Nation Catching Up To SEC

OMAHA–In the 1990s, the Southeastern Conference left no doubt as to which was the best conference in college baseball.

Georgia broke the dam in 1990 with the first national championship in SEC baseball history, and Louisiana State became the second-greatest dynasty ever, winning five titles in 10 seasons from 1991-2000. As recently as 2004, four SEC teams reached Omaha, and the league is the only one to send nine teams into regional play in a single year.

This year, however, the signs pointed to an SEC on the wane. Just five teams made the regional field, the fewest since the 64-team tournament era began. Vanderbilt essentially dominated the league, winning the regular season and the tournament title. Then the Commodores lost, at home, in a regional to Michigan. The SEC champ losing a regional at home to a Big Ten team? That just isn’t supposed to happen.

Now Mississippi State, the lone SEC representative to reach Omaha, is gone, going 0-2 with a 12-4 loss Sunday at the hands of Louisville of the Big East. The loss extended the league’s losing streak in CWS play to six games, including Georgia’s 0-2 showing last year and Florida’s 0-2 showing in the ’05 championship series against Texas.

The Bulldogs scored just eight runs in their two games combined and wasted three hits by their career hits leader, senior center fielder Jeffrey Rea, in his final college game.

Rea certainly was a huge reason for the Bulldogs’ late surge that propelled them from a fourth-place regular-season SEC finish and 0-2 SEC tournament showing to a berth in the CWS. He moved from second base to center field to enable freshman Brandon Turner to shift from shortstop to second, and for another freshman, Jet Butler, to emerge at short.

He’s seen the SEC change a lot over his four years, and doesn’t think the SEC has gotten any easier in that time. On the contrary, he said, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, former league doormats, have had the best record in the league in 2006 and 2007, evidence of the league’s depth and toughness.

“I just think a lot of teams see that anything’s possible,” he said. “Look at Kentucky in our league, or new programs like UC Irvine getting here, or Louisville–I know Coach (Dan) McDonnell really well, he recruited me at Ole Miss, and now he’s gotten Louisville here.

“The SEC is not ‘weaker’ at all; I think we beat up on each other more than ever. I think it’s fair to say the rest of the country has gotten better.”

If so, then the rest of the country owes Ron Polk a favor. When he was making LSU the dynasty of the ’90s, coach Skip Bertman used to credit Polk as the man who built the SEC into the monster it became. He showed the way to Omaha and he showed the way to profitability (or at least self-sufficiency) for baseball programs. SEC teams have led the way in attendance, from LSU drawing more than 7,000 fans per game for a decade to Arkansas and Mississippi State drawing crowds of 10,000-plus for super-regional games.

In the last 15 years, though, Polk has become better known for tilting at NCAA windmills than for what he’s done to shape college baseball. Part of it he brings on himself; he seems to really like giving the NCAA hell for its treatment of college baseball. In sum, he wants the NCAA to leave college baseball alone–it ain’t broke, he argues, so don’t stick your nose in trying to fix it.

Even with the recent Academic Progress Rate fight and the changes facing the sport, Polk has sounded liked a man who’d rather talk about his team than the NCAA. He hinted today at passing the baton on the APR fight to Jack Leggett of Clemson, saying “I’m 64 years old. I can’t be Wayne Graham–he’s 71. I don’t think the NCAA will let me coach until I’m 71.

“We need other coaches to help. What we need is another Ron Polk-type.”

For the APR fight, that’s true. Other college coaches need to step forward to fight for their players and their sport as Polk has done.

They’ve already followed his lead on the field. They’ve learned from his example and improved their teams, their facilities and their promotion of the sport. Think Virginia would even still have a program if not for people like Polk? In 2001, the Cavaliers were nearly relegated by their own administration to Division III status in baseball. A year later, an anonymous (cough *John Grisham* cough) donor helped build a new stadium at UVa., and the program has become a consistent winner and strong draw in the stands.

Ron Polk already has led the way twice. It’s time for someone else to step forward and lend him a hand.