HOOVER, Ala. — Luke Holman stepped up in the absence of injured preseason All-American Grayson Hitt to become the ace of Alabama’s pitching staff this season. During the SEC tournament last week, the hard-throwing sophomore from Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, held Florida to only two runs in 5.2 innings.
But the first question during the postgame news conference that night wasn’t about how Holman left with the lead and a chance for a signature win against the No. 2 team in the country. It wasn’t about how the Gators went on to tie the game and later win in the 11th inning on a three-run walkoff homer.
A reporter instead asked how Holman felt on April 28 and what went into the decision not to play that day against LSU. Holman took it in stride, saying he thought he would start, “and then I had a couple back issues, and I just didn’t feel good enough.”
It went unsaid why that game and Holman’s health were so important. His late scratch from the lineup a month ago was the catalyst to a gambling scandal that prompted the dismissal of Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon.
Bohannon, who was allegedly communicating on the phone with the person who placed the bets that were flagged as suspicious, hasn’t said a word publicly since he was let go. No press release from his lawyers or agents. No personal statement. Nothing. Which means it fell to his former players and coaches to deal with the aftermath.
Even in moments of triumph, as Alabama has made a late-season push to host a regional for the first time in 17 years, there’s been no escaping the search for answers. The Crimson Tide begin their NCAA tournament run against Nicholls in Tuscaloosa on Friday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
Andrew Pinckney helped secure his team one of the top seeds during a win against Kentucky last week. The veteran outfielder threw out a runner at home in the second inning, hit a two-run homer in the fourth and scored a run himself in the eighth. Afterward, he was asked, “Do you have any thoughts on what happened with Brad Bohannon and the team, that whole incident?”
Pinckney batted away the question. “No, sir,” he said.
The Tide are not worried about adversity, Pinckney said in response to another question about whether they had an “us against the world” mentality since the news broke.
“We’re just playing with no pressure,” he explained, “playing for the guy beside us and just taking everything a pitch at a time.”
WHEN FORMER ALABAMA pitcher and assistant coach Nathan “Peanut” Kilcrease got the news alert on his phone May 1 that betting on UA baseball had been stopped in the state of Ohio, he thought it was a joke. Like a lot of people, he didn’t even know bets could be placed on college baseball.
After a few days, the shock wore off. Then the announcement that Bohannon was fired dropped.
“I was like, dadgum!” he recalled.
Last week, as Alabama prepared to play Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, Sports Illustrated identified Bert Neff Jr. — a well-connected amateur coach from Indiana — as the person who placed the bets. How Bohannon knows Neff and the extent of their relationship is still unclear.
It’s the latest incident for an athletic department that has been in the news for the wrong reasons this year.
There was the arrest of basketball player Darius Miles for capital murder; the testimony by a police officer during a pretrial hearing that Miles’ teammate, star forward Brandon Miller, delivered the gun to the scene of the crime; the arrest of basketball commit Jaykwon Walton for marijuana possession; the arrest of deputy athletic director Matt Self on a domestic violence charge; and the arrest of football player Tony Mitchell for possession of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver. According to the police report, Mitchell was driving 141 mph before he was pulled over.
The negative attention is a source of frustration to former Alabama players like Kilcrease. “It’s a slap in the face to those that have worn the uniform,” he said.
Alabama football coach Nick Saban felt compelled to stand up and speak at an all-hands staff meeting recently. As leaders, he said, “We all have a responsibility and obligation to set a good example and do the right things. And it’s not one of these things when you’re a parent that you say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.'”
At SEC spring meetings this week, Saban told the media that Alabama has brought in speakers to educate the football team about the dangers of betting.
“One of the more difficult things is when things are legal and all of a sudden there is so much more access,” he said. “People are gambling and don’t even know they’re gambling on some of these social media things I don’t even know how to operate. … So I think you have to be more diligent about how you approach it with players so that they understand the consequences.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said they have to adapt and educate athletes about gambling. But he told reporters they’re not naive. “We’re going to have to come to grips … with information management,” he said. “That’s a pressure point.”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said there’s no evidence of a player involved in gambling.
“It’s not the kids’ fault,” Kilcrease said. “I think the kids have suffered enough.”
As a show of support, Kilcrease traveled three hours from his home in Columbus, Georgia, to attend last week’s SEC tournament, and what he saw there was encouraging. Not only were there thousands of fans who seemed to feel the same way he did, but the team also appeared to feed off their energy and supply some of their own.
— Alabama Athletics (@UA_Athletics) May 25, 2023
ABOUT AN HOUR before the first pitch of Alabama’s second SEC tournament game last week, a contingent of Crimson Tide baseball players ran mock receiver routes in left field. They took turns occupying the role of quarterback, tossing around a well-worn football like a bunch of kids messing around in the backyard.
Sitting inside the dugout among the usual bats and gloves and bubble gum sat a shiny disco ball helmet that Colby Shelton would later wear, proudly celebrating a 405-foot home run versus the Gators.
With an unbridled enthusiasm, Alabama would win a pair of games in Hoover. Players spilled out of the dugout when Pinckney threw out a runner at home plate. Later they were warned by the plate umpire to stay off the field while celebrating a home run.
The SEC tournament loss to Florida would have broken the spirit of some teams, but after a few hours of sleep, the Tide brushed it off and beat in-state rival Auburn 7-4 in the early afternoon Thursday.
Alabama pitching coach Jason Jackson, 45, had only ever been an assistant before he replaced Bohannon. But if you ask FAU coach John McCormack, who recruited Jackson out of high school and employed him as an assistant for nine years, he was the perfect fit for the job because he’s smart and diligent and just the right amount of demanding. Jackson also knew, McCormack said, how to relate to players — how to meet them on their level, whether they’re a walk-on or a prized recruit.
What’s more, McCormack said Jackson always took the time to understand the big picture. He’d come to McCormack’s office often to talk shop, whether it was roster management or administrative responsibilities.
Candidly, McCormack said, the only thing Jackson struggled with during their time together was the pressure he put on himself to be perfect.
“There were times where things got the best of him, but he’s matured in that regard,” he said. “I saw it before he left. And I watch it now and go, ‘That was a moment 15 years ago that would not have gone well.’
“Now it goes fine.”
Better than that. It’s going great — so great that McCormack said if Alabama doesn’t hire Jackson as the head coach, someone else will.
A coaching industry source said Jackson is expected to be among the candidates Byrne will consider.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the Tide are a “totally different team now than they were when we played them before” during the regular season.
Auburn coach Butch Thompson said he pulled Jackson aside in Hoover to tell him just how proud he was.
“As a coach that’s been in this league a long time,” Thompson said, “we absolutely respect people that handle themselves very well, and he’s done an amazing job.”
This was a program that up until recently was working its way back to respectability. Greg Goff was fired after one last-place season in 2017. There was a six-year stretch beginning in 2015 in which the Tide didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. They missed the cut last season, finishing only four games above .500.
First baseman Drew Williamson, a fifth-year senior, said the players trusted the process.
Shortstop Jim Jarvis said they’ve remained “cool under pressure” and tried to have fun.
“He’s done a great job,” Garrett McMillan, a senior, said of Jackson’s leadership. “We all believe in him. He’s told us to play for ourselves and just give everything we have for us and for this team.”
Byrne told reporters at spring meetings he gave Jackson just a 20-minute heads-up that he was the interim head coach before placing him in front of the players.
“And he did a wonderful job from the very first meeting with the team, and it’s continued,” he said. “I’ve been around him a lot and I’ve been pleased with the job he’s done and I’ve been really pleased with the job the kids have done. They have stayed focused on the task at hand.”
Jackson so far has steered clear of anything resembling a comment on the betting scandal or the fallout of Bohannon’s dismissal. He has stuck to the same script he stressed to the media following his first game as interim head coach. “All our stuff stays the same,” he said. “Keep it business as usual.”
Jackson said he’s proud of the job the players have done at blocking out the noise.
Come to think of it, he said, “Sometimes stuff kind of helps you focus a little bit.”
How’s that for finding a silver lining?
The “stuff” hasn’t been forgotten. The spotlight of the NCAA tournament will only invite more difficult questions.
Alabama has shown it can handle it, come what may.