State’s Polk glad to be back at State, still leaving ’em laughing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 9, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Live from the historic Eola Hotel, in downtown Natchez, it’s &uot;Ron Polk Live.&uot;

Or so it felt like Thursday.

There were no television cameras, little lighting and just one microphone atop a wooden podium, but the way the legendary Mississippi State baseball coach worked the annual gathering of the Adams, Franklin and Wilkinson chapter of the MSU Alumni Association, one might have thought there were on Comedy Central.

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&uot;It’s good to be in Natchez at football time. You’ve got great timing,&uot; joked Polk, who has amassed more than 950 victories in 24 seasons in Starkville. &uot;I look better than Jackie Sherrill, I dress better than Jackie Sherrill and I’ve won a heck of a lot more games than Jackie. I still don’t make as much money as Jackie Sherrill.&uot;

It was Polk’s first chance to speak at the yearly banquet in several years. Since that time he has retired, returned to coaching at the University of Georgia.

Two years ago, Polk came full circle by reaccepting the reins of the State baseball team when his former pupil Pat McMahon took the head coaching job down in Florida.

This past season State finished 42-20-1, losing to North Carolina in the championship game of Starkville’s 10th-hosted regional.

&uot;I love coaching, and I love State. I want to be a factor in the development of kids’ lives,&uot; Polk, 59, said. &uot;That’s why I returned.&uot;

In 1997, due to his eternal frustration with the NCAA’s treatment of college baseball, Polk put his cleats on the shelf. Georgia Athletic Director Vince Dooley coaxed Polk from the rocking chair and asked him to resurrect a Georgia program.

The dwindling Athens fan base was the biggest obstruction with a total of 76 season-ticket holders in 2000 compared to State’s current 5,400.

&uot;I could go miles downtown without anybody saying, ‘Hi,’&uot; Polk said of his anonymity in Athens. &uot;I used to stop at a Shoney’s every morning for a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. Every morning because no one knew who I was, you could hear, ‘Cereal man is here.’&uot;

Polk spent just two years there before returning to Starkville, but he accomplished what Dooley had asked of him.

In 2001, the UGA Bulldogs captured an SEC Championship, hosted a NCAA regional and made it all the way to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series

&uot;My last two weeks in Athens I felt like I had made it,&uot; Polk shared. &uot;Every time I’d walk into that Shoney’s, they’d yell back, ‘Coach Polk is here. Bring him his cereal.’&uot;

Southwest Mississippi’s Bulldog alumni that were in attendance saw the Ron Polk that the NCAA has grown to hate Thursday.

Despite college baseball’s status as the second-largest revenue making sport for the NCAA behind men’s basketball, its 11.7 allotted scholarships pale in comparison to most sports.

&uot;Women’s team handball has more scholarships than men’s baseball,&uot; Polk said. &uot;The national pastime gets less scholarships than most sports. I’ve never given a full scholarship to any kid in my career.&uot;

The not-so-diplomatic Polk hopes Mississippi’s Legislature adopts the lead of a number of other Southeastern Conference states and puts into law a statewide comprehensive, academic scholarship program.

Opportunities such as Louisiana’s TOPS and Georgia’s HOPE programs offer high school students who maintain above a 2.5 or 3.0 grade-point-average, respectively, a full ride to in-state schools, as long as they can keep a certain GPA in college.