By now, most of you are aware of the recently approved NCAA legislation that added a week onto the beginning of the college baseball season starting next year. Most of the traditional college baseball media (and some of the not-so-traditional) have either ignored the matter as relatively unimportant or accepted the fact it hurts northern baseball, but that because so many coaches wanted it, it must be fine.
Only Michigan's Rich Maloney had been quoted as opposing the measure. However, I knew there had to be more coaches as frustrated by this turn of events as Maloney. In that spirit, I contacted Indiana head coach Tracy Smith. Smith was kind enough to answer a few email questions about this new policy. Here is a portion of that exchange.
BTH: What was your initial reaction to this proposal?
Coach Smith: Disappointment was my initial reaction. I was disappointed that it happened, I was disappointed that (some) coaches wanted it to happened, and I was disappointed in the leadership that allowed it to happen.
BTH: Both ABCA executive director Dave Keilitz and the college baseball media admit that this change will have a negative effect on northern baseball, but counter that the measure benefits the sport overall.
Coach Smith: It depends on who is defining the "sport overall". I am not saying there is a perfect solution that benefits all colleges. But if you look at college baseball as it is today (even without the recent rule change) it very much favors "warm weather" teams. This recent rule change only increases that advantage for those schools. So to say it helped the sport overall, I greatly disagree. It helped those who needed it the least.
BTH: What significant benefit does the rest of the nation receive?
Coach Smith: The obvious benefit is it allows schools with warm weather to play more games at home, as if they didn't play enough already. This season we will play 17 home games of the 56 game-schedule. The term "home field advantage" was dubbed for a reason - in all sports. I don't know if there is scientific research supporting this point, but teams seem to have a better win percentage at home than on the road. Therefore, if a school is playing a majority of their games at home, I would argue they have a better chance of winning. Northern schools already play a disproportionate number of contests on the road so the new rule will only make it more disproportionate. Here comes my sarcasm . . . unless, of course, some of the southern schools would like to travel to Bloomington, IN in mid-February for a 3-game series.
This does not even take into account the "physical condition" of your team after X-amount of weeks on the road early in the season. Traveling every weekend for 4-5 straight, usually to venues requiring flights, takes it out of your team. This is where I shake my head at the when discussing this rule. Do you realize how much class our kids miss with the schedule the way it is now? Now they are talking about adding another weekend for our kids to miss school? So much for "student welfare".
The whole NCAA tournament field is designed to reward teams with solid records and high RPI's. Well, for reasons I stated above it is pretty obvious why you don't see too many northern schools receiving "at large" bids to the tournament every year. If you don't win early in the season, you aren't going. I hear southern coaches all the time state that "most programs in the north just aren't as good as those in the south." Looking at it at face value there is some truth to those comments, but how would we know? I would love to see some of the premier programs in the south play 70% of their schedule on the road with limited or no practice on their field before game 1, rain out after rain out during mid-week games (limited development of players) to see if their RPI would be the same. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. The only way would have been able to come close to answering that question would have been to tack the extra week on the end of the season to allow northern schools to "host" southern schools when their weather was good enough to host. Even when we had those rare opportunities, many southern schools declined to travel north to play because they didn't like playing "away from home" if they didn't have to. So, if northern schools are forced to play more "away" games and travel more with less practice time outside, etc, is it any wonder northern schools have lower RPI's? All the NCAA has done is widen the already existing gap. So for people to use the NCAA tournament field as THE indicator of "who are the best teams", it's pretty obvious to me the system for determining the field is flawed and biased by the number of home games some teams play against the number of away games.
BTH: Some have said that as this new rule only effects about four games, and as the 2010 season will start on roughly the same date as this season did, why are so many in the north upset?
Coach Smith: Because it is adding injury to insult that's why. Most all coaches in the north don't like the current schedule because of everything I mentioned above, but it was put in place a couple years ago. At that time were told we would never get the 2-3 three weeks added onto the end of season like we wanted a few years ago. So we SETTLED for the March 1 start date, etc. Now to come back and do this, most northern schools feel we are no better off than we were before the rule change - which we aren't. So I don't care if it is 4 games or 1 game, it translates into more games we HAVE to play away from home. The rich get richer and poor get poorer.
BTH: Doesn't this new measure effectively crush the spirit of the Universal Start Date?
Coach Smith: No question it does.
BTH: Michigan's Rich Maloney was quoted as saying that the ideal situation for northern programs would be to have the fourteen week schedule, but have it begin on March 1st. Do you concur with that sentiment?
Coach Smith: Absolutely. You would think we could come up a way to have 14 week schedule beginning March 1st and concluding with a college world series. Yes, some adjustments would have to be made, but it is possible.
BTH: Realizing that we don't operate in a perfect world, is there any other alternative you could suggest to help create a more balanced schedule?
Coach Smith: If things keep going like they are, I would be in favor of reducing the number of games to say 52 (we can't get our 56 in anyway). I said this at our coach's meeting in Indianapolis. That way, college baseball would really be addressing "student wellness", reducing travel costs, and balancing the home and away "thing". And to borrow the southern school quote, "we are only talking about 4 games . . . "
BTH: Is there anything else you would like to say about this proposal or any other current NCAA legislation that hurts college baseball, especially here in the north?
Coach Smith: I don't think there is a way to fix college baseball for everyone, I really don't. Do I think it could be better for the overall sport? Absolutely. When I got the message from my compliance officer about the NCAA adding another week to the front end of the baseball schedule I was disappointed, but not surprised. After having a couple of days to digest the message I couldn't help but think about the greater message the NCAA is sending as a result of rule change, and unfortunately I've heard that message loud and clear - northern baseball really isn't a priority for the NCAA. Coming from a "northern program" where I wake up every day striving to reach the NCAA tournament with a hope of winning a national title; I think that it is sad.