Gary Henderson was never a loser at Kentucky. The long-time coach at UK resigned today after missing his second consecutive NCAA Tournament. But he was not a loser. The issue Henderson had was that he could never get the baseball program to the next level. He had plenty of time to do so, and plenty of chances.
If there was ever a chance to take the program to the next level, it was with the 2012 team. In his fourth year, Henderson led the Cats to 45 wins and a spot in a regional. UK dropped a heart-breaker to Kent State in the finals and finished a win away from the super regionals. The program was never able to reach that level again under Henderson. The most wins Henderson ever had after 2012 was the 2014 season. Led by Golden Spikes Winner A.J Reed, Kentucky won 37 games, finished in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, and received a two seed in the Louisville Regional. Once again, UK lost in the finals. The two regionals were the only times Henderson led UK to the postseason in his seven seasons.
The baseball program could never climb out of a regional and into the national spotlight with Henderson at the helm. It felt as if they were knocking on the door, but could never break it down. After the 2014 season, UK faltered and did not make the last two NCAA Tournaments. This past season featured an epic collapse, similar to the one in 2015.
The BatCats were ranked in the top ten in some polls and top 20 in all the other major rankings midway through SEC play. UK took the first four SEC series and took two of three against #1 Florida. But the season was all downhill from there. Kentucky dropped six of seven and lost two games to Louisville. Midweeks began to bite UK in late March and April. Losses to NKU and WKU killed Kentucky’s RPI. UK went on to miss their fifth NCAA tournament in seven years under Henderson.
The issue with succeeding at Kentucky is that it is an uphill battle to win games. UK is the northernmost school in the SEC and it is frigid for the first month of the season. Getting recruits to come here over another SEC school is extremely difficult. Henderson and Brad Bohannon did a good job of getting talented players into the program and funneling them out as professionals. But with the 38 players drafted in the MLB under Henderson, the program only made two regionals. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Even harder is that UK had the player of the year in Reed, Team USA centerfielder Austin Cousino, and plethora of other high draft picks on the 2012 team and 2014 team. But even they could not get UK over the final hurdle.
So yes, there is an aspect of this job that is very difficult. The weather is awful early in the season and our facilities aren’t on par with others in the SEC. But with as much talent that found its way to Lexington, there should have been more results. Kentucky lost five straight games to Louisville and three straight to WKU to end Henderson’s tenure. Louisville built their program in the same climate and in a difficult conference, but UK could not match their success in the last five years.
Louisville was able to make that jump to an elite program when they became a powerhouse on Dan McDonnell in the last few years. Despite his aptitude as a pitching coach, Henderson was never able to lead a team to that same level. UK seemed to be in limbo over the last couple seasons. All the talent was there to win, but they fell apart down the stretch.
The final hurdle is not an exact amount of success. There’s no way to say “get to this point and this point in the NCAA Tournament and you’ll be fine” with a coach. But there needs to be some amount of growth after a good season. Henderson never could build on the success of the 2012 team. Henderson was the fastest to ever reach 200 wins at UK and the first to win 30 games in five straight seasons. But the program seemed to flat line. Henderson saw that he had done all that he could in Lexington, and made the decision to move on.