The Parity in College Baseball is Real. The NCAA tournament kicks off this upcoming Friday without a familiar program participating – the Texas Longhorns. Their coach, Augie Garrido, is arguably the games greatest coach. He is at least in the conversation with Skip Bertman and Rod Dedeaux. You can toss a couple more names in that hat, but for me that’s my top three.
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to spend time with each of them – all in different fashion. I played against a Skip Bertman team in 1996 and actually won, while bombing a homerun to leftfield (I think it actually scraped Chad Cooley’s glove and hit the chain link fence at the old box). I also coached at LSU for three seasons and had the pleasure to learn and listen to Skip over those years.
I spent a week in Omaha with Coach Dedeaux (the orginal Tiggah). I worked for the American Baseball Coaches Association and we held meetings in Omaha around the College World Series games. I chauffeured Coach Dedeaux around town for several days to and from the games. Just being around him was quite an experience.
I was fortunate enough to coach against and observe Augie during the 2009 College World Series. I was the Associate Head Coach on an LSU staff that played his Texas ball club in the three game championship series. We fortunately emerged on top and took home the title. It’s a pretty surreal feeling to shake his hand after the game knowing how much he has contributed to the game of baseball – specifically college baseball.
For a coach that has won a national title in four different decades (no one else has done this), the NCAA tournament is commonplace for the Augie’s longhorns. However, the reason the longhorns are not in the NCAA tournament revolves around the parity that exists in college baseball due to the change in the NCAA rules – specifically, the 27 on aid roster limitations with a minimum of at least 25% aid allocated. The 35-man roster limitations play a role, along with the no-transfer rule and no mid-year transfer rule. But ultimately, the “puzzle” of building a roster is the hardest challenge for major Division I programs that attract elite professional talent (but without the talent – natty’s don’t exist). The new rules (along with the new bats) have created total parity in college baseball. 2012 was the year of 1-run games. In some cases, the battle of 1st place vs. 4th place in conference standings was decided on the last day and by one game.
Augie and his staff experienced the challenge of putting together the puzzle this past year. The puzzle can be very complex with several pieces and many different odd shaped figures. And in many cases it's delivered to college coaches in late August, just weeks before the Fall Semester starts, and (most importantly) after a long, hard “battle/game” between the college coaches, the advisors, the scouts and the mighty dollar of the Major League Baseball Clubs. For programs of the caliber of Texas, at times the puzzle can be delivered with missing pieces.
I know first-hand what these puzzles look like. I experienced many different puzzles as the recruiting coordinator at LSU. I was responsible for building the team at LSU. The responsibility of making sure committed recruits received July 1st calls. The responsibility to personally email and text (after they sign – NCAA rules) recruits without using mass recruiting tactics. The responsibility to spend quality time with both the recruit and his parents during home visits and on-campus visits. And most importantly, the “time-commitment” responsibility to evaluate the players, aka “road-time” away from family and team. I enjoyed accepting this responsibility, knowing that it was only I who would get it done. I’m also proud that I was the only college recruiter in the country to land three consecutive top-7 ranked recruiting classes, from 2009-2011.
Some head coaches share this responsibility with their staff, while others do not. I don’t know the exact details of what Augie does, but I personally have never seen him on the road and from reading his book, he states that his staff deals with both recruiting and scholarships (he tells recruits he doesn’t even know what scholarship amounts they are getting). I have great respect for Tommy Harmon and Skip Johnson because I believe they do a tremendous job recruiting and accept the same responsibilities that I endured.
Putting together the pieces to the puzzle. My recruiting class in 2010 recruiting class was ranked #1 in the country by collegiate baseball and #2 by Baseball America. The remarkable thing about this class was that it also lost a collection of players to the profession ranks that signed for "over" a combined $10 million dollars. I don’t know if this has every happened before (too much time to research it) but don’t believe so. Largely due to the fact that it has only been in the last few years that signing bonuses have sky rocketed.
In an effort to know what our puzzle would look like, I had to strategically plan. For example, one of my goals was to land 1 of 3 professional profile recruits – we did – his name is Kevin Gausman and he will be one of the top-5 overall picks in this years draft (might go 1/1). Another example is the former 2010 Division II junior college player-of-the-year, Raph Rhymes. He was a 4-2-4 transfer. He tried to walk-on to our team in 2009, the first year of the 35-man rosters. In walk-on tryouts, he was blasting machine-pitch balls into the left-field bleachers. He could really swing it. He was an infielder and didn’t really have a position (he plays LF now). He took ground balls at third and second and didn’t have the range and hands of several of the current guys we had. We had no roster room and actually had to cut several (at one time) scholarship players due to the new NCAA rules. Many teams around the country were in the same situation. We actually lost track of Raph because he didn’t play in 2009. Then we found out he transfer to LSUE junior college. In the spring of 2010, he hit close to .500 and led LSUE to the JUCO National Championship. Due to the fact he was a 4-2-4 transfer, by NCAA rules, he needed to graduate from the juco to attend any school other than LSU. Since he had not graduated and still had another year of eligibility, LSU was the only school in the entire country he could attend. Because we were the only school he could transfer to, we had a perfect plan to not over promise, not over recruit and still have a “plan B”. I was in touch with his junior college coach the entire spring about the possibilities of bring Raph back to LSU because we also had another player that signed with us on the LSUE team. When we knew we would lose one of our signees to the draft that summer before school started, our “plan B” turned into one of the greatest single season hitters in LSU history, as he chased hitting .500 all year long (also named 2012 SEC player-of-the-year).
So, strategic planning and constant recruiting is the key to collecting puzzle pieces. But it’s not the key to the puzzle. As soon, I thought it would never happen again, Texas had the same thing happen to them last year. Their 2011 recruiting class was struck hard by MLB. They had a collection of players sign for a combined total of over $10 million (just as we did), but still had a highly ranked class (#2 by Baseball America). They didn’t get the top spot as Vanderbilt achieved that feat. The common dominator in both situations: LSU was left out of the 2011 NCAA tournament, and Texas was left out of the 2012 tournament. I can’t speak for Texas, but LSU didn’t have missing pieces, just young and inexperienced.
As I strongly believe, all programs ultimately decide their own fate. The recruiting is about collecting the pieces to the puzzle. But the fate lies in the ability to put together the pieces of the puzzle you are delivery. It was music to my ears when both Kyle Peterson and Ben MacDonald proclaimed on the recent NCAA selection show that they believe this years LSU team is the most balanced team in the country. The parity in college baseball exists because the recent changes to roster limitations force the pieces to the puzzles to be spread more evenly around the country.
As the expectation of “others” around many of the elite programs never change: win a National Championship or bust, proper perspective, the expectations of the coaches and players, can be to accept the cards that are dealt and gradually put the pieces of the puzzle together. I learned this lesson from the late Bo Schembechler who would always tell his coaches who complained that their players weren’t fast enough or strong enough, that “this is what we got – we better accept it now and make the most of it – or the season will pass up by.” This is obviously a very wise message from a HOF coach.
From this point forward, all future success for college baseball programs will be the direct result of assembling the pieces of the puzzle with the perspective of Coach Bo.