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ABCA Primer: 2019 Hot Topics

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — This fall, D1Baseball sat down with Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, for a wide-ranging conversation about major and minor issues facing college baseball, in the short term and the longer term. We already wrote about the most pressing issue currently in the legislative pipeline — the push to allow schools to add a third full-time paid assistant coach to their staffs. That issue demanded the strongest lobbying efforts from coaches who recognize how important it is for college baseball, and many of the sport’s highest-profile coaches got to work trying to convince coaches at smaller schools — as well as their own athletics directors — to support the proposal.

But there are plenty of other issues that are sure to be discussed at this week’s ABCA convention in Dallas. Here’s a rundown of some other key items on Keilitz’s plate, as he laid them out during our fall visit with Keilitz and communications & business coordinator Jon Litchfield at the ABCA’s Greensboro headquarters.

Recruiting Calendar

College baseball’s power brokers have been working to tighten up the recruiting calendar for a couple of years now, with a goal of improving the work-life balance for coaches and also improving the experience for current players by keeping coaches on campus for more instruction time. 

“I kept hearing over and over about how crazy it’s gotten,” Keilitz said, “that (recruiters are) on the road 300-plus days a year, and every day from sun-up to sundown they’re gone, and they’re not spending time with their current student-athletes, missing practices — and our numbers showed that — and then also missing games.”

Last year, Keilitz helped put together a focus group of 16 different coaches for a recruiting summit in Charlotte. Then he surveyed Division I head coaches to gauge support for the recommendations endorsed by that group.

“The numbers were so overwhelmingly for the changes we made that it was easy to take it forward,” he said.

The changes to the recruiting calendar seem very likely to pass when the NCAA’s Board of Directors votes in April, because they enjoy strong support from coaches and should please administrators. A brief overview of the proposed changes:

• A dead period following conference tournaments (in 2019, May 27-June 3). This was unanimously recommended by the recruiting summit group, and supported by 79.6 percent of the the 186 head coaches who responded to the ABCA’s survey (a response rate of 88.6 percent of the ABCA membership).

• A dead period on the first weekend of the College World Series, aimed primarily at allowing coaches to spend Father’s Day weekend with their families. This was also recommended unanimously by the recruiting summit group and supported by 76.9 percent of head coaches.

• A three-day dead period around the Fourth of July, aimed at giving coaches some family time during the height of the summer recruiting grind. This was recommended 15-1 by the recruiting summit group, and supported by 79.6 percent of coaches.

• A one-week addition to the quiet period from late August to mid-September, to allow coaches to recover from the summer recruiting circuit and be on campus as their players return for the fall to being early fall workouts and skill work. If this plan is approved, this piece would go into effect in 2018, making the quiet period Aug. 20 to Sept. 13, instead of Aug. 28 to Sept. 14 (as it was last year). This was recommended 14-2 by the summit group and supported by 87.6 percent of coaches.

• A three-week extension in the fall/winter quiet period, which would now start Oct. 15 instead of Nov. 10, as it did last year. This proposal would allow coaches to be on campus for most of their team’s fall workouts, and hopefully also encourage high school prospects to “shut down” earlier in the fall for much-needed rest and arm care. The recruiting summit group, which recommended this change 14-2, felt that any meaningful fall recruiting events could be moved into the four-week contact period. This prong garnered the least support from coaches in the survey, but still was supported by 66.1 percent.

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, one of the strongest advocates for the third assistant coach proposal, is also one of the most vocal critics of the recruiting calendar proposal, though he’s clearly in the minority. His primary objection is to what he calls the “over-regulation” of college baseball. He argues that if coaches want to work through Father’s Day or the Fourth of July, they should be able to. If they want to take time off, they can go right ahead.

“I get it, it’s a nice idea to let coaches spend Father’s Day with their families, but don’t tell me how to run my business,” O’Sullivan said. “Whether you make the money that I make or the money that somebody at a mid-major makes, we all are doing something that we love to do. Most people wake up every day and do something 9 to 5 that they hate, they can’t stand it. But we get to do something that we have a passion for. I’m very sensitive to the fact that we are Florida, we are the SEC, and I totally get it. But we all have sacrifices for what we want our life to be.”

O’Sullivan’s biggest complaint was starting the fall quiet period before the Perfect Game event in Jupiter, instead of pushing it back one week to accommodate PG, which he argues has done a lot of good for college baseball. But O’Sullivan and the others who object to the recruiting calendar proposal face an uphill battle.

“For any coach that is totally against this, they have the opportunity to talk to their AD to try to convey that they can vote against it. That’s their right as well,” Keilitz said. “And then whatever the vote comes back, it comes back. But based on all of this, I’d be really surprised if it doesn’t pass.”

More Scholarships

No action is imminent in the decades-long quest to raise college baseball’s scholarship limit from 11.7, but it remains No. 1 on the wish list for a great many coaches, and also for the ABCA.

First, some data provided by the ABCA:

Total Division I baseball programs in 2018: 297

Limit of scholarship equivalencies: 11.7

Number of programs offering 11.7 scholarships: 149 (50 percent)

Average number of equivalencies awarded: 10.58

Average number of student-athletes receiving aid: 24 (out of a maximum 27)

Proportion of equivalencies vs. student-athletes on aid: 44 percent

Now, compare that proportion of equivalencies for baseball vs. other major Division I sports:

Men’s basketball: 92 percent

Women’s basketball: 92 percent

Volleyball: 87 percent

Football: 83 percent

Softball: 55 percent

Women’s soccer: 51 percent

Men’s soccer: 45 percent

Baseball: 44 percent

So baseball lags behind even though its championship is one of the most profitable for the NCAA. But in order to make any kind of serious push to increase the scholarship limit, baseball needs to present a more unified front — which has long proven difficult because only half of Division I programs are fully funded at 11.7 scholarships.

“So to get those people to go from, let’s say 11 full rides to 11.7, that might be very difficult. But we think it’s the right thing to do,” Keilitz said. “When there’s a starting shortstop for a team that’s playing in the national championship and bringing in millions of dollars for the NCAA, TV money, and to their conference, and to have them pay to play in that national championship I think is criminal. When you have three-deep or two-deep getting a full-ride scholarship in other sports, that’s crazy.”

Keilitz and other influential people around college baseball recognize that the best path to raising the scholarship limit might be to frame it as a way to increase college baseball’s ethnic diversity, because currently many top athletes of diverse backgrounds are choosing full-scholarship sports like football and basketball over baseball. As a result, just 22 percent of Division I baseball players are minorities, as well as 11 percent of head coaches and 9 percent of assistant coaches.

“We’re looking at, how many scholarships would it take to create some diversity? Is there a number?” Keilitz said. “I don’t know what that number would be, but are there any ties? Right now I don’t know, but we’re looking at it.”

One radical idea that has been floating around for years is to split Division I into two tiers, like football did. Schools that want to raise the scholarship limit would compete in one division, and schools that don’t want or can’t afford to award more scholarships could compete in the other. Keilitz is receptive to this idea, but it’s a long, long way from gaining any real traction.

“I’d personally love to see it, because the haves and the have-nots are so far away.” Keilitz said. “I love what we have in college baseball but I would like more opportunities, so I’m a little torn on that. But I don’t know if the presidents would pull the trigger on that. I think if March Madness wasn’t as big — they need those Cinderella stories — if that wasn’t as big, it would have already happened. … But I’d love to have like a 1-AA and a 1-A like for football — if you want to be at this level, it’s this many scholarships, this attendance requirements, this many paid assistants. So if we did that in baseball, you’d have to have four coaches plus a volunteer, let’s say, and 18 scholarships, and this much operating budget if you do it right. Then let whoever wants to get up there, and let the others settle back. I’d like to see that. I’d like it to be talked about and sort of bantered about, but I’m not sure that ADs and presidents are really that focused on it. They’re talking about survival right now, or even keeping up with the Joneses.”

NCAA Tournament Format

The NCAA tournament remains profitable, and there is currently no strong groundswell to dramatically alter its format, though plenty of coaches and administrators have long argued in favor of eliminating the current regionals format and replacing it with three straight best-of-three series on the road to Omaha. The advantages of such a format would be: (1) protecting arms, who would be far less likely to be called upon on a day or two of rest if a team only had to play a maximum of three games per weekend, instead of potentially four or five, (2) creating more excitement for college baseball in locations that don’t usually get to host regionals, and (3) improving attendance in the postseason by eliminating games between two teams that had to travel a long distance to play in a regional where they have few fans nearby. Under the current format, if a host is eliminated early in a regional, we often wind up with empty ballparks for regional championships between two road teams. Count Keilitz among those intrigued by the best-of-three format.

“The reason I like best two out of three is the way it changes the whole culture at a school when you host a regional,” Keilitz said. “The excitement, the crowds, people who don’t normally come to a baseball game come to it and have the time of their lives — I think to have 32 regionals that first weekend would be incredible. So you don’t have a 2 vs. a 3 that’s starting at 3 o’clock on a Friday when there’s no one there. Every game is really packed to the gills — every game would be.

“I would like us to analyze the one more week and have the best of three series — but a lot of things need to happen with the date of the draft and Omaha, keeping kids around for one more week. But I think that gets your best eight to the national championship better. But what we have now is pretty special too, so it’s hard to argue with it.”

There’s also no momentum right now to expand the field of 64, as the American Athletic Conference proposed a few years ago. The AAC wanted to expand to 68 teams and add four play-in games, but the proposal went nowhere.

“It never went to a vote,” Keilitz said. “I’ve heard a few people bring it up, but the tournament is awfully good how it is, but I also think if a few more teams got in it would be great. You see teams especially in baseball that barely get in and can make it to the World Series.”

MLB Draft

Major League Baseball has expressed interest in moving the draft to Omaha right before the CWS, and the idea makes a whole lot of sense for everyone involved, but the NCAA has so far balked at the notion, citing antiquated and vague notions of amateurism. Behind the scenes, it sounds like there is some real momentum for this change, and MLB’s game at TD Ameritrade Park on the Thursday before the CWS next year is a big first step in strengthening the relationship between MLB and college baseball, and making the CWS an event that all of the baseball world can get excited about. Dovetailing the draft with that game in future years seems like a logical next step.

Stay tuned.

The Bottom Line

There will always be areas for baseball to improve, and the diverse ABCA constituency — big schools and small, warm-weather schools and cold-weather schools — will never agree on everything. But the game remains in a very good place, and it appears to be on a positive trajectory going forward. 

“We focus on these two or three or four things that we wish we had and we don’t, but we have so much,” Keilitz said. “And that’s the way the facilities are going; the way the salaries are going, head coaches and assistant coaches; what’s happening with marketing to increase our exposure on campuses with great attendance; what’s happening on TV and our national championship. It’s so incredible. I mean, people aren’t building $55 million stadiums if they don’t value our sport. So I think sometimes coaches and certainly us too, sometimes you focus on the one or two or three things that aren’t happening in your direction, but we’ve got so much positive going, it’s incredible.”

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