Switch Could Mean More Northern Exposure…
(July 19, 2011)
We could be playing college baseball right now.
If the college baseball season started in late March instead of February the College World Series would have started this past Saturday instead of its traditional Father’s Day weekend.
If Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney had his way that’s exactly how things would go. Delaney has been joined by others to push back the start of the college baseball season by at least a month to help level the playing field for northern teams, and it’s actually one of the best ideas he has had.
Delaney wants to see more northern representation at the College World Series. His other ideas to help that cause include placing less emphasis on RPI when it comes to NCAA Tournament selections and expanding the CWS field from eight to 10 teams, with the additional two teams being from the northern part of the country.
If my support for his ideas was measured in fastballs, Delaney would get a 95 (mph) for the schedule, an 88 for the RPI and a crafty lefty’s 67 for his plan to rubber stamp two teams from the north for the College World Series.
Let’s take them one at a time.
A Summer Schedule
Roughly half of the 300 Division One college baseball teams come from the northern part of the country, yet college baseball began its season on February 18 in 2011.
Who plays baseball in February?
Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers are just beginning to report when college baseball is cranking-up its schedule in late February. Where are the MLB guys reporting? Florida and Arizona. You know, where it’s actually warm in February!
That’s exactly where northern teams have to go, again and again, until the snow and ice thaws at the start of the season. It doesn’t take much to figure out that Michigan State, Ohio State, Connecticut, et. al have to go on the road more than their counterparts at places like Florida State, Arizona State and UCLA if they want to play in late February and early March.
Do you think folks in Tallahassee and Tempe could even identify a snow blower if I walked down the street with one (maybe the retirees who’ve transplanted themselves, but that’s another story)? I’m not talking about the snow plows that clear the streets, I’m talking about the ones my neighbors use to clear their driveways in February and March after that white stuff hits the ground…again and again.
There are plenty of schools in smaller conferences like the Ivy League and America East Conference (to name just a couple) that have foregone even playing the first couple weeks of the season, because it just doesn’t fit into the budget.
Delaney’s idea to push back the start of the college baseball season by at least a month just makes sense, and he’s not the only one who’s floated the idea.
Oklahoma head coach, Sunny Golloway, has vocally floated the idea of shifting the season into the summer as well. Golloway, who is one year removed from taking the Sooners to Omaha, thinks college baseball currently gets lost in the shadow of March Madness with its current start date. He also thinks there would be a better chance to get college baseball more TV exposure by pushing the season further into the summer months.
There are a few obstacles to this idea. The increased cost to schools to house and feed their student athletes while most other students are gone for the summer is one reason.
Another obstacle would be the actual scheduling of games. It’s easy for the Big Ten and other northern conferences to say they want to push back the start of the season to ease their travel woes, but starting the season in late March doesn’t give SEC and ACC schools any incentive to actually go to Columbus or Ann Arbor. Delaney could get his wish for warmer weather in Ann Arbor to start the season, but that won’t make Texas or Florida want to go there to play.
Probably the biggest obstacle to the schedule shift though is…drum roll…TELEVISION. Nobody wants to hear it, but ESPN and Omaha both want the College World Series exactly where it is- in mid June.
Think about it, as it is the CWS fits perfectly into an open window for programming on ESPN, and more and more television drives the bus when it comes to sports (how about that 8:40 p.m. ET first pitch for last week’s All-Star game).
Less RPI Emphasis At Selection Time
Delaney’s biggest argument here is that because of their location, northern teams don’t have the inherent advantage that teams in the south have to play strong competition and build RPI during conference play. Northern schools aren’t the only ones who say the RPI formula favors southern schools though. Schools on the west coast, which obviously have the advantage of warmer weather, say the current system puts them at a disadvantage as well.
The NCAA did seem to make a step toward placing less importance on RPI this year though with the at-large selection of St. John’s rather than LSU, despite an RPI gap of about 30 spots.
It’s hard to have sympathy for Big Ten schools though who don’t even try to build early season RPI by playing a challenging early season schedule.
Michigan State and Illinois tied for the Big Ten regular season crown, while Purdue finished third in the regular season standings. Michigan State’s games against Clemson and Boston College and Purdue’s game at Vanderbilt were the only regular season games among those three teams in 2011 against schools from conferences that sent teams to Omaha (in fairness to Illinois, they did play three games at LSU two years ago).
Contrast that to Stanford, which went into the season knowing it would have to play conference series vs. UCLA and Arizona State (both 2010 CWS teams). The Cardinal started its 2011 season with three game series at Rice, at Vanderbilt and at Texas.
Or how about New Mexico? The Lobos played a total of 12 road games this past season at Arizona State, Arizona, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma. Big Ten schools could make those same trips (and get paid in the process) if they wanted to.
Those Lobos come from the same Mountain West Conference that Delaney has continually stiff-armed when the conversation of a Division One college football playoff comes up.
That’s right, while Delaney has pounded the pulpit to get more exposure (and the TV money that comes with it) for his Big Ten brethren, he has also stood in the way as the biggest road block to breaking-up the BCS football system (and the money that it funnels into his conference).
Add Two Northern Teams To The CWS
This is the absolute worst idea of the bunch. Prior to the 1980s, NCAA Tournament Regionals were exactly that-“regional”. That’s why teams like Minnesota, Michigan and Maine were regulars in Omaha, because they were playing other northern teams, so they were guaranteed that one of them would make it. That’s what Delaney wants to go back to.
Four Regionals and two Super Regionals would be dedicated to northern schools under Delaney’s proposal, thus guaranteeing two teams from the upper part of the country a clear road to Omaha.
Delaney’s north-south line would be drawn between Oklahoma and Kansas, though I’m not really sure how teams on the west coast would fit into the equation. But that’s part of the problem.
Under the Delaney plan, a school like Virginia would be a “northern” team even though they play in what’s considered a “southern conference” (the ACC). Seems like the Cavaliers have done alright over the last three years with two trips to Omaha and another Super Regional under their belt.
Oregon State, Wichita State, Nebraska, and Notre Dame are other schools north of that line that have all been welcomed to Omaha. Connecticut came within spitting distance of the CWS this year as well by winning the Clemson Regional before falling to eventual national champion South Carolina in Super Regional play.
Maybe pitting UConn against Virginia would have been the more “fair” thing to do (for the Huskies anyway), but that’s still a net of one northern team at the CWS.
Hey, we’re equal opportunity here, we don’t just rip apart ideas without having other options. We have beaten this drum in different ways over the last couple of years, but we’ll keep beating it anyway. For change to happen guys like Delaney have to think outside the box in other ways. Rather than asking college baseball to drastically change its landscape, Delaney must first be willing to till his own immediate terrain.
If You Build It…
Assuming the college baseball calender/schedule is going to stay the same (which it is for the foreseeable future) then Delaney and the Big Ten (and possibly his counterparts in the Big East) have to step up to the plate in a big way to make something happen.
Build a domed stadium.
That’s right, build a 15-20,000 seat retractable roof stadium near Chicago and play college baseball in it from mid-February right on through the month of March (and for as long as the thermometer dictates).
The Big Ten could take that BCS money that Delaney doesn’t want to relinquish and sink it right into the college baseball programs he wants to help. He would have the most unique structure in college baseball.
The conference could host multiple Big Ten series in the same weekend in the building. Minnesota vs. Northwestern at Noon Friday-Sunday and Michigan-Illinois at 7 p.m. those same days. The Big Ten could lease the place to Horizon League, Summit League and MAC teams for mid-week and conference series as well. Even schools like St. Louis (Atlantic 10) and Eastern Illinois (Ohio Valley) could get in on the action.
The one of a kind building could also be used for conference post season tournaments (to include the Big Ten as well as potentially the other aforementioned leagues) as well as a potential Regional or Super Regional host site.
Delaney has also floated the idea of a northern answer to the College World Series, and the new building could host the event if it ever comes to fruition.
While we’re at it…
The Big Ten (which of course is now really 12) has taken part in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge for the last three seasons in Florida. It was a good idea, because teams from both northern conferences got to start the season on equal footing (and in the sunshine to boot) against each other. It was also great for pro scouts, because they could see nearly every big prospect from those conferences by making just one trip.
But maybe it’s time to take it up a notch. If a retractable roof stadium is in play, then think big. Ditch the games against Big East schools and crank-up the Big Ten/Pac-12, ACC, Big 12, and SEC Challenges (not all at the same time, but in varying seasons).
The season could start with Arizona State, Stanford and Oregon making the trip to Chicago to play three games in three days against Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois. At the same time, Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State would be in the San Francisco Bay or Los Angeles area playing games against Cal, UCLA and Oregon State. The rest of the teams from the two conferences could play their “Challenge” games the following weekend.
Such an event reduces travel, keeps scouts interested, creates early season college baseball publicity, and builds RPI.
The draw wouldn’t be exclusive to Big Ten teams though. How about an event similar to the Houston College Classic, which is held annually at Minute Maid Park? Invite teams from all corners of the country to take part in the domed event. Considering it would be in Chicago, it would be easily accessible for most schools.
But don’t stop there…
The Big Ten could televise all of the previously mentioned games on its own TV network-further promoting its own product.
A New Format
The idea to add two more teams to the College World Series is just too drastic. If we’re going to guarantee two northern teams (regardless of merit) two slots at college baseball’s biggest event we might as well just have Michael Roth and Preston Tucker go hand out ribbons at youth soccer games and call it a day.
Rather than reworking the entire NCAA Tournament format to meet the needs of a few, there is a better compromise.
A plan to rework the NCAA Baseball Tournament’s format has been floated recently, and it’s gaining traction. Texas head coach Augie Garrido is among those who favor the change, which would keep the tournament field at 64 teams, while giving more people in different parts of the country the chance to go to the games.
It goes something like this:
Round One: The 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament would play at 32 different locations. Two teams at each site would play a best-two-of-three series (like the current Super Regional format). The winners would move on to the second round.
Round Two: The remaining 32 teams would again play a best-two-of-three series in 16 different locales. The winners would move to round three.
Round Three: The remaining 16 teams would play a best-two-of-three series. The eight winners would advance to the College World Series.
Under this format 32 different teams would have the chance to host a first round series, compared to the current 16 teams that get to host. Second and third round match-ups would be predetermined by seeding, so first round upsets would give more teams the opportunity to host in the next two rounds-meaning northern teams would have a much greater chance to host an NCAA event than they presently do.
Connecticut, Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame (northern schools who also play in “northern conferences”) are among the select truly “northern” teams that have hosted even a Regional over the last decade.
The landscape of college baseball has changed drastically since Michigan last represented the Big Ten in Omaha in 1984. If Delaney and the Big Ten want to think big, it’s time to think big and step-up to actually make things happen.