OMAHA, Neb. — If the combatants in the 2022 Men’s College World Series championship finals (Game 1, ESPN/ESPN app, 7 p.m. ET) weren’t in Omaha and were instead watching on TV from home — and, oh by the way, most believed that’s what they’d be doing right now — then it’s not a long walk to figure out who the Oklahoma Sooners would have rooted for, or who the Ole Miss Rebels would have gotten behind.
It would have been the Ole Miss Rebels and the Oklahoma Sooners. Why? Because people are always drawn to those who remind them of themselves. And as these two teams have watched each other from a distance over the last week and half, they’ve seen a whole lot that feels familiar.
“There are so many similarities, there is no doubt about it,” Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson said Friday afternoon at Charles Schwab Field, just as the Sooners were beginning practice for their first championship series appearance since 1994.
“Ole Miss plays with a lot of heart, and so do we. They are led by some tough, smart seniors and so are we. They’ve played with a chip on their shoulder ever since they got in, and I think if you’ve watched us, that’s how we play too. It’s been fun to watch those guys. I bet they’d say the same about us.”
“We have both had to play every postseason game on the road and both have had to manage some disappointment throughout the year,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco added after posing with Johnson alongside the championship trophy.
“We both, I believe, probably weren’t on people’s radar as potential national champions, even after we got to Omaha last week. So, to come out on the other side of that kind of spring and May and be the last two teams standing, we can’t help but feel some sort of kinship, for sure.”
To be clear, this kinship is not new. Yes, Ole Miss was No. 1 in the nation early in the season, dropped out of the rankings like it had a ripped parachute, lasted only one game in the SEC Tournament and was one of the “Last Four In” to the 64-team NCAA Tournament. And yes, Oklahoma was not in anyone’s preseason top 25 rankings, was picked to finish 6th in the nine-team Big 12 and, after failing to land one of the NCAA’s 16 national seeds, has been on the road from Gainesville, Fla. to Blacksburg, Va. while having to survive an elimination game in each location to reach Omaha.
But these two programs have grown to expect such low expectations because, quite honestly, their collective histories haven’t earned either one of them any benefit of the doubt. Both have always lived on any college baseball aficionado’s list of “What schools should have always been much better at baseball than they actually are?”
Ole Miss is home to one of college baseball’s greatest atmospheres, the always-packed and perpetually beer-sprayed confines of Swayze Field.
Since 2004 they have hosted 10 NCAA regionals and three Super Regionals. They went 0-3 in those Supers. They have made six Men’s College World Series appearances, but this one is only their second since 1972, and until this week they hadn’t won more than two games, let alone make it to the finals. Meanwhile, every program around them in the cage match that is the SEC West has made much more noise in baseball. The Rebels — most painfully — have always played second fiddle to archrivals Mississippi State, who won the MCWS title one year ago, and LSU, a six-time Omaha champion.
Oklahoma has also existed in the long shadows of its two most despised neighbors. Oklahoma State is an NCAA regular that has made it the College World Series 20 times and into finals during 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, the Sooners are in Omaha for only the second time since 1995.
They have won a pair of national baseball titles, though. The 1994 team was a church softball team-looking squad, who upset Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek’s Georgia Tech team in the finals. Prior to that, the 1951 Sooners won the second-ever Omaha-hosted Series, shocking defending champion Tennessee. And how did that go over?
“We would have liked to have stayed in Omaha and celebrated, but they didn’t give us enough money for hotel rooms, so we got on an old school bus and drove home 500 miles back to Norman.”
That recollection came from Jim Antonio, Sooner outfielder-turned-Hollywood actor, during an interview in 2009.
Sooners legend Bud Wilkinson was also the athletic director and didn’t care much for baseball, telling 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 on us to pass away.”
So, yeah. That’s the history of Oklahoma and Ole Miss baseball. A history that all but guarantees that a win over their fellow longtime also-rans would become those program’s greatest achievement.
That’s why Johnson took his team to the site where Rosenblatt Stadium, home of those two Sooners titles, once stood. He had them stand at home plate, which is still there — in a zoo parking lot — and talk about that past. It’s also why he has deliberately taken moments this week to sit and think about his former boss and mentor, the late Augie Garrido, perhaps the greatest college baseball coach of them all, with whom Johnson made three College World Series appearances as a Texas assistant.
It’s why Bianco has picked up the phone and called his mentor, Skip Bertman, who has his own solid dugout G.O.A.T. argument. Bianco was Bertman’s catcher and captain on an LSU team that finished third in the 1989 College World Series 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 back in early May, when Ole Miss was struggling to claw back to .500 in SEC play and talk was swirling about an imminent firing. After a heart-to-heat with Bertman, Ole Miss swept ninth-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge.
“Having the ability to lean on that kind of mentorship, for us both, there’s nothing better than that,” Bianco explained about himself and Johnson. “It’s pretty cool, right? Having a direct line and connection to so much history in this city and this Series.”
It is. Even if their programs don’t have it, they will each draw strength from it this weekend in Omaha.
“Maybe we don’t have that much history, as you say,” Johnson added. “Hopefully we can write some of our own now.”