College baseball doesn’t have a commissioner. The two administrators who have had the most to do with the sport in the last 15 years, however, now are both leaving the scene.
Dennis Poppe, the NCAA’s Director of Baseball and Football Operations, retired at the end of the College World Series, with Damani Leach replacing him. Also in Omaha during the Series, Dave Keilitz informed the American Baseball Coaches Association’s board of directors that the 2013-2014 academic year would be his last as ABCA executive director.
Keilitz is finishing his 19th year as ABCA executive director and 50th in the game as a coach, athletic director or ABCA president. He’s a member of the Mid-American Conference hall of fame for his contributions as a player, coach and AD at Central Michigan, where he was an all-America player in the early 1960s and then became head coach, at age 27, in 1971.
After moving up to the AD role, he took over at the ABCA in 1994, at the tail end of a tumultuous era as men’s sports were seeing scholarships and other funding cut as a result of the belated enforcement of Title IX legislation. He has served a diverse group of coaches, serving as a liaison between coaches and the NCAA’s Division I baseball committee and as a representative of baseball’s interests in the NCAA’s legislative process.
Keilitz was a primary driver behind baseball’s move to a 64-team NCAA tournament field, a move that came to fruition for the 1999 season and has led to the sport’s increase in popularity since then. He also was heavily involved in trying to raise baseball’s APR (Academic Progress Rate), which included changing baseball’s one-time transfer rule to the current provision that requires players to sit out a year. He also has been involved in other changes over the years in college baseball that involve NCAA legislation, from bat standards to RPI formula tweaks.
Keilitz has his critics, especially among larger schools who consider him too partial to Northern schools and interests. But the majority of college baseball programs are not profitable, and in fact are not fully funded (i.e., offer less than the NCAA’s 11.7 scholarship limit), and that constituency usually needs the help from Keilitz and the ABCA, help Keilitz has been able to give and procure for most of his tenure. He clearly maintained the support of a large swath of college coaches to have lasted in his position for as long as he has.
Keilitz, whose son Craig is the athletic director at High Point, will serve one final season, likely dealing with all the calls for action, such as livelier baseballs, after a College World Series where just three home runs were hit. He’s seen the sport move nearly 180 degrees from the “gorilla ball” era that was starting when Keilitz first took the ABCA’s executive director post. Through it all, Keilitz has retained the respect of the vast majority of college baseball coaches (as well as the media who have spoken with him over the years) thanks to his professionalism, political skills and personal relationships.
College baseball probably never will have a commissioner the way professional sports leagues do. But it will definitely have new leaders with big shoes to fill as Poppe and now Keilitz exit the national stage.