Darin Erstad (Nebraska)

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Big Ten Goes All-In On Baseball

In the past decade,  the Big Ten hasn’t sent more than three teams to the NCAA tournament, and has produced only one regional team as often as it’s produced three.

This season, however, the Big Ten has two teams in the D1Baseball Preseason Top 25 and could land four or more in the NCAA postseason. The transition from de facto mid-major to national power conference started because sports are just like real life: You have to be careful what you challenge people to do.

It’s no secret that it’s tougher to get outside in the spring in Minneapolis and Ann Arbor, Mich., than it is in Gainesville, Fla., and Austin, Texas, which places Northern and Midwestern schools at a disadvantage—generally few outdoor preseason practices, fewer early-season home games and no local year-round showcase baseball for high school recruits—compared to their competitors in the SEC and ACC.

“What happened in the early 2000s was that (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany and the conference made an effort to allow the Northern schools … to try to change the access to the NCAA tournament,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. Anderson, who was on the NCAA’s baseball committee at the time, mentioned a recalibrated RPI and altered regional structures as two solutions to make up for built-in geographic disadvantages.

Anthony Papio (Maryland)Anthony Papio and Maryland help move the needle for the Big Ten.

The warm-weather schools, unsurprisingly, at that time, were in no hurry to make life harder on themselves. That great RPI disparity has since been tweaked, with greater weight placed on road wins, thus helping out Big Ten teams that are forced to travel early in the season because of weather concerns. But the postseason structure remained the same.

“They came back (in the early 2000s) and basically said, ‘If you want more access, win more games,’ ” Anderson said. “So I think as a response to fight back to some degree, some of the institutions (decided to) field a more competitive team.”

Sports are also like real life in that you get a lot done if you attack problems with great willpower and huge sums of money.

Around the same time, in 2007, the Big Ten launched the Big Ten Network, becoming the first major conference to own a cable channel. In addition to placing its baseball teams in front of tens of millions of viewers who wouldn’t come down to the ballpark on a rainy day in March, BTN created an influx of revenue that started an arms race among the conference’s schools.

That money bought up-and-coming head coaches like Iowa’s Rick Heller and Indiana’s Tracy Smith, who turned the Hoosiers into the first national powerhouse the conference had seen in a generation before leaving for Arizona State this past offseason. It also built facilities that reduced the effect of the weather on preseason preparation and enticed new recruits.

“People started to improve their facilities,” Heller said. “Michigan State gets a new facility, Indiana builds a $20 million stadium, Purdue builds a $20 million stadium, Nebraska comes into the league as already a marquee team nationwide with a great facility, Minnesota’s getting a new facility, they hire Erik (Bakich) at Michigan and he’s making upgrades. Ohio State already has a great facility—basically, everyone in the league made a push at the same time to try to improve and make a change with their baseball programs.”

You’ll also notice that neither of the Big Ten’s two ranked teams—Maryland and Nebraska—were in the conference five years ago. The addition of those two schools, in addition to Rutgers, is part of the conference’s attempt to outgrow its largely Great Lakes-based roots and capture, among other things, the lucrative media markets of Washington, D.C., and New York, where there is no high-level college football or baseball to speak of. (It’s a strategy that worked to a large extent when Penn State joined the conference in 1990, even though State College is farther away from Philadelphia than Maryland is from Washington or Rutgers is from New York.)

The conference’s holdovers don’t fear being beaten up by the new schools—instead, they look at the addition of a pair of high-profile baseball schools as an opportunity to raise their own games.

“Having those schools in our conference is a benefit,” said Ohio State coach Greg Beals, “and it’s proven to be a benefit in baseball. It makes our conference better, and we cherish the opportunity to play teams of national caliber.”

Even a concerted and well-funded effort to improve the quality of play in the Big Ten takes time to come to fruition, as it takes time to build new ballparks, for new coaches to find their footing and develop talent, then sell the next generation of recruits on the facilities and talent development they’ve demonstrated. But once it happens, the effect compounds itself as those off-field efforts lead to on-field success, which brings in more revenue, better coaches and better recruits.

We’re now at a tipping point; if this season goes as predicted, the Big Ten will have the talent and infrastructure to go toe-to-toe with the other power conferences for the foreseeable future.

“The way that I look at it,” said Nebraska coach Darin Erstad, “if you take away the name of the conference, take away the names on the jerseys and just look at the product on the field, I think we have six to seven legitimate regional contenders, without the perceptions of cold weather, of conference, of history of schools. I just believe the pitching in our league is that deep, and I believe that there’s a lot of talent on the field, and the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers makes it even better.”

The key, Erstad believes, is depth. In the past, every Big Ten team had a handful of good players, but the quality of play dropped sharply after that. Today’s Big Ten teams have talent throughout their lineups and pitching staffs that go more than three guys deep.

“Now, when you’re ahead of the other team,” Erstad says. “You’re not just seeing some 80-85 mph arm—there’s real talent there.”

As a result, this year’s Big Ten is good enough at the top, and deep enough throughout, to insert itself into the second tier of conferences behind the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12—and it may prove to be just as good as a couple of those. It’s also as strong as any conference of cold weather schools has ever been.

“This’ll be the fifth year for me in the Big Ten,” Beals said, “and I think it’s the strongest that it’s been in that time for sure.”

It’s amazing what a lot of want-to and a lot of money can do.

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