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Smeltzer: In Hiring Mike Gambino, Penn State AD Pat Kraft Shows Means Business When it Comes to Baseball

Penn State's Next Athletic Director, Dr. Patrick Kraft, Speaks with Reporters at His Introductory Press Conference Friday, April 29, 2022 (photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics)

By hiring Mike Gambino to be the next Penn State baseball coach, athletic director Pat Kraft showed that he means business when it comes to the program.

It’s not that I’m surprised by this.

I’ve been a Pat Kraft guy since the day Penn State hired him, and I believe he’s committed to making all 31 of Penn State’s programs as strong as possible.

In hiring Gambino, Kraft has validated that belief, at least when it comes to baseball.

Let’s be honest, not many people care about Penn State baseball. At the end of the day, it’s a football school, and to a lot of fans and alumni, Kraft’s tenure will be remembered by whatever the football program accomplishes during it. So, not many people would have cared too much if Kraft hired a no-name with zero college head coaching experience  to succeed Rob Cooper as Penn State’s boss.

Kraft didn’t do that.

I’m not going to say Penn State made a “home run hire” by tabbing Gambino as its next baseball coach.

For one, “home run hire” has become a cliche.

Sportswriters try to avoid cliches, and in this specific instance, “home run hire” is an even bigger cliche since we’re talking about a sport where people hit home runs.

Part of the reason the term “home run hire” has become a cliche is because it’s thrown around too loosely. It seems that whenever a team hires a new coach, people are inclined to call it an— we’ll call it HRH from now on— whenever they like said coach.

There have been instances where HRH is a perfect description. Alabama hiring Nick Saban is a good example, as is Ohio State bringing Urban Meyer.

For Penn State baseball to have hit a “home run” in replacing Rob Cooper, who resigned as coach near the end of this past season, it would have had to, by my definition, bring in somebody like Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin.

But something like that was never realistic because Penn State baseball isn’t very good, neither currently nor historically. So given that context, hiring Gambino away from Boston College was probably the best thing Kraft and co. could have done.

Now, looking at the basics, Gambino’s resume won’t impress everybody. He’s lost 75 more games than he’s won, made the NCAA Tournament just twice in 13 seasons at BC and never made it to the College World Series. But, again, context is king.

Penn State hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament 2000, so, by comparison, Gambino leading his teams there in 2016 and 2023 is pretty solid. In Gambino’s time in Boston, three of his players went in the first round of the draft and six went in the first five rounds.

Penn State’s never had a player go before the fourth round.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Penn State fans to be encouraged by Gambino’s hiring is that Boston College and Penn State’s baseball programs share similarities. Both play in prominent conferences. Both play in cold-weather states, and neither is known for winning baseball.

Penn State hasn’t been to the College World Series since 1973. That feels like an eternity. Well, Boston College hasn’t been there since 1967. Before Gambino became the head coach at his alma mater, it had only been to the NCAA Tournament once since 1967.

It got there twice in Gambino’s tenure, and won a regional championship in 2016, almost making it to Omaha.

Sure, Boston College wasn’t consistent in the Gambino era. But the bottom line is that the team competed in what’s likely the country’s second-best baseball conference and was respectable, making it to four ACC tournaments and winning 10 or more conference games in eight of 13 seasons.

In a Big Ten conference that’s inferior to the ACC in baseball, Penn State’s only made the conference tournament once since 2012.

Maybe a better version of Boston College baseball is what Penn State could be?

Stranger things have happened, but unlikely that Penn State baseball will ever be a perennial national championship contender the way schools the  practically the entire SEC is.

But can Penn State be a a contender that’s capable of making the tournament— and maybe even the College World Series?

Pat Kraft thinks so, or else he wouldn’t have gone for Mike Gambino.

Mike Gambino thinks so, too, or else he wouldn’t have left his alma mater, where he had just signed a five-year extension, to try to make Penn State a winner.

As with any new coach, time will tell what Gambino does at Penn Sate. Maybe he’ll succeed, maybe he won’t. But if nothing else, this hire shows that Pat Kraft will do what he can to make Penn State baseball a winner.

And that should excite Nittany Nation.

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