Posted: Friday Apr 11, 2008 5:23 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -After Ray Birmingham took over as New Mexico's baseball coach, he immediately began working to publicize a big goal.
First, he repainted the interior of the hitting cage and locker room building, and now the walls sport an eye-popping cherry hue. In black letters, Birmingham spelled out his expectation:
"Road to Omaha Starts Here,'' it says.
New Mexico's first-year coach believes he can build a winner, confident the Lobos someday will take the field at the College World Series, which has been played in Omaha, Neb., for decades.
It's a lofty target - New Mexico isn't exactly up there alongside Miami, Oregon State, Texas and Southern California in the national conversation. If anything, the Lobos historically have been quite average.
Going into this season, the school's all-time record was 1,451-1,337-14 for a winning percentage of .520. Birmingham replaced Rich Alday, who resigned after going 513-511-3 from 1990-2007.
"Here's a program that had accepted mediocrity,'' Birmingham said. "Nobody asked for it, but there was a sense of, 'This is what we do.' So I said, 'We need to get a swagger. We need to believe. We need to keep talking it up.'''
The 52-year-old Birmingham has made it happen before.
During his 18 seasons coaching at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, his teams went 765-255-2, winning the national juco title in 2005 and finishing as national runner-up in 2007.
Talk about a national program wasn't new for Birmingham, but it raised eyebrows in Albuquerque when the new coach chattered about Omaha during newspaper and television interviews this spring.
Even his new boss was a bit surprised.
"The Omaha comment initially caught me off-guard,'' athletics director Paul Krebs said. "When you read it in the paper, I thought it came across as arrogance, somebody who was being very pompous.
"But when you meet Ray, you'll see that's a genuine goal of his,'' Krebs said. "He is very confident. I think it's refreshing to say, 'This is what our goal is and let's shoot for the top.'''
No question, the Lobos have a long way to go. They were 20-11 going into a two-game set this week at Texas Tech.
New Mexico has some things to its advantage, such as favorable weather and playing at sparkling Isotopes Park, home of the city's Triple-A team. On the other hand, the practice site needs work.
There are no restrooms in the locker room and Lobo Field's turf infield is pockmarked. Some of the team's equipment, Birmingham admitted, is 10 to 15 years behind the times.
"We play in a real nice stadium,'' he said. "Some of our other facilities are at a bad junior-college level. We've got to fix things up, so when we bring a kid in he's excited about playing here.''
The new job, Birmingham said, is equal parts strikeouts, promotion and fundraising, all combined in his long-term ambition to create excitement where none has existed for decades.
Yet to hear those around him, that's where Birmingham excels. New Mexico sports information director Greg Remington calls the new baseball coach "part Casey Stengel, part P.T. Barnum.''
At New Mexico Junior College, Birmingham could offer just 11 scholarships, while more established programs usually had around 24. To make up the difference, he raised funds.
"We always had a good team, but when we won the national championship, money made the difference,'' Birmingham said. "I didn't ask anybody for a whole lot, but I asked a whole lot of people for something.''
Still, it's a leap from junior college to Division I, with the biggest hurdles in NCAA recruiting rules and academic requirements that, if ignored, cripple a team's scholarship situation.
Krebs said that was a concern.
"There's often an elitist attitude that unless you've done it at this level the success doesn't necessarily transfer,'' Krebs said. "In Ray's case, I felt baseball is baseball, but we had to ascertain if he understood the climate, all the rules of Division I, because it is a much more constrained environment.''
The good news for New Mexico is there's a template to follow.
Just look at Wichita State, which started from absolutely nothing when Gene Stephenson took over in 1977.
"Your basic neighborhood sandlot team was better off than we were,'' said Stephenson, who earned $1,000 a month in a month-to-month contract. "We had no players. We had no practice field. We had no equipment of any kind and we had no money.''
Today? Wichita State has reached the NCAA tournament 25 times over the past 28 years and won the College World Series in 1989.
Stephenson knows Birmingham from their years in the business. He believes Birmingham has the experience, salesmanship and determination to build a winner.
"He's a tough-minded guy who competes,'' Stephenson said. "He wants to be the best. I have no doubt he will become successful.''
The first step, Stephenson said, is ignoring the skeptics.
"You have to surround yourself with people who believe the same things are possible,'' Stephenson said. "You can't listen to the nay-sayers.''
As for the talk about Omaha, Birmingham said it goes with the territory, part of the swagger he wants to instill. But it goes deeper, too, because he honestly feels the goal is attainable.
His son, Josh, played on Nebraska's squad that reached the CWS in 2002. He cited that team's roster as similar to what's available for New Mexico - or any Division I school that doesn't regularly attract top-tier players - through junior college recruiting.
"I knew all those guys,'' Birmingham said. "I can get those kinds of guys.''
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