This is a continuation of our series of posts breaking down each major hire that IU Vice President and Director of Athletics Fred Glass has made during his tenure. You can find previous and future series entries here.
In 2014 IU baseball was a year removed from reaching the College World Series, Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis were still hitting dingers at Bart Kaufman Field and the Hoosiers had just swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles for the second year in a row. They had also hosted a regional at Bart Kaufman Field for the second year in a row but fell short of advancing to super regionals after losing the regional championship game to Stanford.
That loss would be the final game at the helm for Tracy Smith, as the Hoosier skipper would leave to take the Arizona State job that summer.
That left Fred Glass looking for a replacement for the man that built the IU baseball program into a nationally recognized power. The search officially ended on July 2, 2014 when Louisville assistant coach Chris Lemonis was hired as IU’s new head coach.
“He’s been very successful everywhere he’s been - The Citadel and Louisville. Multiple Regionals, multiple Super Regionals, multiple College World Series. He’s helped produce a lot of great players from our region; he has a great recruiting base, which also happens to be in our region in Indiana and Chicagoland,” Glass said at Lemonis’s introductory press conference. “When you enter into one of these things you look for fit and you look for someone who will represent your university well and the relationships that Chris has developed really speak well of the way he will build this program and keep us going in the right direction.”
From that point Lemonis accomplished one major thing—he stabilized the program, allowing it to remain possibly the most consistently successful program in the Big Ten if not the entire Midwest. He kept the program going in the right direction as Glass said he would.
In his four years as the head coach of the Hoosiers Lemonis went 141-91-2 and made a trio of NCAA Tournament appearances, tying him with Smith for the most regional appearances by an IU head coach. They were the fifth, sixth and seventh appearances in the tournament for the Hoosiers. He also coached over two dozen players that were either drafted or went on to play professional baseball in some form during his tenure. The Hoosiers were also one of the best home run hitting teams in the nation during the final two years of the Lemonis era. In 2017 outfielder Craig Dedelow smacked 19 homers by himself and the team hit 75 as a group. In 2018 returning sluggers Logan Sowers, Matt Lloyd and Luke Miller combined for 32 bombs, leading the team to 68 homers overall.
If there’s a gripe to be had about the Lemonis era it might be that his teams didn’t quite reach the heights of Tracy Smith’s teams, not just nationally, but in the Big Ten as well. Despite having some of the better teams in the conference during his years in Bloomington they finished just sixth, third, sixth and fifth in the regular season respectively. They didn’t fare much better in the Big Ten Tournament either. The lone team to make it to the semifinal round was the 2015 team. Overall the Lemonis Hoosiers had a 5-8 record in the double-elimination event.
Another knock on Lemonis is the 2016 team. Despite finishing third in the Big Ten with players like Kyle Hart, Evan Bell, Caleb Baragar and more on the roster that year the Hoosiers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament due at least in part to a poor non-conference performance. To begin the season that team lost a series to Middle Tennessee State and then got swept by Cal State Fullerton, also losing a pair to Seton Hall as well as home games against Western Carolina and Cincinnati before opening Big Ten play.
The teams that did make the NCAA Tournament never made it to the Super Regional round. In 2015 the Hoosiers were knocked out of the tourney by Radford two days after beating the Highlanders 7-1 and the day after losing a heartbreaker to regional host Vanderbilt. In 2017 a regional-opening extra inning loss to NC State in which ace Jon Stiever didn’t pitch put the Hoosiers at an early disadvantage and they were knocked out by Kentucky two days later. 2018 was easily the best regional performance that the Hoosiers had under Lemonis. They recovered from a opening beatdown by Texas A&M to eliminate both Texas Southern and the Aggies. After that they nearly pushed host Texas to a winner take all championship game, leaving the bases loaded with a pair of strikeouts to end the game and losing 3-2.
Other than that it could be thought that the player development wasn’t as good as it could have been during those years. Same story with the baserunning, which was downright disappointing to fans at times.
Despite those downfalls, some of which are minor in the grand scheme of things, Lemonis was certainly the right hire and performed well in his time at IU. He also recruited and coached most of the team that won the Big Ten regular season in 2019 and had a program-record 10 MLB draft picks, for which he deserves some amount of credit. Another sign of the success he had at IU was that his work earned him a job offer from one of the top programs in the nation—Mississippi State—which he accepted following the 2018 season.
“Chris Lemonis cemented Indiana’s reputation as the premier baseball program in the Big Ten by guiding our program to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years,” Fred Glass said in a press release following the coach’s departure. “Chris cared deeply for his players, represented Indiana University with class and distinction, and is a good friend to so many of us here at IU and around the state. We wish him and his family the best at Mississippi State.”
Overall this hire stabilized a program on the rise, allowing its rise to prominence to continue. For that reason as well as the success that Lemonis had in recruiting, on the field and in getting players into the pros, Fred Glass gets a high mark.
Final Grade: A-