After each game – win or lose – Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith walks down the hall from the Devils’ locker room into the “Omaha Room.”
With placards and reminders of Arizona State’s past successes looking over him like a ghost, Smith answers questions. He sits at a table -- sometimes leaning forward against it, sometimes moving away from it as he tilts his chair back.
All the while, countless call for the fourth-year head coach’s job on the other side of a phone screen being dangled three feet away from his face. Without being privy to the live comments, Smith probably knows what’s being said. That became clearer when he tweeted this out to a fan in a tweet that has since been deleted.
(Devils’ Dugout refers to an ASU message board, and Smith was, most likely, trying to say, “Turkish prison.”)
Those displeased want the same thing as Smith: Additions to the Omaha Room. While in there right now, though, Smith can say little that will appease them. The former Indiana head coach will mention the Devils’ faults consistently after losses. He says ASU’s youth and inexperience are the culprits.
But to Smith’s credit, his tone has changed as his team’s season changed. After the Sun Devils completed their first sweep of the season against Oregon to start Pac-12 play, Smith was adamant that success such as that was going to keep coming.
“This is us,” Smith said after the Devils finished off the sweep on March 18. “This isn’t a fluke.”
Fast forward just about a month, and 13 ASU losses later, Smith looked at his team’s recent sweep – this time against Utah – a bit differently. He was asked if something had changed since he said the Devils were still learning how to win numerous times before that.
“In the games that we lost, what was very glaring to us was the inconsistency on the mound and some of the erratic defensive play from the young guys. So we just swept three games, do you think I can still make the same statement that we have the same concerns,” Smith said rhetorically.
“While we’ve won the games. I don’t think we’ve fixed the problem.”
The problems are still there. Barring a miracle, Arizona State (17-22, 9-9 Pac-12) isn’t going to win 30 games for the second-straight year after doing so from 1962 to 2016. The youth and inexperience that Smith seemed to bring up after each loss in which the Devils suffered because of a blunder (or three) wasn’t supposed to be showing itself in April.
But, the Devils do have talent, and Smith saw it early on.
Freshman first baseman Spencer Torkelson has hit 20 home runs this season, breaking Barry Bonds freshman school record in the process while sitting just in the rearview mirror of Mitch Jones’ school-record 27 dingers.
Before getting injured in March, freshman Boyd Vander Kooi was 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA. A month ago, junior center fielder Gage Canning was named National Player of the Week while boasting a ridiculous .506 batting average.
Smith saw the Devils’ promise before the season started, too. So when ASU got off to a rocky start to the season, including a 6-5 loss to Saint Mary’s to drop to 2-4 on the season, the Devils’ skipper felt his team had the formula to turn things around.
“When we find that right combination of guys that are out there, that are going to lay it on the line and not fear the result, I think this team has a chance to be special,” Smith said.
Arizona State has flashed its potential, but its mistakes grew too big to contain, and maybe that’s why people are so frustrated — because they’ve seen what ASU can be at it’s best.
Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson, the man who ultimately holds the cards with Smith’s job, spoke to Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral and almost echoed some of Smith’s prior statements.
“We’re playing a whole bunch of freshmen and they’re having to learn and are going to make mistakes,” Anderson said. “Our pitching is not as strong as we anticipated. We’re pressing some. I’m willing to be patient and look long term if that means for four, five, six years we’re going to be in the playoffs and maybe get a national championship.”
With his quotes, Smith has seemingly laid out the argument related to his job status: Should the Devils’ inability to put things together fall on its young players or its coach?
Most fans cane to their own conclusion long ago, but in a few months, Anderson will be forced to make his own call.