Rogers: Big Ten Must Relish Opportunity
• SEE ALSO: Illinois nearing a top-eight seed
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Meeting lofty expectations isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, but when it comes to the college baseball community, the Big Ten Conference, at least thus far, has held up its end of the bargain this spring.
Before Indiana reached the College World Series two seasons ago, the Big Ten hadn’t had a team in Omaha since Barry Larkin took the field for Michigan. Astonishing, rehashed over and over, we know this. But that’s worth continuing to mention, to illustrate just how far this conference has come.
IU didn’t go far in the CWS two seasons ago. But a year later, the Hoosiers were one of the nation’s top eight national seeds. And yes, they lost at home in a regional title game to Tommy Edman and Stanford. But once again, it was progress — the Big Ten had a top-eight national seed.
Those are just two examples of the gradual improvements the Big Ten has made the past few seasons, but there’s much more to it.
The word “commitment” comes to mind the most.
A perfect example of that was this weekend here in Columbus. Personally, I like Ohio State’s Bill Davis Stadium. The ballpark can hold 4,500 spectators, and the standing room areas around the ballpark suggest to me that even more could pile into the stadium. But while it’s nice and spacious, a few coaches around the league would rank the ballpark behind a few others in the conference, namely Nebraska’s, Indiana’s and even Michigan’s or maybe Purdue’s.
There was a time, pre-Nebraska, when Ohio State was the gold standard by a long shot from a facilities standpoint.
But things have changed. Ohio State’s ballpark, while being one that I certainly like, now needs some updates to stay status quo with other competing programs like the Nebraskas of the world. And while it might not have happened in the past, Ohio State University isn’t scrambling for athletic money, and chances are good more renovations will come in the near future, a few of the renovations prominently on display in the entrance lobby to the batting cages and coaches offices.
“This is going back a number of years, but I think former Ohio State coach Bob Todd did a lot to show athletic directors in this league that with effort and a commitment, you can do something on the national stage,” Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said. “The AD’s in this league looked around, saw Ohio State’s facility then, and Bob is the founding father of the movement.
“Since that time, more and more schools are putting more money into facilities, travel budgets and equipment budgets, things like that, and the Big Ten Network has been huge for getting us some extra money,” he continued. “I also think getting programs like Nebraska and Maryland in the league has helped. Nebraska has a great facility and Maryland has a quality program. Both of those programs helped raise the bar, too.”
While perhaps not on the grand scale of Indiana and Michigan, other improvements have been happening around the league over the past few years. Michigan State plays in a new ballpark, Purdue has a sparkling ballpark that gets overshadowed by some poor performances recently, and John Anderson led a fundraising campaign at Minnesota to completely re-do his ballpark. Then there’s Nebraska, which has a rabid fan base and has a ballpark that anyone in the Southeastern Conference would be ecstatic to have. It’s one of the premier venues in college baseball.
All these changes are just the tip of the iceberg, but are absolutely needed if the Big Ten wants to turn this season dubbed the Golden Age to a consistent rash of success top to bottom. Critics would say it’s a flash in the pan situation, but I’m a firm believer the Big Ten can and will become a consistent force on the national stage, assuming the commitment level across the board continues to be there.
The other key for the Big Ten sustaining long-term success is keeping elite coaches in the conference.
For the two seasons that Indiana rocked the college baseball world, everyone began to ask the question, “When is Tracy Smith going to move to a bigger program?” The question was inevitable, and it happens all the time. When a Northern coach experiences a lot of success, the natural question points to when he will leave the early-season cold of the Northern part of the country for the sunshine of the West or South.
Well, last season, the questions about Smith became legitimate. Though Smith did a magnificent job of playing coy throughout Arizona State’s coaching search, as the Sun Devils interviewed College of Charleston’s Monte Lee and others, insiders at ASU say that Smith secretly was the favorite for the job all along. And when Smith took the job at ASU, was anyone out there surprised at all?
I’d say no. Indiana is a quality program, and made a quality hire to replace Tracy Smith in former Louisville assistant Chris Lemonis. But Arizona State is Arizona State, and Indiana is Indiana in the historical hierarchy of college baseball.
And let’s face it, the weather was a factor for Smith. During my trip out to Tempe in late February, I encountered Smith and his coaching staff wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and visibly excited to be in Arizona. That same day, the temperature in Bloomington, Ind., was in the mid-20s.
That’s a quality of life and ease of program issue that can’t be dealt with easily, but it can be done, and it will take money.
For now, the quality of coaching in the Big Ten is very good across the board. Darin Erstad, despite some ups and downs this year, has done a very nice job at Nebraska, Erik Bakich was a stellar hire for Michigan, Michigan State’s Jake Boss is a quality coach, Ohio State’s Greg Beals is doing a very good job and could have his best team in 2016, and Maryland and Iowa have been very impressive this spring under John Szefc and Rick Heller, respectively.
For the growth of college baseball, I hope all of these universities do enough to keep those coaches around. It might not be enough, but it’s doable. There will be a lot of talk about Iowa’s Heller during the offseason. Heller has done an amazing job transforming the Hawkeyes into a hardcore regional contender in short order, and some will wonder, which Southern program will come in and snatch up Heller in the offseason?
Though it’s always possible, I think the Big Ten and Iowa have a chance to keep guys like Heller in the conference. Heller is an Iowa guy, and he takes a lot of pride in building up that once dormant program. But it will take money and a facilities commitment, something the University of Iowa probably wasn’t counting on when they hired someone from Indiana State a couple of years ago.
Keeping Heller around at Iowa might be easier for the Hawkeyes, but fending off the big, bad boys from the South or, as Smith showed, the West, might be easier said than done for other coaches. An example this year might be Illinois’ Dan Hartleb. Hartleb and his staff have done an amazing job this spring, look like a strong bet to be a national seed, but happen to have a facility that ranks low in the Big Ten. Think that won’t be brought up this summer when schools looking for a new coach get in touch with the Illini?
“I believe two things are going to have to happen [for the Big Ten to sustain success], first, and it’s extremely important, we’re going to have to compete salary-wise with the other elite conferences and programs on the national stage,” Hartleb said. “And we have to keep doing better on the facilities front. It’s like curb appeal. If you’re going to go buy a house, you’re not going to buy an ugly house. Those wow factors mean a lot in this day and age. It doesn’t necessarily make recruiting a lot easier, but it does help.”
Time will tell, but I have a feeling the Big Ten schools realize what’s potentially at stake when they go to the negotiating table with some of these coaches’ contracts. These coaches could have a lot of leverage with a record five teams highly likely to make the NCAA postseason, and perhaps even a sixth Big Ten team making it this year should Nebraska, Indiana or Michigan finish the regular-season on a strong note.
It’s easy to hire new coaches when one leaves for conceivably greener pastures, but turnover can lead to an unforeseen rebuilding job. And that’s something the Big Ten has to avoid if it consistently wants to be considered one of the nation’s elite conferences.