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Dear Big Ten: Are You In Or Out?

Columns


Conversations with more than half of the Big Ten Conference’s 13 head baseball coaches painted a picture of confusion and dismay running rampant through the league’s coaching ranks. The source of the frustration: a recent vote by Big Ten athletic directors not to support a proposal that would allow baseball and softball programs the option to convert their volunteer assistant coach positions into full-time or part-time jobs.

Several Big Ten coaches confirmed to D1Baseball that their ADs told coaches that they had taken a straw poll on the proposal at a recent meeting — and that ADs had opposed it 13-1. That is not a binding vote, and there’s still time for B1G athletic directors to reverse course before the NCAA Board of Directors’ official vote on the matter in April, but the conference as a whole must vote yes or no. And as a Power Five league, the Big Ten has outsized voting power — its vote has double the weight of the “Group of Five” conferences, and four times the weight of every other conference. So if the Big Ten opposes it, proponents of the proposal are concerned that smaller conferences will follow its lead. If a conference that generates close to $1.7 billion in annual revenue won’t get on board, what hope is there for conferences with dramatically smaller operating budgets?

Big Ten coaches strongly support the proposal, and several of them said they were “blindsided” to learn that their AD wasn’t the one vote in favor of it — that vote was cast by Rutgers.

“It was a huge shock, to be honest with you,” one B1G coach said. “We sat [in B1G coaches’ meetings] in September and it was like, almost every coach was on board. The only argument in the room was, can we add a paid assistant and keep the volunteer?”

Most power-conference coaches would love to add a third paid assistant and keep the volunteer, but the proposal to allow schools to convert their volunteer position into a full-time, part-time or graduate assistant position — or keep it as a volunteer position — was presented as a compromise solution to gain support from schools with smaller budgets, many of whom already don’t employ the two full-time assistants they are allowed under NCAA rules (college programs nationally average 1.61 paid assistant coaches). Under this proposal, any school that chooses not to convert its volunteer to full time would still be able to keep its volunteer, but that volunteer would be allowed to go out on the road recruiting just like the other assistant coaches, which would spread out the recruiting burden and help keep other coaches home more often to instruct their current players and spend time with family. Supporting this plan should be a no-brainer; it requires no additional commitment from an athletic program that doesn’t want to pony up more money so that its volunteer can make an actual full-time living, with benefits.

In addition to spreading the recruiting burden and allowing the volunteer to make a better living beyond just the revenue he can earn from camps, the plan would foster career development for volunteers, who currently aren’t allowed to go on the road recruiting. It’s difficult to move up to a full-time coaching position without any recruiting experience, which is why it’s fairly common for frustrated young coaches to abandon the profession in favor of scouting.

“I do know this much, one of the hardest things to find is somebody who really wants to get on the road and recruit on a daily basis. How are you gonna know who the heck can do that job when there’s really no platform for advancement there?” another B1G coach said. “I was all for paying a third assistant, or at least allowing a third assistant to be out on the road getting their name out there. How do these young guys make the leap to a full-time assistant when they’ve never been out on the road recruiting?”

Yet another argument in support of allowing a third paid assistant is improving the lack of diversity in the college coaching ranks — and by extension, the lack of diversity in the playing ranks. If we truly want college baseball to be more than just a country club sport, we need to allow young coaches who aren’t independently wealthy to make a legitimate living in the profession. D1Baseball’s 2018 Assistant Coach of the Year, Washington’s Jason Kelly, told a story last year of his days working as a volunteer assistant, and making ends meet by working as a graveyard shift manager at a grocery store by night. He slept for two or three hours, then woke up to give some private lessons and headed back to the ballpark for practice. Those kinds of stories are all too common in the college coaching ranks.

The American Baseball Coaches Association has also tried to frame this issue as a student-athlete welfare issue in addition to an issue about the welfare of the coaches, citing the lack of face time players get with coaches who are forced to spend more time out on the road recruiting. Currently, college baseball is allowed three full-time coaches for a 35-man roster — a 12:1 player-to-coach ratio that is the worst of all major sports. The next-worst ratio is men’s and women’s soccer at 8:1 — so even if this proposal passes, college baseball will still have the worst ratio (8.75:1).

“I met with my administration, I told them what my rationale was,” a third Big Ten coach said. “Obviously the player to coach ratio is not very good. I just told them we needed to be able to get that fourth coach so I’m not taking a guy out of practice to go recruiting. That’s the biggest thing. They agreed with it. I know the biggest concern is if we get one, everybody else is gonna want another coach. So that was I think the major concern with everybody.”

Indeed, multiple coaches said their ADs voted no because they didn’t want to deal with coaches in other programs asking for more coaches. 

“It’s terrible. It kind of says what we feel about baseball,” the third coach said about the outcome of the straw poll. “Who cares about the other sports? Let them battle their own battle — we’re growing. It’s a bad look [for the Big Ten], it really is. It’s disappointing.”

It’s a particularly bad look given the size of those Big Ten athletic revenues, which range from $84 million to $185 million annually, according to USA Today’s most recent data for the 2016-17 academic year. Of the 13 public schools in the conference, 10 of them have athletic departments that operate in the black. Adding a couple of salaried positions for $50,000 apiece (one for baseball, one for softball) would be a drop in the bucket for the Michigans, Ohio States and Penn States of the world.

Of course, everybody has to adhere to operating budgets, even $185 million behemoths. Baseball is never going to be a moneymaker in the Big Ten as long as the season starts in the middle of winter — one coach suggested that ADs probably viewed this proposal as “just more money down the drain.” 

It’s impossible to overstate how difficult it is for Northern teams to compete at a national level in baseball when the season starts in February. There’s a reason baseball players are called “the boys of summer.” There’s a reason major league spring training happens in Florida and Arizona, not Boston and Chicago. Baseball is America’s pastime, and it is a summertime sport. The game does not belong solely to the Sun Belt region; people in the North love baseball too, as evidenced by the passionate MLB fan bases in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and many other Northern cities. Several Northwoods League teams outdraw many minor league teams and warm-weather college baseball powers. If college baseball were played during actual baseball weather, the Big Ten would be a behemoth, plain and simple.

So it’s hard to blame the Big Ten for pushing for a later season, or for getting frustrated by the lack of traction that effort has produced, aside from a mid-February uniform start date — which is better than starting in January, but still very far from a level playing field for Northern teams, who still must spend the first four to six weeks on the road, then slog through 35-degree games in front of only the heartiest handful of fans when they finally do get to play at home.

And to the Big Ten’s credit, many of its schools have made significant investments in their baseball programs — including major ballpark projects all around the league in the last decade. As long as the season starts in winter, the Big Ten will never be able to compete annually for national titles in baseball like it does in football and basketball — but it has doggedly forged ahead anyway, and it has made real progress, sending three or more teams to regionals in each of the last four years, and five teams to regionals in 2015 and 2017 (when it received more bids than the Pac-12). A change to the RPI formula that rewarded road games has made a big difference for the Big Ten, and the league is clearly getting stronger in baseball, even though it has still sent just one team to Omaha in the past 35 years (Indiana in 2013).

But if ADs think this is the ceiling, and don’t believe baseball merits further investment because the programs are losing money or because they don’t make regular trips to Omaha, then why bother even having baseball? If you’re committed to the sport, then show it. It’s not like this proposal requires some seven-figure investment. It requires literally zero investment; but it gives programs that actually care about baseball the option to do something positive for the sport, without substantially harming programs that are less committed. Even if your program isn’t ready to add another full-time position, this proposal is a good thing for college baseball — so if you care about college baseball, you should support it.

“It’s a shame if it doesn’t pass, because it’s hard watching football with 55 assistants or whatever,” the first coach said. “We’re trying to get a guy who’s making his money off camps actually be able to make a living and afford to do this, and we’re kind of shutting it down. It doesn’t make sense for a sport that’s moving in the right direction. For our conference, it was pretty disappointing.

”What’s that going to make us look like on the national scene? Everybody uses everything in recruiting. That kind of stuff doesn’t lie. You can say you support baseball, but at the end of the day it sends a pretty powerful message to your people. You can bet the ACC or SEC, people we’re competing with for players, will say, ‘Why would you want to go there? They don’t even support their program.’ Well, yeah, it’s hard to argue with that.”

Echoed a fourth coach: “This is really bad for our conference, and leagues are going to blame us if it doesn’t pass. I don’t blame them. We’ll have some schools refuse to play our league because of this. And really, I don’t blame them.”

But the damage can be mitigated — it’s not too late. There’s still time for Big Ten athletic directors to get on board and support this proposal. They just need to decide — are they serious about baseball, or are they just going through the motions? We’ll find out that answer in April.

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