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Georgia Bulldogs Baseball: David Perno, Mixed Emotions, and the NCAA Corvallis Regional

Perhaps because so much of my job involves so many nuances, subtleties, and interstices, I tend to steer clear of grey areas outside the professional realm, and this is trebly true where coaches are concerned. They are heroes or they are villains, and seldom are they anything in between. I have nothing nice to say about the likes of Pat Dye or Steve Spurrier, yet it is only under duress that I find fault with such as Mark Richt or Suzanne Yoculan. I can go from admiration straight to contempt in a hurry---or from revulsion to respect, then back to revulsion in the space of a day---but, with me, there’s not a lot of middle ground where coaches are concerned.

Because of this, David Perno presents a special challenge for me, as I go back and forth about the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs’ oldest varsity sport to an extent I simply do not with other coaches. Where Coach Perno is concerned, I frequently find myself torn; I am conflicted about the Red and Black baseball skipper to an almost unprecedented degree.

Four years ago, I wondered whether Coach Perno was getting the job done with the Diamond Dogs; three years ago, I defended him as the right man for the job. When I suggested possible replacements for Brady Wiederhold as Georgia’s pitching coach, Coach Perno instead hired himself, and the result was that ugly trends on the mound were reversed: 61 games into the 2011 campaign, the Classic City Canines have posted a 4.99 team ERA, conceded a cumulative .293 batting average, and surrendered 342 runs. In last year’s 53-game season, the Bulldog staff collectively carded an 8.51 earned run average, allowed opposing batters to hit .333, and gave up 478 runs. This year’s Georgia team ERA is comparable to the 5.05 posted by the Red and Black in their 2008 run to the College World Series finals.

Instead of hiring a new pitching coach, Coach Perno rounded out his staff by bringing in a new hitting instructor. While the Athenians’ offensive numbers have fallen---as a team, Georgia went from a .301 batting average in 2010 to a .277 average in 2011, and from .443 to .384 in slugging percentage, .425 to .340 in on-base percentage, 45 to 36 in home runs, and 299 to 267 in RBI over that same span---their decline has been no worse than average.

At the midpoint of the season, the NCAA reported that, as anticipated, the switch to less lively bats (about which I told you so!) had reduced batting averages from .301 to .279 (matching almost exactly the decline in the Bulldogs’ team batting average), and home runs were down 45 per cent (whereas the Red and Black’s long-ball tally went down only by one-fifth). The corresponding decline in ERA of 1.21, by contrast, is not enough to explain Georgia’s improvement on the hill.

This year’s turnaround, in which the Red and Black overcame the country’s toughest schedule and a second straight season marred by a career-ending player injury, is emblematic of what has made the David Perno era so maddening. The spring was salvaged by back-to-back wins over top three teams in the SEC Tournament, but such a late resurgence was required only because of inexplicable losses to Furman, Kennesaw State, and Mercer. Coach Perno has been a part of the Bulldogs’ greatest successes, but he also presided over the worst season in school history.

This weekend, he will lead the Red and Black into their sixth NCAA Regional in his ten years as head coach, and he will be looking for his fourth regional win, secure in the knowledge that no David Perno-led Georgia squad has ever lost an NCAA Super Regional. On his watch, the Diamond Dogs have made the field of 64 at least once in any given two-year period, yet his teams have attended the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons only once. From 2004 to 2010, it was feast or famine for the Red and Black, who attended the College World Series three times, and finished with a losing record twice, in that seven-year stretch; both of those possibilities remain in play this season.

In the end, though, my mixed emotions about David Perno may not be about David Perno at all. This man is, after all, a Georgia head coach who leads at team about which I am particularly passionate, who has twice been named the SEC coach of the year, who has twice guided the Bulldogs to national top three finishes, and who has seen diminishing returns since a recent national runner-up finish, ultimately culminating in the bottom falling out in 2010, by far the worst year of his decade-long tenure at the helm in Athens. Something tells me David Perno isn’t the only head coach in the Classic City for whom I want 2011 to be a year of redemption.

Go ‘Dawgs!