Baylor has fired Steve Smith, its baseball coach for the past 21 years, announcing the move in a press release Sunday.

Smith is the winningest coach in Baylor athletics history, with 744 career victories. But his program had fallen on hard times, missing the NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons. This year the Bears went 23-32, which marked the program’s fewest wins since 1981. It was the first time the team had finished as many as nine games under .500 since 1958, when Baylor went 5-17.

The move came as a surprise to Smith, who was informed by athletic director Ian McCaw Sunday.

“I was (surprised). I really expected to be given next year to get back to the NCAA tournament,” said Smith, who leaves with a 744-523-1 record. “Ian made a tough call. While I don’t agree with it, I accept it. He’s charged with the responsibility and he’s got to do what he believes is best for Baylor.”

McCaw said in a statement a nationwide search for Smith’s replacement would begin immediately.

“We are grateful to Coach Smith’s leadership of the baseball program and his many accomplishments over the last 21 seasons,” McCaw said in the statement. “We wish him much success and happiness in his future endeavors.”

Smith said that after learning of the decision Sunday he called his assistant coaches to break the news.

“Their reaction was professional,” Smith said. “Steve Johnigan and I have been together since 1987. He is as good an instructor as there is in college baseball. He is widely respected and will have options. Trevor Mote is a young coach and will grow from this experience. That’s what baseball men do.”

Baylor has had just three baseball coaches in the past 53 years, as Mickey Sullivan served for 21 years prior to Smith and Dutch Schroeder for 12 seasons before Sullivan. Coincidentally, Sullivan and Smith both coached for exactly 21 seasons, though Sullivan also was an assistant football coach before inheriting the baseball program reins.

Smith pitched for Baylor during the 1982 and ‘83 seasons after transferring from Mississippi College, where he had starred in both baseball and football. He led the Southwest Conference in ERA (1.72) in ‘82, and was a fifth-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants in ‘83.

After a three-year professional career and coaching stops at Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Smith took over as Baylor’s head baseball coach in 1995. His hiring followed the retirement of Sullivan, his old coach.

By 1999, Smith had the Bears in an NCAA regional. He coached the first unanimous national player of the year in Division I history that year in Jason Jennings.

On Twitter, Jennings expressed support for his old coach Sunday.

“Call me biased but Smitty & his early successes were big part of fueling the Baylor Athletics we see now,” Jennings tweeted.

In 2000, Baylor won a school-record 50 games and captured the first Big 12 title for a men’s athletic program at the school. He ultimately directed the Bears to 13 NCAA regional appearances, three Big 12 championships, two trips to the Super Regionals and a College World Series berth in 2005. The 2012 Baylor team set a Big 12 record with a 24-game winning streak, including its first 18 conference games.

That 2012 season wasn’t without its losses, however. Smith let go of his longtime assistant Mitch Thompson in February of that season. Baylor also ended up missing out on a golden chance to reach Omaha, botching a potential series-ending double play against Arkansas in the Waco Super Regional before dropping the final two games.

That appearance would end up being Smith’s last postseason trip. The Bears went 27-28 in 2013, 26-31 last season and then 23-32 this year. Before 2013, Smith’s teams had finished under .500 only twice in his first 18 seasons.

Smith met his wife Melinda at Baylor, and his two sons Ryan and Case are both on the Baylor roster, with two and three years of eligibility remaining, respectively. Smith said he was most concerned about their immediate future.

Smith said he always considered Baylor “more than a job.”

“I love Baylor and fully embrace the mission of the university. That will not change,” he said.

He wasn’t sure what the next step in his career would be, but expected to continue coaching somewhere.

“While I was surprised by Ian’s decision, I was prepared,” Smith said. “My prayer during these last few weeks has been, ‘Lord, if you don’t want me to be at Baylor, move me.’ Today he answered that prayer.

“Only the Lord knows the next chapter, and I’m excited to see what he’s up to. I’ve learned a lot over the last 28 years in college baseball and am not ready to stop.”

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