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November 26, 2020

Ole Miss coach: Mississippi state flag issue ‘bigger than baseball,’ ‘The old flag needs to go.’

Mike Bianco, the winningest active coach in the three major sports in the SEC, is a transplanted Mississippian. Born in New Hampshire and schooled in Florida and Louisiana, Bianco moved to Oxford and Ole Miss 20 years and 671 Ole Miss baseball victories ago.

He and his wife Camie have raised their five children in Mississippi. It is home. Bianco, recently named National College Baseball Coach of the Year for the abbreviated 2020 season, just signed a new contract that would keep him at Ole Miss through 2024.

Bianco would much prefer to be here under a new state flag.

“This is bigger than baseball, bigger than hosting NCAA regionals,” Bianco said in a phone conversation Saturday. “The old flag needs to go. We need a change.”

Bianco, as many Mississippi coaches and athletic directors, issued a statement: “Now is the time for the state of Mississippi to come together and make a change. Our university hasn’t flown the state flag for several years on our campus, and it would be unfortunate for our players to earn the right to play at home in the postseason and to have that taken away because of an issue that is out of their control.”

Bianco is right. The flag issue is far bigger than baseball, affecting the way outsiders view Mississippians and how we feel about ourselves. The old flag, with the Confederate battle flag prominently displayed, negatively affects Mississippi economically and otherwise. Indeed, the old flag is so shameful that the state’s universities and many of its largest cities won’t even fly it.

For one of the first times in the state’s history, lawmakers are debating whether to change the flag as protests about racial equity continue. The leaders are considering several options before they leave Jackson for the year on Friday.

While it is hard to measure how much – and all the ways – the archaic banner negatively affects the state, it is no longer difficult to measure how will hurt college baseball in Mississippi.

The NCAA ruled on Friday it would ban all postseason college athletic events from being hosted in Mississippi until the current state flag is removed. And NCAA postseason regionals have become a way of life in the Magnolia State, where Mississippi State has hosted 14 NCAA regionals, Ole Miss has hosted nine. Southern Miss, Delta State and Millsaps also have hosted NCAA baseball regionals in the past.

College baseball is huge in Mississippi. Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss all rank among the nation’s baseball attendance leaders. Delta State traditionally is one of the nation’s NCAA Division II powerhouse programs.

Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis also issued a statement: “Our focus as educators, community leaders, husbands and fathers is always to provide perspective. As coaches, we must see all sides of an issue or outcome to help our student-athletes make informed decisions. The rulings by the SEC and the NCAA affect our kids and community greatly but we understand their intent. My job as a head coach is to unite our players in a common goal, and a chant to our state flat is needed to unite Mississippi.”

Baseball is by no means the only sport affected. Hosting NCAA women’s basketball regionals to sold-out crowds has become an annual happening at Mississippi State. But unless there is change to the flag, State’s Bulldogs will have to go on the road to advance in the NCAA Tournament.

Nikki McCray-Pinson, the new State women’s basketball coach, issued her own statement, which said in part: “There is no place in our society for symbols of hatred discrimination, and oppression. As a black woman coaching at one of the most diverse universities in the SEC, I look forward to seeing change that unites us and accurately represents our great community. I understand our student-athletes and fans may be affected by the NCAA’s decision, but ultimately, this marks an important step toward inclusivity and an end to racial injustice.”

Southern Miss football could also be affected. In Conference USA, the league football championship game is played on campus sites. C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod said last week the league is reviewing its championship hosting policies that would preclude a championship to be held in Mississippi as long as the state has its current flag. That would also mean the C-USA baseball tournament, which has been held in Mississippi eight of the nine past years and is scheduled to return to Hattiesburg in 2022, would be played elsewhere.

The NCAA ban could also affect Mississippi teams in another manner: recruiting. Ole Miss and Mississippi State often battle the likes of baseball powers LSU, Vanderbilt, Louisville and others for some of the nation’s top high school baseball recruits. Those schools use any and all selling points to win recruiting battles. If the Mississippi schools are put at a competitive disadvantage of not being able to host NCAA events, they’ll use that, as well.

“It’s hard to say what kind of effect it would have on recruiting,” said Bianco, who said no recruit has mentioned the NCAA ban as yet.

But he knows this for sure: It will not help.

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger.

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