Southern baseball coach Chris Crenshaw probably hoped his first head coaching position would allow him a full offseason of preparation and smooth transition.
Instead, Crenshaw found himself sliding into the driver’s seat mid-journey with a road full of obstacles ahead of him late last year.
“I tried to make the best of it, to get everybody on board and keep moving forward,” said Crenshaw, a former Jaguars pitcher. “You can’t dwell on the past; you have to move forward. That’s what I tried to do every day.”
Crenshaw persevered. It wasn’t only taking over when former coach and mentor, Kerrick Jackson, resigned on Nov. 30 in the midst of fall practice. Or being saddled with COVID-19 restrictions. Or monitoring players’ academics more closely. Or a seven-game losing streak toward the season’s home stretch. On top of everything else he had the high expectations that go with the job, higher even with the team having won the previous conference and tournament title in 2019.
The Jaguars responded to their rookie coach by delivering a SWAC tournament performance to remember, winning five or six games, including four elimination games, to land the league’s lone NCAA tournament bid.
Crenshaw met the challenge and delivered while learning on the fly. Southern rewarded him by removing the interim tag from his title at the board of supervisors' June 18 meeting and handing him a three-year contract.
“He’s one of the rising stars of college baseball,” Southern athletic director Roman Banks said. “He has a great relationship with his players that he can reach in and pull out the best in them while challenging them and enforcing discipline. He got the best out of them academic-wise, too.
“He kept his team together and focused enough, knowing they were one of the best teams in the league, and then showed it in the conference tournament.”
Crenshaw had no illusions about the size of the job ahead of him. He spent two years as and pitching coach under Jackson. Suddenly, he was responsible for everything from the budget to batboys.
“It’s not just coaching baseball; everything about it was a learning experience,” Crenshaw said.
“Handling different mentalities and personalities, the academic part. . . to come out of top was big. It boosted confidence not only for the team, but me as well. We played well and played hard, played to our ability in the conference tournament. It took the whole season to figure out who we were and for them to figure out who I was.”
Crenshaw said he felt the full support from the school, even when his team was in the doldrums of a seven-game losing streak. Ultimately, Southern finished the regular season third in the West Division and was 15-27 before the SWAC tournament.
“I never had any doubts (communicated to me),” he said. “I thought they were going to give me a fair chance and they gave me a fair chance.”
Banks kept a close eye on the program and as a former coach understood there was no need to panic.
“I knew it was his first rodeo and tried to keep him confident and trusting in what he did,” Banks said. “I understand you go through these lulls. I’m always concerned because we want to be winners, but I was never worried because I’d seen his work ethic. He was coming to work every day prepared with his staff. I knew we were headed in the right direction.”
Crenshaw is still moving forward, with some extra momentum provided by the strong finish. He’s excited about a pitcher-heavy incoming recruiting class. He was watching recruits this week in Atlanta. He’s got his fingers crossed about the NCAA letting up on some of the pandemic restrictions.
Southern will lose six pitchers, but two of them — Wil Allen and Jacob Snyder — are returning as unofficial graduate coaches. Other than seniors, there has been no significant attrition, so Crenshaw is confident he’s reaffirmed the Jaguar baseball culture.
“We’re going to try to have a normal fall,” he said. “There’s still some COVID restrictions lingering around. We’ve got to be safe first. We’ll do the best we can to get as much practice and weight room time as we can.
“Last season definitely helped with recruiting, scheduling games and future recruiting classes. It has made things a lot easier.”
After navigating the 2021 season, Crenshaw deserves easier.