Opening weekend in baseball is always going to be exciting for players and coaches, as they both get to see how the fruits of their labor are harvested over the course of the season.
For the Bianco family, this opening weekend at Swayze Field in Oxford, MS will be a little more exciting. Not only will Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco kickoff his 20th season at the helm by facing a Louisville team that is ranked number one in three of the six major college baseball polls, he will also reunite with Dan McDonnell, a long-time friend and former assistant who is now in his 14th season as head coach of the Cardinals.
Mike Bianco will also be reuniting with his son, Ben, who plays catcher and first base for McDonnell’s Cardinals.
Baseball and the Bianco’s have been intertwined with one another for three generations. Mike’s father, Ron, was a college baseball player at Delaware. Mike himself was a catcher at LSU, and was a team captain on the 1989 Tigers team that made it to the College World Series. And the newer generation is carrying the torch to this day, albeit outside of the confines of Oxford, MS. While Ben is playing for Louisville, Drew is at his father’s alma mater, LSU. A younger brother, Sam, is heading to Louisiana-Lafayette after he graduates later this year.
The decision for Ben, Drew, and Sam to all leave Oxford and forge their own careers was one made years ago by Mike Bianco and his wife, Camie.
“One of the things that we decided as a family, if any of the boys were good enough to play college baseball, we didn’t want them to experience that here,” Mike Bianco said. “They grew up here, they needed to go somewhere else and spread their wings and play for somebody else because they could never have the true college baseball experience with their dad being their coach.”
Of course, the history of families competing against each other in sports isn’t a rare occurrence. Doc Rivers has coached for, and against, his son Austin in the NBA. NASCAR’s two most prominent figures, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, had their careers go long enough to eventually race against their own sons (Kyle and Dale, Jr., respectively).
But while Ben and Drew — and eventually, Sam — are getting the true college baseball experience away from home, the choice of their destinations serve as a subtle callback to Mike Bianco’s baseball career. After all, Ben committed to Louisville, a program that is now led by one of Mike’s former top assistants. And Drew went to LSU, Mike’s alma mater and even wears the same #5 that Mike once donned for the Tigers (Mike also wears #5 currently for Ole Miss).
The “coming full circle” aspect of that certainly isn’t lost on Mike, but regardless, he’s just happy that his sons are getting a chance to play college baseball, especially at the highest level.
“The hope was that if they were able to play college baseball, they would end up somewhere,” Mike Bianco said. “I’ve been a coach now for 30 years, and I think student-athletes not only get an education in the classroom, but they get an education that you can’t learn in the classroom and will help them later in life. I wanted them to experience that, and I am who I am because I experienced those (lessons) through my life and playing for different people, not just my father. It just happened that it worked out that way, and my wife and I are super blessed. It’s been neat as a parent. It’s hard because I don’t get to see them play that much, but the neat thing about them playing at these major programs is that they’re always on TV or the WatchESPN app, so I can go back and watch it later.”
Ben’s recruitment process took a little longer than his brother Drew. Whereas Drew made his decision to go to LSU in about 20 minutes, Ben’s was more arduous. During his junior year at Oxford High School, Ben tore his labrum while diving back to first base. It was an injury that required surgery and sidelined him for over a year, and limited his recruiting options during his high school career.
Nevertheless, Ben was able to get a look from Louisville assistants Eric Snider and Roger Williams during a fall tournament in Jupiter, FL. They needed a catcher at the time, and even though Ben wasn’t 100% healthy, they were willing to take a chance on him. That led to an eventual campus visit to Louisville, where shortly after, the decision was made.
“I went to a Louisville camp and they showed me around, it was my first time visiting there,” Ben Bianco said. “We had been talking previously, and Coach Mac sent me down to his office and said, ‘We’ll let you know in a couple of days.’ He called me the next day and said if I wanted to come there, they’d love to have me. I think the main reason (for going) was if I’m going to play college baseball, I may as well play for one of the best programs in the country. If I have the opportunity to do that, I was going to take that. It took me 24 hours.”
All things considered, if Ben was going to go anywhere, Louisville was one of the top options for the Bianco’s if available, regardless of whether or not Louisville was a top program in the country. McDonnell was, as mentioned, one of Mike Bianco’s top assistants when Bianco was getting started at Ole Miss.
How McDonnell got the job as a recruiting coordinator is a fascinating tale. Mike Bianco needed a recruiting coordinator at Ole Miss, and the pool was filled with candidates that would eventually become head coaches and reach the College World Series themselves. Brian O’Connor (now the head coach of Virginia), Kevin O’Sullivan (head coach at Florida), and Jim Schlossnagle (head coach at TCU) were all mentioned as possibilities for the position at the time. When McDonnell sent his application and letter in a fax to Bianco, he made his intentions clear about wanting to come to Oxford, win SEC championships and compete at the highest level of the sport.
He also closed the letter with “Yours in Omaha, Dan McDonnell.” Bianco received that same letter and other information in a FedEx package the next day, “Yours in Omaha” included. While it is a bold proclamation to make, going the extra mile in his application certainly helped his case in the process. It’s that same level of tenacity, passion and fire that resonated enough with Bianco to eventually hire him.
“(McDonnell) was a name that stuck with me,” Bianco said. “He was a guy that everybody said he could come in and do the job. I loved his passion and his enthusiasm.”
And it’s that same level of tenacity and work ethic that still resonates with Bianco into the present day.
“You look at him now 20 years later, not only is he the head coach of one of the best programs in the country, but he still has that same fire and passion that he had 20 years ago at The Citadel.”
With a de-facto family reunion taking place at Swayze Field this weekend, it’s also a chance for Ben Bianco to be able to see the field. Ben Bianco hit .368 during 17 total appearances in 2018, but didn’t see any game action last season. While it is exciting to start the season, and even moreso when you get to catch up with friends and family in the process, Ben is also excited for a chance to contribute with the team.
“Yeah, I definitely think that increases the excitement,” Ben Bianco said, when asked about returning to Oxford for the season opener against his father. “But honestly, just going into this season where I’m going to be able to participate and help my team out, I think that really is the most exciting part. But going home and starting the season there, that definitely adds a level of excitement.”
Ben could be getting playing time at catcher and first base this season, and potentially making a few starts for a team that has ambitions on another run to the College World Series, and bringing home Louisville’s first national title. As will Drew and LSU, with the Tigers ranked #14 by Baseball America and can always be in the mix for a run to Omaha. As will Mike and Ole Miss, who has some Top 25 rankings and has a very promising freshman class coming in.
So could we see another Bianco family reunion on college baseball’s biggest stage? Omaha came very close to seeing a full-scale version of it last season. While Louisville ended up punching their ticket to the College World Series, both LSU and Ole Miss came up short in the Super Regionals against Florida State and Arkansas, respectively. If the stars do align for Louisville, LSU and Ole Miss, all of whom enter the year as top-25 teams, it could be destined to happen in 2020.
And what if that does happen? What if, say, Louisville ends up playing LSU in an NCAA Tournament, possibly even a College World Series game?
“My mother’s always said when we play against each other, she’ll wear neutral colors,” Ben Bianco said.
He paused for a minute, and added something else to that.
“Maybe with the Ole Miss-LSU rivalry, they might wear some Cardinal Red, hopefully.”