By Brian Gardner
Who is Gary Henderson? The enigmatic head coach of UK’s baseball team is a riddle. He has spent more time at Kentucky than John Calipari, Mark Stoops, or Matthew Mitchell, yet he is much less well known. Many head coaches lust for the limelight. Henderson not only fails to seek attention, he seemingly shuns it.
In 2003, Henderson came to UK with first year coach John Cohen. Serving as pitching coach and associate head coach, Henderson was crucial to the success of the Wildcats from 2003-2008. During that time Big Blue Baseball attained two seasons of 44 wins and two NCAA regional championship appearances. In 2006 the Bat Cats won their only SEC Baseball Championship and served as NCAA regional host. Many will recall current Chicago Cubs hard luck starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija pitching for Notre Dame in Lexington during that regional.
John Cohen accepted the job as head coach at Mississippi States’ storied program (alums Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro among others became Major League stars) in 2008. Having played at Mississippi State Cohen was anxious to lead his alma mater. The Bulldogs made it to last year’s national championship game before losing to UCLA. As recruiting coordinator, Henderson had a top notch class headed to UK before Cohen’s departure was announced. By retaining Henderson and promoting him to head coach, the Cats were able to maintain their highly touted recruits as well as their programs continuity. However, Cohen and Henderson approach the game in dramatically divergent styles. Cohen’s background as a hitting instructor makes him an offense first type of coach. Batters were taught to crowd home plate in hopes of gaining a free pass by being hit by a pitch. Under Cohen, UK annually was among the nation’s leaders in hit by pitches. Additionally batters took a lot of pitches in hopes of getting walks or tiring opposing hurlers. As a pitcher fatigues, he loses velocity and control. Kentucky batters would pounce on this weakness and score runs in bunches.
Conversely, as a former pitching coach, Henderson stresses pitching and defense. Two of the top three best fielding percentages in UK history have come on Henderson’s watch. He handles the pitching staff with kid gloves. Virtually every visit to the mound from the UK dugout is made by the head coach. His loyalty to his starting pitchers is arguably a fault. Most head coaches begin to warm up their relief pitchers as starting pitchers begin to lose control. Henderson refuses to go to his bullpen early, wanting to give his starter every chance to excel and work out of jams.
Henderson’s on field demeanor contrasts sharply with most other SEC head coaches. Throughout the league, fiery managers make both their presence and feelings known. Typically a controversial umpire’s decision will elicit rage and rancor from opposing coaches. On-field arguments between coaches and umpires are commonplace in every SEC stadium except UK’s. Henderson’s reticence to argue close calls can be maddening and baffling. During a late season game with Auburn, a Wildcat raced home and beat the outfielders throw to the plate sliding between the catcher’s legs; it appeared the Cats had scored. Surprisingly the umpire called him out and every Kentucky fan jeered the decision, yet Henderson elected not to argue the critical call. His cerebral approach to the game can come across as a lack of passion.
Most collegiate coaches spend the entire game on the dugout’s top step. Alternating between yelling encouragement to their players and dissatisfaction to the umpires, their presence and impact is obvious. Conversely, Henderson sits in the back of the dugout while UK is in the field. He is out of sight, flashing pitching signals to his catcher. Emblematic of his approach to the game, Henderson is in the shadows. Seemingly, the top Cat lets his decisions and player’s actions do the talking for him.
Since arriving as Recruiting Coordinator and now as head coach, Henderson has ushered in an unprecedented amount of baseball talent. On this year’s team alone there are three of the top 20 SEC baseball prospects: Chandler Shepherd, Austin Cousino, and A.J. Reed. But it takes talent of this caliber to compete in the toughest baseball conference in America.
Perhaps the most talented of all players Henderson has lead to the Bluegrass is A.J. Reed. A rare double threat, Reed is an accomplished pitcher and hitter. In fact, his teammates dubbed him “Herm” as an homage to another potent double threat, Babe Herman Ruth. On the mound, Reed is one of the top pitchers in the SEC leading the league with 11 victories and a sixth best ERA of 2.10
Even more noteworthy is Reed’s plate prowess. He leads the nation in home runs with 23 and the SEC in RBIs with 70. He bats at a .351 clip good which is for third best in the conference. The pitcher/first baseman/designated hitter is having one of the best seasons in recent memory. For his efforts, Reed has been named the SEC Player of the Year. He is receiving national recognition as well, as Collegiate Baseball has named the southpaw their National Player of the year.
Despite this talent level UK has struggled to maintain the upper tier in the conference. In recent years impressive first half records have given way to second half swoons. Last year the Cats were 7-8 in the first 15 SEC games and 4-11 in the second half. This years Bluegrass Baseballers looked headed for a similar slide. But an impressive comeback against Auburn, capped by an extra inning walk off win allowed the Cats to take two of three from the Tigers. The following weekend UK traveled to Georgia to take the series two games to one.
Having secured the #9 seed in the SEC tournament the Cats improbably ran off three straight wins. They advanced to the final four before falling to Florida, the #3 team in America. Winning seven of their last 10 games propelled the Cats to a #2 regional seed (there are 16 regional sites in the NCAA baseball tourney). UK begins its NCAA quest just 90 miles away on the home field of the Louisville Cardinals.
Will Gary Henderson lead these wildcats to continue their late season momentum and advance deep into the NCAA tourney? Or will the familiar pattern of past seasons be followed and the Cats fall short of expectations? This is one riddle that soon will be answered.