Big Ten Baseball To Play A Summer Schedule?

March 1, 2012

Why The Conference & Some Of Its Coaches Are Barking Up The Wrong Tree…

By College Baseball 360 co-editor Sean Stires

It looks like the Big Ten, or “BIG” as it likes to moniker itself, is at it again. According to an Associate Press report, there are two ideas being floated by two different Big Ten coaches that would pretty drastically change the way college baseball is played.

The AP attributes one of the ideas to ABCA Hall of Fame coach, John Anderson, of Minnesota. Anderson’s idea is for teams in his conference to stop beginning their seasons in February like the rest of college baseball. Instead, BIG would begin play much later and play out its 56-game regular season into summer – while the College World Series is being played, meaning Big Ten teams would give-up the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament altogether.

“We’re never going to catch those people,” Anderson is quoted saying in reference to the four SEC teams that played at last year’s CWS. “The system works for them, and they’re not going to want to change it.”

The other idea comes from Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber. His plan would be for the SEC to allow schools to play 14 non-conference games in the fall, with those games counting toward the team’s 56-game regular season limit and won-loss record the following spring. IE-Fall 2011 results would have counted toward the current 2012 season.

With respect to both Anderson and Schreiber, their ideas are not completely without merit. Just like the BIG has been doing for the last several years, they are looking for a solution that they think college baseball’s current system has handed them. They all argue that the current system is keeping BIG teams out of the chance to be in and host NCAA Tournament games.

To a certain extent they are correct. The problem is, they are barking up the wrong tree.

You see, the BIG wants it both ways. Its commissioner, Jim Delaney, and the people who run the schools in the conference will not allow their school’s head coaches to over-sign prospective recruits. The practice allows a coach a safety net when highly touted signees opt for professional contracts rather than going to college. The end result is rosters that have a hard time consistently competing with top-notch opponents.

That, along with early extended road trips and early losses leads to bad RPIs and, ultimately, fewer at-large NCAA bids. As cited in the AP article. BIG has received just a single NCAA bid six times since 1999, two bids four times and three bids on three occasions.

BIG wants us to believe it’s all the system’s fault, but there’s another northern conference that defies BIG’s argument- the Big East, which has sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, while BIG has had just one each (Anderson’s Minnesota squad in 2010 and Illinois last year).

Connecticut, Seton Hall and St. John’s all went to the dance last year. There was hardly tropical weather in any of those locales when the 2011 season began, but they all did just fine.  BIG is also the conference that has a better BCS windfall, thanks to several years with multiple teams (Michigan and Wisconsin this year) in BCS bowl games.

What really irks BIG is not just the fact that Michigan’s 1984 team was the last school from the conference to reach the CWS, but also the idea that they don’t think there are enough northern schools hosting NCAA Regionals every year.

The problem with the latter argument is that hosting guarantees nothing. Ask national seed Rice last year. UConn hosted a regional two years ago, only to see Florida State advance all the way to Omaha. The Huskies started on the road in the Clemson Regional last year, upsetting the Tigers and advancing to the program’s first Super Regional.

There’s also the fact that other northern teams like Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri State, and even Oregon State have all been to Omaha in the last decade. Granted, Nebraska (which just left the Big 12 for BIG) and Oregon State both had the advantage of playing better teams in conference play, helping their RPIs. However, OSU beat Michigan in 2007 and Missouri State got past Ohio State in 2003 in Super Regionals to earn CWS berths.

Notre Dame rattled-off an unheard of eight straight NCAA appearances from 1999-2006 under then head coach Paul Mainieri. The foundation of his teams, which included future MLB pitchers Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman in the late ‘90s, was pitching. Those two would have been teammates with current Chicago Cub Ryan Dempster had he not opted to go the pro route instead.

Mainieri’s Irish earned its CWS bid in 2002 after first beating Ohio State in the South Bend Regional and then going to Tallahassee and toppling No. 1 ranked Florida State (which carried a 25-game winning streak into the best of three series).

Delaney has tossed around the idea of a “Northern World Series” if the kind of “access” to the NCAA Tournament that he wants isn’t attained. That event could take place in the late summer if Anderson’s plan to push back his conference’s start date were to go into effect.

The event could even be televised. A Big Ten Network spokesperson told the AP “BTN will televise baseball wherever the Big Ten play it.” That is unless it’s at what the conference had hoped would be one of the premiere early season events, The Big East/Big Ten (or vice versa, depending on year) Challenge. Event organizers practically begged BTN to televise at least some games during the four year run of the Challenge to no avail.

I completely empathize with Big Ten coaches and the challenges they face. I have long said that it is ridiculous that with around 300 Division One college baseball teams (of which around half are northern) should start the season in February when pitchers and catchers are just reporting to spring training.

It is extremely challenging for every northern team to practice (mostly indoors) and hit the road for the first 3-4 weeks of every season, but it still no more challenging for Purdue or Michigan than it is for Notre Dame or Cincinnati. However, there was also a time (not so long ago) when there was no uniform start date to the college season. That set-up allowed warm weather schools to get double-digit games under their belts before the snowbird schools came south.

Give Schreiber credit though, he has put together a schedule that, if it wins 36 or so games, should be in the at-large discussion if it warrants at the end of the season. Purdue’s non-conference slate includes games against the like of East Carolina, Auburn, Southern Mississippi, Wichita State, Louisville, and a three-game series in May at UCLA. That doesn’t even include a Maryland team that has turned out to be pretty good so far.

Schreiber and Anderson are trying to help their teams and others in their conference. The problem is their conference needs to get out of their way.

After hearing from some coaches and readers the following was added after the initial post of this column:

As I hope I stated clearly enough (I know I have in the past anyway) the start of the season needs to be pushed back AT LEAST to the first weekend of March. Things will never be completely fair for northern teams as long as the college season starts before April. Schreiber’s plan to play 14 games in the fall is the best of these two options. Of the coaches I have talked to since this news broke, they favor that idea. One possibility could be putting both a minimum and a maximum number of fall games for all teams.

An idea we have mentioned here on CB360 before is allowing “exempt” fall games (exhibitions that would not count toward the 56-game limit) in an effort to give the college game more exposure, especially in the north where Big Ten schools and Big East schools with football could tie fall games in with a home football weekend. Playing regular season games in October would take it a step further, where schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Cincinnati, Ohio State, and others could tie an entire weekend series in with a football weekend, thus killing three birds with one stone. They get to play some home games in the fall, they get more exposure for their baseball team and they don’t have to spend three weeks on the road in late February and March.

To be clear, the points northern coaches raise about the inequity of northern and southern teams in college baseball is valid. However, the Big Ten has more resources than any other northern conference, yet the conference has continually chosen to blame the NCAA for all of its woes rather than looking within at how it has hamstrung its baseball schools with self-imposed policies like not allowing over-signing and restricting junior college transfers to its baseball programs. (SS)

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