Georgia assistant coach Mitch Gaspard knew this day was coming. When the former Alabama baseball coach joined the Bulldogs’ staff last year, he went straight to the schedule. There it was: a series against his former school to close out the 2019 regular season.
He’s kept an eye on Alabama for the last three seasons since he left Tuscaloosa.
“Once you’re somewhere for that long, it’s the first score that I check when I get on the bus after the game and see how the guys are doing,” Gaspard said.
Gaspard spent 16 years in Tuscaloosa as an assistant and head coach. He was an assistant from 1995-2001 under Jim Wells for the most successful period in the program’s history. The Crimson Tide won the SEC tournament four times in that stretch and reached the College World Series three times. He returned as an assistant before the 2008 season, then succeeded Wells as head coach after the 2009 season.
Alabama at No. 7 Georgia
Schedule: Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m.
Where: Foley Field (Athens, Ga.)
Records: Alabama 30-23 (7-20 SEC), Georgia 39-14 (18-9 SEC)
Radio: 102.9 FM
Alabama reached the NCAA tournament four times in his seven years as head coach. In total, Gaspard was an assistant or head coach for 12 of Alabama’s 23 NCAA appearances.
He resigned after the 2016 season when Alabama narrowly missed another NCAA berth.
“It’s a place that I’m going to always pull for regardless of where I’m at,” he said. “I always feel like I was treated fairly there. I left there on my own regard and was hoping that the next person could get it back to where it needed to be. For me, there was an expectation at Alabama and I don’t think finishing sixth or seventh place was good enough for me and wasn’t good enough for the program.”
There are six players on Alabama’s 2019 roster who were on the team for Gaspard’s final season in 2016: seniors Sam Finnerty and Keith Holcombe and redshirt juniors Gene Wood, Brock Love, Kyle Cameron and Davis Vainer. Several other players originally committed to Gaspard’s staff. Even true freshman outfielder T.J. Reeves was committed to Alabama when Gaspard was coach.
“Obviously when you sign those guys and you coach them, I don’t think you’d ever envision that you’d be lining up on the other side,” Gaspard said. “It’s certainly going to be a funny feeling for me.”
He still has other connections to the program as well. He’ll get breakfast on Friday morning with longtime Alabama radio broadcaster Chris Stewart. Several members of the Alabama Grand Slammers also reached out to him before this weekend’s series.
Gaspard is looking forward to visiting with them and seeing some of his former players. But it might be for the best that his first meeting with Alabama will come in Athens.
“I think I kind of like that this first one is here in Athens and not in Tuscaloosa,” he said. “I think that would have been a little tougher.”
He’s stayed in touch with the program in other ways, too. Gaspard and Alabama coach Brad Bohannon built a relationship earlier in their careers. Bohannon was a longtime assistant at Kentucky, and sometimes they crossed paths on the recruiting trail.
Bohannon reached out to Gaspard, then an assistant at Kansas State, hours after he accepted the Alabama job.
“I’d consider Mitch a friend,” Bohannon said. “I talked to him several times. We all know each other, especially when you’ve been in the league for a while. I talked to Mitch several times early on when I got the job here and he was just tremendously helpful. My interaction with him has been nothing but exceptionally positive. I have a really high opinion of him as a person and as a baseball coach.”
Gaspard recommended Brock Bennett, one of his former players, for a spot on Bohannon’s staff.
“Obviously you want your guys to do well, but I want to see Alabama do well,” Gaspard said. “It’s been a big part of my life and it’s important and I want to see the program get back to where you want it to be.”
Alabama missed the NCAA tournament in Gaspard’s final two seasons and has now gone five straight years without reaching the tournament. Gaspard spent two years as an assistant at Kansas State before heading to Georgia. At Georgia, he can see just how different it is for a program that has greater leeway to use academic scholarships to supplement the NCAA limit of 11.7 baseball scholarships.
“One thing about Alabama, a lot of people in the fan base don’t quite understand it and don’t want to understand it, there are some real challenges there,” Gaspard said. “… I think being on this side of it, here at Georgia now, it’s real. You have the scholarships, and people don’t want to talk about it and act like it doesn’t exist, but players are players and money is money.”
Georgia is now an obstacle that could prevent Alabama from reaching the SEC tournament for the third straight season. The Bulldogs are in fourth place in the conference and a possible national seed in the NCAA tournament. Alabama is in a three-way tie in the standings for the final spot in the conference tournament.
Gaspard has been a part of some of the best periods in Alabama baseball history. Those seasons didn’t leave Gaspard’s mind when he left Tuscaloosa.
“There will certainly be some times throughout the three-game series when different thoughts and memories will be going through your head,” Gaspard said. “But like anything else in life, you move on and kind of get into the moment where you’re at. In this case, right now, it’s the University of Georgia and the guys we’ve got here.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.