OMAHA, Neb. — Gary Henderson hasn’t resided in Oregon for many years, but Mississippi State’s interim head coach is still connected to his home state.
A 1979 graduate of Eugene’s Sheldon High, Henderson played college baseball at Linfield and San Diego State. He served as Oregon State’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for five seasons (1999-2003) before taking an assistant position at Kentucky.
Henderson has been in the SEC ever since, mesmerized from afar by the national power Pat Casey forged in Corvallis.
“It’s awesome,” Henderson said during Friday’s press conference at TD Ameritrade Park. The Bulldogs (37-27) have a 5 p.m. Saturday matchup with Washington (35-24) in their College World Series opener while third-seeded OSU (49-10-1) and No. 6 North Carolina (43-18) will play at noon.
The Beavers and MSU could potentially face off Monday.
“(Casey and I) spent one miserable year together and then we spent four years getting better, and putting something in place that he’s been able to be really proud of and build on,” Henderson added. “In a real small, small way, I feel a piece of that. And Casey knows, I’ve shared that with him before.”
OSU missed the postseason in Casey’s first 10 seasons at the school, including the 2004 campaign without Henderson. The Beavers finally broke through in 2005, winning 46 games en route to the Pac-10 title and a CWS appearance.
One year later, OSU captured its first of consecutive national championships. Many of the players were recruited and coached by Henderson.
“Gary is a good man,” said Casey, who took Henderson on a tour of Goss Stadium last winter. “Gary is a really good pitching guy and he inherited a situation that looked kind of doomsday, and he has done fantastic with it.”
Casey isn’t being hyperbolic.
Coming off consecutive super regional appearances, MSU opened the season with three losses at Southern Miss. Second-year coach Andy Cannizaro resigned the next day for multiple reasons, including an extramarital affair with a university employee.
Henderson, Kentucky’s head coach from 2009-16, was suddenly promoted to the top spot.
“It’s been a really unique, unusual year,” Henderson said. “You have a lot of time and you just start to win. It certainly wasn’t all uphill, I mean there were some bumps in the road. But it helped that I had been in the league a long time, so I think that accelerated the process of me being comfortable.”
Compounding the problem was the ongoing renovation of the Bulldogs’ home facility, Duby Noble Field.
Like most SEC programs, MSU is used to hosting throughout the nonconference season. The Bulldogs played their first 11 games of 2018 away from home.
“So much happened on that first 12-day road trip,” Henderson said. Following its series with Southern Miss, MSU competed in two Texas tournaments.
“I addressed the team on (Feb. 21) and that afternoon we left for 12 days. You don’t do that at Mississippi State, people come to you.”
The Bulldogs went 6-5 to open the season and started 2-7 in SEC play. Home sweeps of Arkansas and Florida, two CWS participants, kept MSU off the postseason bubble.
Down to its final strike in the Tallahassee Regional, Elijah MacNamee hit a three-run, walk-off home run that eliminated top-seeded Florida State. The Bulldogs then won three games in two days to advance.
MSU survived a wild Nashville Super Regional against SEC rival Vanderbilt. The first two games were decided by walk-offs while the finale — a 10-6 win — went 11 innings.
“When they went up 10-6 in the third game I texted him ‘go Bulldogs, I’m now a Mississippi State fan,’” said OSU associate head coach Pat Bailey, a former semi-pro teammate of Henderson’s. “Because I just wanted him to get in, being the interim coach. And I hope he gets that job, I really do.”
Despite the improbable CWS run, MSU has yet to remove Henderson’s interim tag. It was reported that TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle turned down the job earlier this month.
Henderson had success at Kentucky, going 258-199 overall in eight seasons with two NCAA tournament appearances. The 2012 Wildcats that featured former Crescent Valley High standout Thomas McCarthy went 45-18 overall and nearly hosted a regional.
After a couple middling seasons, Henderson wound up resigning in 2016. He was immediately picked up by MSU’s then-head coach John Cohen, who transitioned to athletic director the following year.
With his future up in the air, Henderson is focusing on the present and the Bulldogs’ magical postseason run. A CWS title would certainly land him the full-time gig.
“It’s hard to get here, and I appreciate it a lot,” Henderson said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our kids, they jumped on board. We obviously had a very unique experience.
“I’m proud to be at Mississippi State, proud of every placed I’ve ever coached. But there’s a part of me that will always be an Oregonian, and I’m proud of what Casey has been able to do.”