Fitt: Leggett’s Legacy Will Endure
Few coaches have had more of an impact on college baseball over the last three decades than Jack Leggett. Not only does he rank 10th on the all-time Division I coaching wins list (1,332), but he has mentored a huge host of future major league players and, perhaps most notably, some of the best coaches in the sport, including a pair of former national coaches of the year in Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin and Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan.
Leggett was fired by Clemson on Thursday after 24 seasons with the Tigers, including the last 22 as the head coach. The writing had been on the wall for the last two years that Clemson director of athletics Dan Radakovich was not pleased with the direction of the program and was gearing up to make a change, but that didn’t make Thursday’s news any easier for Leggett’s many loyalists to swallow.
“It’s shocking,” O’Sullivan said. “He spent 24 years of his life there, 22 as the head coach. He’s synonymous with Clemson baseball. It’s a sad day. I’m surprised, to be honest with you. I don’t even know what to say. I feel terrible for him, I feel terrible for the players, I feel terrible for the assistants. It’s a surreal, weird feeling.”
Leggett’s tenure at Clemson was marked by consistent winning and some impressive peaks. He led the Tigers to 21 regionals in his 22 years at the helm, as well as six College World Series appearances, but none since 2010. That was the year the tide started to turn against Leggett. The Tigers started 2-0 in Omaha that year, then suffered back-to-back losses to arch-rival South Carolina, which went on to win the first of its two national championships.
South Carolina’s success — particularly against Clemson — played a significant role in the growing discontent that took hold in the Clemson fan base. Starting with the 2010 CWS, the Gamecocks won 13 of 16 meetings against the Tigers before Clemson finally won a series against South Carolina this year. No rivalry in college baseball is more fierce than Clemson-South Carolina, and Gamecocks’ success cast Clemson’s failure to win another regional after 2010 into stark contrast.
But the Tigers still kept making regionals, even this year, when they had to get hot late to sneak in as one of the last teams in the field. Making the NCAA tournament just about every year is a lot harder than it used to be (as South Carolina fans learned this year) in this era of parity, and Leggett deserves credit for consistently leading the Tigers to the postseason.
Recruiting has not dropped off — Clemson’s roster has remained talented every year, though its pitching has been thinner over the last couple of years. Certainly, the Tigers have underachieved somewhat with the talent on their roster, and ultimately Leggett’s job is to get the most out of his players.
“It’s fair to say Clemson Baseball has been competitive over the last few years, but our objective is success, defined by competing for ACC championships and winning in the NCAA tournament,” Radakovich said in a statement Thursday. “I have high expectations — and I know our fans and student-athletes have great expectations — for our baseball program.”
Fair enough. But another important part of a head coach’s job is to make lasting, positive impacts on the lives of his players, and in that regard, Leggett was hugely successful. The reaction I’ve heard to Leggett’s dismissal from coaches across the country today is, “It’s not right.”
“What a bad profession this is if Jack Leggett gets fired. That sucks,” one ACC coach said. “I know what we all signed up for but he’s one of the great guys and has done unreal things there. Our game is better with him in it. Too good of a person not to be.”
Clemson players expressed their strong support for Leggett before and after his dismissal.
“I came to school to play for a hall of fame coach,” Clemson outfielder Steven Duggar said after the Tigers were eliminated from the Fullerton Regional. “That was a big factor in my decision to come to Clemson. Just to be able to put on the jersey every single day and have him at the helm is pretty special to me.”
“I love the man, first and foremost,” added second baseman Tyler Krieger. “He’s taught me more than anybody, right there with my parents, in my life. He’s taught me lessons that — it’s not always about baseball. He’s a great, great baseball coach, but he’s taught me more about life than people think. Baseball just didn’t go our way this year. We played well at times, we had pieces together, we just didn’t put it together all the time. That’s the key, consistency.
“I’ve learned a lot in my three years, and I just want to say thank you to Coach, because he’s taught me a lot.”
Leggett has one of the most impressive coaching trees in the history of college baseball. Coaches who have coached under him or played for him include Corbin, O’Sullivan, former East Carolina coach Keith LeClair, Michigan coach Erik Bakich, new Western Kentucky coach John Pawlowski, Winthrop coach Tom Riginos, Binghamton coach Tim Sinicki and many others. The quality of Leggett’s disciplines is a testament to the quality of his teaching skills.
“He’s meant the world to me. The guy gave me a chance,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s like a mentor to me, I feel terrible.
“From the outside looking in, people don’t get to really know people, but this guy would do anything for anybody. I mean, he’s got the biggest heart of anybody I know. He would do anything and everything to help somebody in need. He’s just that type of person.”
And more than all of the wins and the six Omaha trips and the big league alumni and everything else Leggett has accomplished, his legacy will be defined by his oversized heart, and the fierce loyalty he has inspired in his former players and assistants.
Leggett’s loyalty and his dismissal from Clemson drew the ire of Michigan head coach Erik Bakich, a potential candidate in the Tigers’ search for a new head coach. Bakich said he didn’t want any part of the Clemson coaching search.
“My loyalty,” Bakich said, “is to Jack Leggett.”