Fur Doesn’t Fly In Philly

PHILADELPHIA–Aaron Fitt, Nathan Rode and I have come to the American Baseball Coaches Association convention this year, and Aaron and I went to the Division I coaches meeting last night, expecting there to be some fireworks.

It’s been a tumultuous year in college baseball, with radical changes to scholarships, roster sizes and the transfer rule. (Those details have been explained extensively on this blog all year by my colleague Mr. Fitt.) And the 2008 season also is the first of the new universal start date for college baseball, which has compacted the schedule for everyone, mandating a 56-game season in 13 weeks.

The whole package of changes has left most coaches fairly disappointed, it’s safe to say. When we roam the trade show or the halls here at the ABCA, we’re hearing the same things we’ve heard from coaches all spring and fall–that the NCAA doesn’t know their sport, and makes rules for it without being properly informed about the challenges they face.

The buzz on the floor of the trade show during the day Thursday made us think the meeting would be eventful, perhaps confrontational. LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who has led these meetings the last two years, literally called in sick and didn’t come to the convention, fueling further speculation that the meeting would be more heated than the usual event, which often leaves coaches and others dozing off. So I wasn’t surprised when I walked into the ballroom with a retired coach, who said he thought "the fur is going to fly."

Indeed, the hall was overflowing with coaches when we walked in. As it turned out, that was all the NCAA college coaches in attendance at the entire event, watching an NCAA rules video. As it turns out, rules changes and news about Rosenblatt Stadium was the only news to come out of the meeting.

The meeting hall thinned out as the rules discussion ended and only D-I coaches were left. And ABCA executive director Dave Keilitz–who seemed to have lost some sway over college coaches, losing some of their confidence in the wake of all the changes–quickly took control of the meeting, and smoothly kept it moving. When the range of changes was discussed, Keilitz opened the floor for questions.

While there’s clear opposition to many of the changes, few college coaches are opposed to all of them. One who is, Clemson coach Jack Leggett, rose to speak and talked for more than 10 minutes, passionately explaining his opposition and encouraging his peers to challenge the NCAA at the grassroots level. But Leggett did so respectfully, professionally, and the meeting moved on without incident–and without much actual news on the full range of changes.

Here’s a quick rundown of the actual news:

• The NCAA meetings are next week in Nashville, and the NCAA will vote on the proposal to override the 25 percent scholarship minimum rule. Keilitz explained why it’s unlikely to pass, as the NCAA’s board of directors voted unanimously (18-0) to approve the 25 percent rule. The chair of that board is Dr. James Barker of Clemson, who has not been swayed despite persistent, passionate lobbying by Leggett.

• Dennis Poppe, the NCAA’s Director of Baseball and Football Operations, spoke briefly and without much detail about the College World Series and NCAA tournament. The big picture–the tournament remains very profitable, more than 300,000 fans attended the CWS, and TV ratings are up (though no specifics were given or available from NCAA officials on money and ratings).

More importantly, Poppe explained the NCAA is hoping to stay in Omaha for the CWS in the future, and said city of Omaha officials were the ones who initiated discussions about the possible replacement of Rosenblatt Stadium. Just me reading between the lines here, but Poppe made it sound like Rosenblatt was more likely to be replaced rather than renovated–he joked that Rosenblatt was built the same year he was born, "and I’m about to need some pretty extensive repairs."

• For the first time, agents were a topic of discussion. The NCAA’s brand-new division of enforcement had Stephen Webb, associate director of amateurism certification, on hand to address the coaches and let them know the NCAA will pay more attention to agents in college baseball. The NCAA paying any attention to agents’ activities in college baseball will be a huge change, as the NCAA has ignored all but the most blatant agent activities regarding college players while cherry-picking random cases to suspend or investigate players. Don’t expect any immediate results, but between the ABCA meeting and Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings–where college coaches discussed agents and other issues with MLB’s scouting directors–the issue is finally getting some much-needed attention.

• Among the rules changes, the most significant one is a crackdown on players leaning into pitches to "take a dose," to use the West Coast terminology. Players who lean in to get hit by a pitch will not be awarded first base, but if a player freezes in the batter’s box and gets hit, he will be awarded first. In other words, counter to popular belief, the hitter does not need to try to get out of the way of a pitch. If he wants to stand there and wear it, go ahead and wear it.

We’ll have much more as we talk to coaches today and tomorrow and get more reaction to the meeting. Plus you can check out BA’s podcast page for our Thursday night podcast with more reaction from the first day of the ABCA and look for more podcasts from Philly with at least one prominent coach.