The Maneater

Column: Why Missouri may need to move on from Gina Fogue

Although she got Missouri softball back to the NCAA Tournament, a season clouded with on and off the field turmoil indicates that one year may be enough for the interim softball coach.

Missouri interim softball coach Gina Fogue addresses local media ahead of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, which kicks off in Norman, Oklahoma for the Tigers.

Just 13 days before the start of Missouri softball’s 2018 season, the program was informed that athletic director Jim Sterk had relieved former coach Ehren Earleywine of his duties. Prior to the controversial firing, Earleywine had been in charge of the program for more than a decade and had led the Tigers to multiple College World Series appearances.

Fast forward three days; Missouri found Earleywine’s last-second replacement in one of his assistant coaches, Gina Fogue, who’d been with the program for the last seven seasons.

Fogue’s local ties are akin to that of several coaches throughout Missouri’s athletic department. But while having a common thread with the Odoms and Martins and Beisers of Missouri, Fogue hasn’t seemed to shake the ‘interim’ label throughout her debut year in the driver’s seat of Missouri softball.

“I’ll just leave that within the staff,” she said on Tuesday when asked about her future at Missouri and potentially dropping the ‘interim.’

The Tigers’ 2018 resume includes a 28-27 regular season record and a seemingly narrow 12th straight NCAA Tournament berth in her first season on top. That one-game-over-.500 synopsis, a perfect match with last year’s team, isn’t a promising one if Fogue hopes to distinguish between “first” and “only.”

Yes, the Tigers’ Friday matchup with Tulsa in Norman is certainly a positive for Missouri softball, and an even bigger opportunity for Fogue. Being able to make an NCAA Tournament appearance is undoubtedly a prominent stepping stone for any young coach.

But whether Missouri loses or somehow finds its way past Oklahoma, out of Norman and onto a Super Regional, it's hard to shake the feeling that this tournament appearance sure seems irrelevant in many ways, transpiring in the shadow of a season plagued by on and off the field turmoil.

In the first place, Missouri’s descent toward mediocrity has been alarmingly evident over the last two seasons. Entering 2017, Missouri was a combined 83-33 over the previous two, with back-to-back Super Regional and conference tournament appearances to boot. It was life as usual for one of the SEC’s elite programs.

Comparatively in 2017 and 2018, the Tigers are a combined precarious 57-55. Fifty-seven total wins relative to 50 cumulative games above .500 is a telling discrepancy.

Although slipping into the NCAA Tournament both seasons, Missouri has taken a noticeable step backward in both campaigns. The team couldn’t defend its two straight Regional titles in 2017, failing to reach the tournament’s final 16 (or even win a single game in its Regional).

And after being handed the unique opportunity of hosting the SEC Tournament this year, Missouri descended to last place in the conference, failing to make an appearance in the tournament for the first time since becoming a member of the SEC.

Missouri made the NCAA Tournament purely by means of existing within the SEC. It reaped the benefit of the conference’s imposing schedule while not playing it consistently enough to escape its cellar by the end of the year.

And while flaunting a strength of schedule and RPI molded primarily by the SEC, the program neglected the architect of its difficult nonconference portions: Earleywine. Fogue canceled two non-conference games against Wichita State — currently No. 35 in RPI — to play Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a team ranked No. 263 by the same scale. Teams are required to have a record of .500 or better to qualify for an NCAA Regional, so the $5,000 contract buyout that came with the series cancellation was a strategic sidestep by Fogue designed to protect the Tigers' eligibility.

And Missouri got its wish out of the maneuver. It swept the two game set against Pine Bluff, two games that were critical down the stretch in helping the Tigers edge the .500 mark and solidify a Regional berth.

But the cancellation also sent another clear message: Fogue didn't trust that Missouri could handle a tougher opponent like Wichita State in a series with postseason implications.

Between the off-field coaching turmoils of 2018, another mediocre record and an SEC bottoming-out, one thing is clear: Unless Missouri miraculously fuels a turnaround in the NCAA Tournament, the maneuvering will have only gone so far. The program is too good to need that kind of schedule manipulation. What it needs is a fresh start.

Who knows what the next couple days in Norman will tell us, but most outcomes spell one fact: Missouri very well could, and should, consider moving on from Gina Fogue at the season’s end.

Even if Fogue has “earned the trust and respect” of her team, as Jim Sterk put in the initial press release following her appointment, keeping Fogue around just doesn’t seem to give Missouri softball the reset it needs after a decade of tense, polarizing leadership.

It would be foolish to say that many expected Fogue to take the program by the horns in her first season and steer it to considerable success. The fact is that the program is on a downward trend, and it was before Fogue took the helm. She’s caught in fire and sadly, it’s a blaze she didn’t start.

Edited by Annie Clinkenbeard | aclinkenbeard@themaneater.com

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