DALLAS--With his characteristic professionalism and air of calm expertise, Dave Keilitz patiently explained the ins and outs of college baseball's latest major change--an upcoming switch from raised-seam balls to flatter-seamed balls for the 2015 season--to a grand ballroom packed with hundreds of coaches.
It was the final time Keilitz will oversee the American Baseball Coaches Association convention as the organization's executive director, but you'd never know his retirement is approaching from watching him carry out his duties in the same reassuring way he has for the last two decades. During his tenure as the head of the ABCA, Keilitz has watched the organization grow by leaps and bounds--as the standing room-only crowd in the Hilton Anatole ballroom attests.
"One of the things I'm most pleased with is how involved coaches are in the legislative process," Keilitz said minutes after the annual Division I business meeting concluded. "Twenty years ago, we might have had a business meeting with 40 coaches . . . I really believe that if you're part of our association, and you come to the convention, you can't help but leave as a better coach. If you don't leave here getting better, you never got out of your room. And it may not be in a clinic--it may just be in the hallway, talking to someone about the curveball or the hit-and-run.
"So I'm really proud of the growth, and the fact that we're helping thousands of coaches, and then that translates into helping thousands and thousands of players. For us to grow from 3,000 members to 6,800, and grow from 2,000 at the convention to 4,500, that's just that many better coaches we're helping to develop. And that's huge."
The burgeoning coaches association is partly a reflection of the robust state of the game. Keilitz and Dennis Poppe, who retired on Jan. 1 as the NCAA's vice president of championships and alliances, helped shepherd college baseball into a golden age, starting with the expansion of the NCAA tournament from 48 teams to 64 in 1998. That was Keilitz's top priority when he assumed his post in the mid-1990s.
"We started off on that immediately and finally got that through, and that was huge," Keilitz said. "Not only huge for rewarding that many more quality schools to get in the tournament, but I think just as huge is giving so many schools hope."
A decade later, college baseball faced a crisis when the Academic Progress Rate showed that baseball players were underperforming in the classroom. Keilitz fought against those who wanted to reduce the number of games from 56--a battle he said he fought in about 15 of the 20 seasons he served as executive director. Instead, he worked with Poppe and many others to devise a solution.
For baseball's APR to improve, the sport needed to dramatically reduce transfers, which meant requiring players to sit out a season when moving between NCAA schools, and requiring junior-college transfers to be academically eligible when they arrived on campus in the fall. As a tradeoff for asking players in a partial-scholarship sport to give up the right to freely transfer, schools were required to award every scholarship player at least 25 percent, and the number of scholarship players was capped at 27. Many coaches protested the change, but Keilitz soothed their concerns as well as he could, and the sport's APR is now healthy. As a result, attacks on the 56-game schedule have disappeared in recent years.
"His ability to understand a very byzantine system that the NCAA has of governance, and to track it--I've laughingly said I think Keilitz understands our governance process better than our staff, and that's probably true in some cases," Poppe said. "Dave has always been one of the most conscientious and dedicated people. We've had a great run, and I do consider him a partner. Not always does a coaches association have that kind of relationship with others in the sport, so to speak. Often they're confrontational. We've had some difficult issues, where I'm not so sure we agreed on those things, but I never doubted his commitment, or that his intent was to do what was best for college baseball."
Late one night during the convention, two coaches--one from a perennial warm-weather power, the other from a cold-weather program in the North--were chatting about how difficult Keilitz will be to replace. They both marveled at how easy it was to get in touch with Keilitz. "I'd just pick up the phone and call the ABCA office, and 99 percent of the time Dave would answer," one of them said.
The head of the ABCA has a vast and varied constituency, and keeping everyone happy is impossible. But Keilitz did a remarkable job communicating with coaches and administrators alike, and earning everyone's respect and trust.
"It's a five-tool executive," said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, the current president of the ABCA. "It's someone who operates with humility, who has spent his entire life trying to serve other people. When you serve in the capacity that he does, he's trying to fulfill the needs of many organizations, many people, and that's very difficult to do, and very difficult to do in a way that captivates the audience. Very rarely do you run across leaders like him who come across so humble and so gracious, yet have the intensity level and respect level that you need to get things done.
"It's a very difficult position to be in, but he's done it as well as anyone could ever do it."
• Keilitz's replacement has not yet been selected, but he said the ABCA's search committee would remain in Dallas through the weekend to go over resumes.
• The offseason's major news item--Division I's switch to the lower-seamed ball in 2015--was approved in November, leaving few fresh items to be decided in Dallas. The most notable piece of news to come out of the convention is that Division II will follow suit and switch to the flat-seamed ball for its 2015 championship. Keilitz said that his survey of D-II coaches revealed that 78 percent supported a switch to the new ball, which should lead to more home runs thanks to a reduction in the "drag effect" of the ball in flight, without increasing the exit speed of the ball off the bat. D-III is expected to make the switch as well in a conference call later in January.
• Ball State coach Rich Maloney was elected to serve as a fourth vice president of the ABCA, ending his term as chairman for Division I. Louisville's Dan McDonnell will replace him as D-I chair.
• Poppe's successor as the NCAA's top baseball official, Damani Leech, reported rosy numbers from the 2013 NCAA baseball championship. The 64-team tournament drew more than 600,000 fans overall, including 341,483 at the College World Series--an all-time record, even though the maximum number of games were not played. More than 45 million people tuned in to at least one minute of the tournament on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU, and the combined ratings on those three networks were up 3 percent from 2012, and 5 percent in the male 18-34 demographic. Also, viewers watched Internet broadcasts of the games on ESPN3 for more than 93 million minutes, with more than 17,000 unique visitors spending an average of 41 minutes watching.
• The class-action lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball players and many other former college athletes against the NCAA is scheduled to go to trial in June. The lawsuit seeks compensation for football and basketball players whose likenesses generated billions of dollars for the NCAA over many years, but baseball programs should follow it closely as well.
"The lawsuit is an attack on amateurism," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president of membership and academic affairs. "The ramifications for baseball would be very significant. It challenges in a fundamental way exactly what the collegiate model would be, and I think there's many who fear that the trickle down effect would impact sports like baseball--and it's very possible."
Perhaps the NCAA's notion of amateurism is ripe for an overhaul, but the unintended consequences could indeed be disastrous for baseball if the NCAA loses the suit. Coaches better hope a strong leader replaces Keilitz to represent their interests in case the sport suddenly finds itself fighting for its survival.