This is the final entry in 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 the entire series here.
In recent years the IU baseball program has had some really good coaches. Tracy Smith led the Hoosiers to conference titles and the College World Series before leaving to take the Arizona State job. Chris Lemonis managed to keep the program headed in the right direction during his four years before heading to Mississippi State after the 2018 season. His departure last summer left some questions: Could IU find yet another good coach that would continue to improve a program on the rise? If they managed to do that, would he stick around for more than a handful of years? What would it take to make the IU job a destination rather than a stepping stone to the PAC-12 or the SEC?
After a search IU went with Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer—announcing the hiring on July 2, 2018.
The thought process behind the hire seemed pretty simple. Mercer had done very well at Wright State, winning just under 80 games in two seasons and reaching an NCAA Tournament. Mercer was also a younger coach and an Indiana native who’s father coached at IU. He’s not just another coach who will look to take the next step after a few seasons. From all signs, he’s a guy who wants to be the head coach at IU for a long time, a guy who bleeds cream and crimson.
”I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” Mercer said after he was hired. “With the talent that the Midwest is producing, top-notch facilities, the commitment of the school and our ability to recruit and develop players at the highest level the sky is the limit for IU baseball. I cannot wait to get to work.”
With those details—the pedigree and the quotes—IU had aced the initial part of the hire but it’s not too hard to get the fans excited about a new head coach. Something that is hard to do is to go out and win baseball games, and that was the next step for Mercer.
Things didn’t start out terribly well in that department. After winning their opening series at Memphis, the Hoosiers got swept by the Tennessee Volunteers in their second weekend of the season. A few weeks later after a shocking loss to Cincinnati on the road IU sat at 7-8 on the season—not exactly what was expected of a team predicted to be one of the best in the Big Ten. There were reasons for this, of course. The hitters were trying to adjust to the approaches that the new coaching staff wanted them to take at the plate and they were missing a few players with injuries throughout the early part of the season, most notably slugger Elijah Dunham. What came next for the Hoosiers, a home weekend against the lowly Canisius Griffins, changed everything. They pounded Canisius, outscoring their opponent 51-14 overall in the four-game series. The bats came alive, the pitching—most notably starters Tanner Gordon and Andrew Saalfrank, who had previously struggled—settled down and IU got on a roll.
From that point on IU lost just one weekend series in the Big Ten, at Illinois, and clawed its way to a Big Ten regular-season title, the first for the program since Tracy Smith’s Hoosiers did it in 2014. Mercer became the first Big Ten head coach to win a conference title in his first season at the helm since then and current Minnesota head coach John Anderson did it in 1982. Mercer was named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year to put the cherry on top of what was a historic regular season run.
Despite all the winning it had done and all the talent it had, Jeff Mercer’s first IU team still managed to disappoint in the postseason. TD Ameritrade Park didn’t treat the Hoosiers kindly as they were bounced from the Big Ten Tournament in just two games. The Louisville regional of the NCAA Tournament went slightly better, as the Hoosiers recovered from an opening defeat to eliminate Illinois-Chicago and push the hosts to the brink before bowing out.
This shows that there’s still plenty of work to do for Mercer and his staff, and there’s still a ways for IU to go. Regular season titles are great, but after all it’s what you do in the postseason that truly takes a team and a program to the next level. In his introduction of Mercer right after he was hired, Glass showed that the expectations for the IU baseball program are high.
“I have no doubt that he is the right person to build on the success of Indiana baseball,” Glass said, “including taking us back to Omaha.”
That work has already begun. Replacing many of the members of last season’s junior and senior classes who graduated or went pro is going to be tough, but Mercer and his staff have managed to bring in a strong recruiting class. The newcomers include Reese Sharp, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and chose IU instead, as well as Ethan Vecrumba, who was offered a truckload of money by the Atlanta Braves and chose IU instead.
The next steps should be interesting to watch as Mercer tries to further implement his philosophies—his emphasis on pitching and defense as well as hitting head-high line drives rather than swinging for the bypass—which the team struggled with at times last season. It’s hard to mark anything against the hire right now, considering it quickly resulted in a conference championship and plenty of individual awards followed. For the third time in a row, it seems like IU has nailed a baseball hire and this one could eventually become the greatest of them all.
Current Grade: A