UK baseball Q&A, part one: Why did Nick Mingione receive a contract extension?

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Three Southeastern Conference baseball teams are in the 2021 College World Series, which begins this Saturday. Kentucky isn’t one of them.

UK is coming off a 29-23 season in which it failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. It’s the third straight tourney that the Wildcats have missed since a historic run in 2017 that saw them finish two wins short of the program’s first CWS berth. That season was the first for Kentucky skipper Nick Mingione, who in late February agreed to a contract extension good through the 2025 season. The Wildcats during his tenure are 143-103 overall with a 51-69 record in Southeastern Conference play.

Kentucky since the season ended has had eight players enter the transfer portal, further fanning concerns about the direction of the program after another year without an NCAA Tournament berth. The Lexington Herald-Leader sat down with Mingione for about an hour this week to get a sense of what’s going on with the team, what he’s learned in five years as a head coach and why he believes UK is on the right track.

Below you’ll find the first half of the on-the-record portion of that conversation. The questions and answers have been lightly edited for reader clarity. Part two will be published Friday morning.

When I say, ‘What kind of shape is the Kentucky baseball program in right now,’ how would you respond?

Nick Mingione: The first thing I do, is I look at the big picture. I evaluate from the time we got here to where we’re at now. I think everybody knows our first year we had a magical season. Right? We had really the greatest season in school history. We made a super regional for the first time, we’re two wins from Omaha. We did something that’s never, ever been done before, and that’s to win a regional at home and make a super regional. And then, when you look after that, I think about our ‘18 team, where we were told we finished one win short. We were the 30 RPI at the time. They let the first 29 in and the next thing you know they skip us at No. 30 and let the next 16 in. So we didn’t make the postseason that year.

We ended up having 13 draft picks, and they all signed. So, in ‘19, it was much like a rebuild. When I think about our program and where we’re at now, I think about those first two years and then the third year, where we obviously did not do very well in the Southeastern Conference, and it felt much like we were starting over. And rightfully so. You have 13 guys the year before get drafted and signed. Oh! That takes me to the ‘20 season, and that was the COVID year. There obviously was no postseason. I’ll always be curious to see what that team would have done. We started out slow in ‘20 but by the time COVID happened we were playing our best baseball. We were pitching, we were hitting, we were defending at the highest level we had all year, and then COVID happened.

This year, we were two wins short. It was a really good team that, quite frankly, had a lot of obstacles when you start thinking about it. COVID, injuries, the loss of a player, it was just a really difficult year on a lot of levels. I’m really proud of that team because they fought until the very end. Do I wish we had two more wins? I do. But, here we are. We’re two wins short of making the postseason again and nobody’s no more disappointed than me. At the same time, I really feel like we’ve closed the gap from where we were in ‘19 to where we are now. We still have another jump to make.

We continue to do well in the classroom. We talk about ‘Student, Person, Player’ all the time. The things we accomplished this year, our guys, as students, was remarkable. We had a 3.6 team GPA in the fall, the highest in school history. We had the highest GPA of all the male sports on campus And the same thing this spring; we had a 3.4 team GPA and it was the highest male sport on campus again. And we have amazing people. In our time here we’ve had two Mr. Wildcats, we had our first ever SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year, we’ve had guys that have given countless hours to our community and our players continuously represent themselves in a good way. And the player part, the draft’s about to come up, and we’ve done really good as far as draft picks are concerned.

So if you’re one of these people that just looks at it strictly by wins? Yeah, we haven’t made the postseason the last three years. But if you want to look at it holistically, big picture, we’re raising men. They’re dominating in the classroom, they’re great people, they’re making good decisions away from the field. And quite frankly, they gave us everything they had this year and we just fell a little short. I think about it more than just wins, ‘cause when you look at it that way there’s no question we’re raising men.

Are we closer than we were a couple years ago? Absolutely. But we still have another jump that the program needs to make.

You alluded to it though, for some people, wins is where it ends. Obviously you want to be raising scholars and SEC championship banners, too. When you go through a season like this where you’re scrapping at the end and come up short, and you analyze it, are there just a couple things that need to change or does it go deeper? And how do you get to where you can consistently stay above that postseason cut-off point?

The standard is to make the postseason every year. That is the standard. And our goal is to win the national championship, and obviously you can’t win the national championship if you don’t make the tournament.

Right now, and I’m not gonna do it out of respect for our players and team, but I can name four plays, that if any two of those four plays — whether it’s a pitch, it’s a play, it’s an at-bat — if any two of those four things is different during the season, we’re not even having this conversation. That’s how close and how slim the margin of victory is in this league. That’s one of the reasons I wanted this job, cause when I came to Lexington the first time, I fell in love with it. We actually won the SEC for the first time in school history and I saw how much this city loves the place.

But the margin of victory is so small. This league has no feelings. It doesn’t. In our sport especially, it is the greatest conference in the country, hands down. We’ve proven that year in and year out. I have finished fifth in the west and played for the national championship. So, you know, it’s a small margin of victory, a play here or a play there.

Experience helps that. I’m really looking forward to next season ‘cause we’re actually going to have some guys who’ve been through the league and there’s no substitute for experience. That’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.

Former Scott County High School star Cam Hill is among multiple Kentucky baseball players who’ve entered the transfer portal. Hill has committed to Stetson University.
Former Scott County High School star Cam Hill is among multiple Kentucky baseball players who’ve entered the transfer portal. Hill has committed to Stetson University.

People have gotten worked up about players entering the transfer portal. The football team this offseason had a lot of guys leave, too, and I don’t get the feeling that anyone’s all that worried about it in part because that’s become the norm, and because there’s excitement about incoming transfers who are filling those holes. Are you guys trying to be active in the transfer portal? How much can that help the program moving forward?

There’s no question. With this rule that just passed — there have been sports on our campus where you can transfer at any time and be immediately eligible. Our sport, that was not the case. Not being a head count sport, we have to do partial scholarships and we have 11.7 scholarships. That’s really hard to break up. When you think about the amount of guys on scholarship, and there’s a minimum of 25 percent; you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna give this guy books, this guy this,’ you have to do a minimum of 25 percent. So when you think about having to stretch that money out, it’s hard. One of the things we did when when I got here was I honored every commitment from the previous staff. Moving forward I wasn’t sure how the guys were going to respond, how many guys were gonna want to stay, are they gonna want to go to junior college, what are they going to do? So we recruited and we’ve had bigger rosters here. Looking back, that wasn’t the best move. Because when you sit there and you have 45, 46, 47, 48 players, well, only nine are playing at a time. There’s only so many innings and so many at-bats. So eventually when people are paying thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, some are eventually going to leave. This is not a sport where everybody’s on a full ride like some of the other sports on campus. Parents are paying a significant amount of money, and if the at-bats and innings aren’t there, some of them are going to leave.

Some guys leave for other reasons as well, so it’s not all playing-time based. But with that said, now with this new rule, players can just transfer and be immediately be eligible as long as they meet the GPA requirements. And all of our guys are clearly in that boat. So hey, if there’s more innings or more at-bats or another opportunity somewhere else for whatever reason, they’re gonna take it and there’s gonna be many people in the sport of baseball, not just here, that are just going to wait around for their time. It’s gonna be harder and harder.

The transfer portal, there’s almost 2,000 people in there right now in our sport alone. Try sifting through all that. It’s gonna be totally different. We have guys in the transfer portal, yes, but are we the most in the conference? Not even close. People are going to leave. There are teams ranked in the top 10 in the country right now that have more kids in the portal than us. More importantly, I think the portal is providing people opportunities. That’s opportunities to come in, for us, and that’s gotta be an area that we’re gonna use, but also an opportunity for people to go somewhere else and have an opportunity to play as well. They don’t want to sit out. They want to play, and I don’t blame ‘em. Just like the guys that want to come into this conference and give it a shot in the greatest league in America. There’s gonna be guys that wanna do that. ‘Hey, that’s the greatest conference, they have the most draft picks, I’m in.’

Our conference, right now on Major League rosters, we had just about twice as many as any other conference on opening day rosters. Where are the guys in the big league coming? They’re coming from the SEC. And people want a shot at that. Quite frankly, I’ve given a lot of people opportunities at that. Some have taken advantage of that and for some it maybe hasn’t gone so well. But the transfer portal is going to be a big piece.

We caution our players about playing GM or head coach, but that’s really hard for an 18- or 20 year-old. But it’s also really hard for a parent. ‘Why does this guy get so many more opportunities over this guy?’

In February you received a contract extension. Given how the last few seasons have ended and the perceptions drawn from players entering the transfer portal, some people are scratching their heads about that decision. Not necessarily asking you to defend the administration’s choice, but why do you think confidence remains intact on their side?

In our first three years, when you look at what we were able to accomplish, we had the greatest season in school history. We hosted the second ever regional tournament, which we ended up winning and were two wins from Omaha. So on the field we did something that’s never, ever been done before. So you say, ‘OK, that’s the winning part, he’s proven that they can win at this level.’ That year we proved it.

Then you say, ‘OK, what about from a student part?’ We’ve had the most guys on the SEC Academic Honor Roll, more than any other institution. We’re the highest-level of achievers in the classroom. We’re crushing it in the classroom. Then what about the community? We’re all over the community. Our guys in the fall alone gave 550 hours to this community, in one semester. That’s not even counting those other years. Our guys are doing everything they can in the community and anybody that’s had an opportunity to meet any of our guys, they’re just blown away. So it’s like, ‘OK, hey, look, they’re doing some really good things here.’

Are our guys angels? No, but man, they are just doing a lot of really good things. Did we not make the postseason, at the time of the contract, the previous two years? Yes. One of ‘em we felt like we got snubbed. Hopefully anyone can agree with that. Then we had a season where, quite frankly, we were basically starting over in a lot of ways. I just think when you look at it from that perspective, hey, it’s been an OK run. Obviously no one’s more disappointed with this year than me, but man, when you sit there and evaluate, we’ve done some really good things.

Can we do better, yes. And I’m a builder. I want to build something special here. But we’ve done some really good things and we’re going to continue to do some good things.

Kentucky infielder Ryan Ritter batted .275 in 52 games for the Wildcats in the 2021 season.
Kentucky infielder Ryan Ritter batted .275 in 52 games for the Wildcats in the 2021 season.

So, 2018 — why did you get snubbed?

I can’t answer that. (Laughs). I will go on record as saying ‘the committee has a hard job.’ I’ll forever believe that that team should have been in there and we didn’t get the opportunity for whatever reason. I constantly tell our guys that I don’t want to be one to make excuses. I do know we had some unfortunate things happen to us throughout that year and it was hard to overcome, but that was a really hard year, especially to watch that and not hear our name called, because those guys had been through so much and done a lot. But obviously it wasn’t good enough and we need to move on.

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