Why a nonleague series in March means so much to BYU baseball (Hint: It has to do with the Big 12)
No. 10-ranked Oklahoma State invades Miller Park this week, making the Cowboys the first Big 12 member to play in Provo since the Cougars were invited to the Power Five league
Riding a horse through downtown Provo and shouting “the Big Time is coming” may get you arrested, but you won’t be wrong.
BYU baseball (7-3) opens a three-game series against No. 10 Oklahoma State (6-4) Thursday at Miller Park (3 p.m. MST, BYUtv app).
This no ordinary meet and greet.
The Cowboys will be the first Big 12 opponent to come to Provo since the Cougars accepted an invitation to join the Power Five conference in all sports beginning in 2023. Baylor will be the second team when it arrives for BYU football’s home opener on Sept. 10.
“We want them to see that we run a classy organization, that we will be good partners in the league and that we are going to compete,” said BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood. “We are not going to roll over. We expect to win on our home field.”
Oklahoma State is a perennial baseball power and picked to finish second behind No. 1-ranked Texas in what may be the toughest baseball conference in the country. The Cowboys sharpen their skills in a $60 million baseball facility.
The three-game series will be a taste of the “Big Time” for the Cougars. Fortunately, they have a coach who has performed under the bright lights many times before.
In his life before taking the BYU job in 2012, Littlewood refereed nearly 800 Division I college basketball games in some of the most competitive settings.
“There is so much carryover between coaching and officiating,” he said. “The key to being good at both is how you manage the game and how well you communicate.”
First ‘Sweet 16’
“I couldn’t breathe. I was worried I’d be able to get enough air to blow my whistle,” Littlewood said as he walked into the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis to officiate the Florida-Butler Sweet 16 matchup in 2007 on CBS.
Littlewood had called NCAA Tournament games before, but nothing like this. Florida was the defending national champions and Butler’s cinderella story had already captured America’s attention.
“I was more than nervous,” he said. “Just walking into the Dome. It’s a football stadium and it’s just enormous!”
Littlewood had the first call of the game — an offensive foul on Florida’s Joakim Noah.
“After that call, everything became normal.”
Last ‘Sweet 16’
“Michael! Michael! Michael! Please help us!” shouted Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.
“Coach, we are just calling what we see!” responded Littlewood.
“I know,” said the coach, whose top-seeded Spartans were in a battle against Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino in the 2008 Sweet 16 in Phoenix.
The Cardinals won the game 57-44. There were 26 fouls called and the free-throw disparity was 12-11 with no technical fouls — near perfect numbers for game officials and for Littlewood’s last ride.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this would be his last assignment as a referee. Two months later, Littlewood was hired as BYU’s head baseball coach and after 16 years of officiating, he put the whistle away. He managed to do both while coaching at Dixie College, but this level of baseball required his full attention.
In his office, however, there is an encased basketball signed by Izzo and Pitino as a remembrance of his last blast.
“That ball might have helped us get more recruits than anything I could have said baseball-wise,” Littlewood said. “It means a lot. Coach Mark Pope (BYU basketball coach), who played for Pitino, helped facilitate getting it. I couldn’t have received anything better than that.”
BYU vs. Big 12
Oklahoma State is the first Big 12 baseball team to play at BYU since the Cougars took two of three games against Kansas in 2013. Since then, BYU is 5-14 against Big 12 teams in games played no closer to Provo than Las Vegas. No. 19 Texas went 3-1 against BYU last year in Austin.
“When I took the head job at Alta High at age 26, I never imagined I’d be able to coach at the highest level of collegiate baseball,” said Littlewood, who turns 57 in April. “We need to build depth. We don’t need better players than we have in the program, we just need more of them. For a veteran referee, getting into the Big 12 is the equivalent of working the Final Four. I’m so excited about it!”
Pass the Pepto
For Littlewood, the forever link between head coaching and officiating is the pink liquid found inside a bottle of Pepto Bismol.
“There are always those moments when you feel queasy and noxious where you aren’t sure how it’s going to go,” he said. “I get the same feeling before coaching a game as I did as a referee — that Pepto feeling. So, I always have a bottle of Pepto nearby.”
Whether Pepto bismol will be offered at Miller Park is a decision for food and beverage. Three days of hot dogs, peanuts and the No. 10 Cowboys may cause some unease, but it is a good taste of the future.
“I hope they (OSU) recognize that the scenery is beautiful, the field plays well, and they are well taken care of,” Littlewood said. “We want to be first class and we want to beat them!”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.