How Oklahoma and Ole Miss wound up in a program-defining MCWS final series

OMAHA, Neb. — If the fighters in the 2022 Men’s College World Cup Finals (Game 1, ESPN/ESPN App, 7:00 p.m. ET) weren’t in Omaha and were instead watching TV from their homes — and, oh dear BTW, most thought they were going to do that now – then it’s not far to find out who the Oklahoma Sooners would have backed or who the Ole Miss Rebels would have left behind.

It would have been the Ole Miss Rebels and the Oklahoma Sooners. Why? Because people are always attracted to those who remind them of themselves. And as these two teams have been watching each other from afar for the past week and a half, they’ve seen quite a lot that feels familiar.

“There are so many similarities, there’s no doubt about it,” Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson said Friday afternoon at Charles Schwab Field as the Sooners began practice for their first appearance in the championship series since 1994.

“Ole Miss plays with a lot of heart, and so do we. They’re led by some tough, smart seniors, and so are we. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulder since they got in and I think if you’ve been watching us, we’re playing too. It was fun watching these guys. I bet they would say the same about us.”

do they.

“We both had to play every postseason game on the road and both had to deal with some disappointments throughout the year,” added Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco after posing with Johnson next to the championship trophy.

“I think the two of us probably weren’t on people’s radars as potential national champions, even after coming to Omaha last week. So, coming out on the other side of that kind of spring and May and being the last two teams standing, we can’t help but feel some sort of kinship for sure.”

To be clear, this relationship is not new. Yes, Ole Miss was the nation’s No. 1 early in the season, dropped out of the rankings like she had a ruptured parachute, lasted just one game in the SEC tournament, and was one of the 64-team’s “Last Four In.” -NCAA tournament. And yes, Oklahoma wasn’t in any of the top 25 preseason rankings, was picked to finish 6th in the nine-team Big 12, and after failing to seed one of the NCAA’s 16 national seeds landing, he was en route from Gainesville, Fla. to Blacksburg, Virginia, while at each location they must survive an elimination match to reach Omaha.

But these two programs have had such low expectations because, frankly, their collective history hasn’t earned either of them a confidence boost. Both have always been on every college baseball fan’s list of “which schools should have always been a lot better at baseball than they actually are?”

Ole Miss is home to one of college baseball’s greatest atmospheres, the always crowded and always beer-sprayed borders of Swayze Field.

Since 2004, they have hosted 10 NCAA Regionals and three Super Regionals. They went 0-3 in those Supers. They’ve made six appearances in the Men’s College World Series, but this is only their second since 1972, and up to this week they hadn’t won more than two games, let alone made the finals. By now, every program around them in the cage match, which is SEC West, has made a lot more noise in baseball. The Rebels — most painfully — have always played second fiddle to arch-rivals Mississippi State, which won the MCWS title a year ago, and LSU, a six-time Omaha champion.

Oklahoma has also existed in the long shadow of its two most despised neighbors. Oklahoma State is an NCAA regular, having made 20 College World Series appearances and making finals on six of those trips. Texas is arguably the greatest college baseball program of all time, with a dozen finals appearances, six championships and entire pages of the CWS record book. Despite being in the same neighborhood with the same resources and seemingly the same passion for the game, this is only the second time the Sooners have been to Omaha since 1995.

However, they have won two national baseball titles. The 1994 team was a church softball team that upset Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek’s Georgia Tech team in the finals. Previously, the 1951 Sooners won the second Omaha-hosted series, shocking defending champion Tennessee. And how did that go?

“We would have loved to have stayed in Omaha and partied, but they didn’t give us enough money for hotel rooms, so we got on an old school bus and drove 500 miles back to Norman.”

This reminder came from Sooner outfielder-turned-Hollywood actor Jim Antonio during an interview in 2009.

Sooners legend Bud Wilkinson was also the athletic director and wasn’t particularly interested in baseball. He told the team they couldn’t go to Omaha even after qualifying. The school president intervened, but still only provided the bus and not enough money for hotels. The surviving members of the team received their championship rings in 2001. Former pitcher Jack Shirley said at the time, “They were probably waiting for us to die.”

So yes. That’s the story of Oklahoma and Ole Miss Baseball. A story that all but guarantees that defeating its longtime followers would become the greatest achievement of this program.

So Johnson led his team to where Rosenblatt Stadium once stood, home to both of those Sooners titles. He had them stand at home plate, which is still there – in a zoo parking lot – and talk about that past. That’s also why he consciously took a moment this week to sit down and reflect on his former boss and mentor, the late Augie Garrido, perhaps the greatest college baseball coach of all, with whom Johnson shared three Appeared at the College World Series as a Texas assistant.

Which is why Bianco picked up the phone and called his mentor, Skip Bertman, who has his own solid dugout GOAT argument. Bianco was Bertman’s catcher and captain on an LSU team that finished third in the College World Series in 1989 and then won three rings in five seasons as an assistant coach under Bertman in 1993, ’96 and ’97. It was Bertman who calmed Bianco’s nerves in early May as Ole Miss struggled to get back to .500 in the SEC game and talk of an impending sacking. After a heartbeat with Bertman, Ole Miss swept LSU’s ninth place finish at Baton Rouge.

“Being able to lean on that kind of mentoring doesn’t get any better than that for both of us,” Bianco said of himself and Johnson. “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? To have a direct line and connection to so much history in this city and this show.”

It is. Even if their programs don’t have it, they will all draw strength from it this weekend in Omaha.

“Maybe we don’t have as much history as you say,” Johnson added. “Hopefully we can write some of our own now.” How Oklahoma and Ole Miss wound up in a program-defining MCWS final series

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