance. I was killing myself with one full-time assistant. It was time for me to move to Miami.”
When Mississippi State coach Jimmy Bragan abruptly quit in 1975 after one season, the State administration went after Polk. They remembered his fundamentally-sound, focused Georgia Southern teams that played in NCAA regionals in Starkville, with State as the host even though the Bulldogs didn’t qualify for an invite. “I guess fate had us play in Starkville,” Polk says. “We got to eat in the athletic dorm and I met some of State’s athletic administrators, so those people knew Ron Polk.
“When Jimmy Bragan got the (State head coaching) job, I thought he’d be there forever. But Jimmy got asked to be the third base coach for the Brewers, and he left. I was at Miami and available, because Ron Fraser was being pursued by the Chicago White Sox as a general manager. The Miami administration told me not to make a decision on taking the State job, because they wanted me to become head coach if Ron left for the White Sox. But I couldn’t wait.”
So Polk took the job at State in December ’75. Because State was a few months away from finishing Humphrey Coliseum, Polk’s first office was “a dungeon in the bottom of the football stadium,” he recalls with a laugh. “I had to buy a heater.” After a month, Polk moved to his new office. The rest is a stop-start-stop-start-stop-start-stop history in which Polk coached at Mississippi State for two tours of duty sandwiching a two-year stint at Georgia where he took it to the College World Series.
It was at Mississippi State where he put a saddle on the tired state of SEC baseball and whipped it toward the finish line like a jockey trying to get a thoroughbred to the winners’ circle. Rewind to the 1960s and ’70s, and SEC baseball was the black sheep of each school’s athletic family. Most schools had embarassing playing venues, mostly splintered wooden bleachers with rusted handrails.
When State hired Polk, he was the league’s first full-time baseball coach. Schools like LSU, which had its head equipment manager for the athletic department also moonlighting as head baseball coach, hadn’t seriously committed to building winning programs. “They probably drew straws in the athletic departments to see who was going to coach baseball,” Polk says.
Why was SEC baseball an afterthought? Because for the longest time, until Polk was hired at State and pushed the SEC’s athletic directors for change, the league had a set of restrictive rules for baseball that the rest of the NCAA didn’t have. “I called the rules `The Dirty Dozen’,” Polk says. “Being a young whippersnapper, I attacked the SEC about them. We had great weather and good universities with a little money. So why don’t we get after it in baseball a bit?
Hire full-time coaches and staffs. Build new stadiums. Be allowed to play as many games as the other NCAA teams do, have as many practices as they do. “I’m sure the athletic directors in our league looked at me and said, `Who is this young guy and why is he telling us what to do?’ We had rules about baseball in the SEC manual that the NCAA didn’t have. I’d ask, `Why do we have this rule or that rule?’ Nobody seemed to know.”
While Polk was trying to make the SEC realize that baseball could be a revenue sport, he was proving his point at Mississippi State. He was a man who refused to accept "no" for an answer to just about anything.
"I knew the SEC could be a really great baseball conference, but at the time it was all football and Kentucky basketball,” Polk says. “So I'd ask aggressively why things were the way they were and I wouldn't accept the answer of `that's the way we've always done it.’ ”
Former State athletic director Larry Templeton said his baseball marketing department was Polk, someone Templeton once called “the most organized man I’d ever met.”
“Ron would go to alumni meetings and say `I need someone to buy five season tickets,' " Templeton says. "If the guy said he couldn't come, Ron would tell him to buy them and give them to somebody else to come."
Polk and State announcer Jim Ellis quickly began building a radio network to carry State's games and a TV network to carry his coach's show. He raised money to help build the new Dudy Noble Field in ’87. He got one of his former stars, major league star Will Clark, to buy a padded outfield fence. He persuaded best-selling author and MSU alumnus John Grisham to fund an indoor batting range under the first base grandstand.
"Baseball was really a gentleman's game when Ron came to Mississippi State," recalls Straton Karatossos, State's associate athletic director for development, who came to Starkville from Georgia Southern, where he served as a student trainer for Polk. "Ron brought intensity to the league, and I don't think everyone was ready for that."
It did take awhile, but the rest of the SEC finally adapted. One of Polk's former graduate assistants, former Kentucky coach Keith Madison, once said, ''Ron's done the same thing for baseball in this league that (Kentucky's) Adolph Rupp did in basketball. People got tired of Rupp beating them, so they hired better coaches, built bigger coliseums and recruited better players.''
After 10 years at State, Polk wasn’t the only one fighting for the growth of baseball in the SEC. As its head coach, LSU hired University of Miami pitching coach Skip Bertman, someone Polk knew. Once upon a time in 1976, Polk would have hired Bertman as an assistant at Miami if Polk had become Miami’s head coach. "Nobody changed the attitude of SEC athletic directors toward baseball better than Ron Polk," says Bertman, who won five national titles between 1991-2000 before retiring in 2001 to serve as LSU’s athletic director. "Athletic directors were enamored with football, because it was so successful that nothing else mattered. Ron changed all of that."
Through the years, Polk never wavered from his philosophy of building a program with student-athletes who lived up to every sense of the description. That's why Polk's teams had about a 95 percent graduation rate. "I always believe that if you recruited quality kids, they would never wrong you," Polk says. "I believed that if you put a good product on the field of clean-cut kids who would hustle, who are classy and who care about academics, that people would come."
It was Polk's love of his players, combined with his lifelong battle against the NCAA continually restricting baseball in every conceivable way, starting with 11.7 scholarships per year and no graduate assistant coaches allowed, that led Polk to retire as a head coach for good at the end of the ’08 season.
He had retired a couple of times before. But when the NCAA Board of Directors passed even more restrictive legislation in January ’08, such as limiting roster size to 27 players receiving scholarship aid and insisting walk-ons who transfer to another school must sit out a year, Polk knew his fight with the NCAA was done.
Before the vote, he had mailed an 18-page typewritten letter, pleading his case to anyone who had anything to do with college baseball. Polk says he was told members of the NCAA Board of Directors didn't read the letter, because they found it too long. "I'm writing this letter, typing all the envelopes and I said, 'What am I doing this for?' " Polk recalls. "It was my last hurrah to see if I can save the sport from this evil organization."
But you knew that Polk couldn’t stay away from the game. So when UAB’s Shoop, who was an assistant for Polk at State from 1983-89, offered him a job as an unpaid volunteer assistant before the ’09 season, Polk jumped at the chance. “I enjoy making suggestions, I don’t have to make decisions anymore,” Polk says. “It’s a nice change of pace to play teams and go places I’ve never been. I work with a classy Christian coaching staff and we recruit quality kids.
“I’m having a ball not being a headliner. I’m just a volunteer coach who puts on a uniform and gets to work with the kids. That’s really what it’s all about.”