Coaching Confidential: What Issue Is Your Top Priority To Improve College Baseball?

Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Throughout the spring, we’ve posted the results of that survey.

This series has asked a broad scope of questions, ranging from who is the most underrated head coach to which program has the best player development facilities to what restaurant coaches most want to eat at when they’re on the road. The results have been illuminating and have given deeper insight into how college coaches think about some of the pertinent issues surrounding the game.

Today’s question concludes the series and cuts right to the heart of the matter: If you could do one thing to improve college baseball, what would it be?

Unlike last week’s question – What is your No. 1 complaint about the NCAA Tournament? – where the most common answer was “nothing,” the coaches this week had no trouble coming up with potential changes to the game. Only one of the 90 said he would change nothing about college baseball if given the chance.

The most common answers instead were the ones most expected. Increasing the number of scholarships topped the list, followed by pushing back the start of the season and increasing the number of coaches each team is allowed. Those desires have long topped the wish lists of many around the game.

Issue Votes
More scholarships 23
Push Opening Day back 19
More coaches 14
Create subdivisions like football 4
Eliminate roster caps 4

Previous Coaching Confidential questions

  1. Who is the most underrated head coach?
  2. Which assistant coach will make the best head coach?
  3. What should the next proposal for a third full-time assistant coach entail?
  4. What program has the best player development facilities?
  5. What’s the most important quality for an assistant coach?
  6. What’s your favorite restaurant to eat at on the road?
  7. Would you prefer the NCAA Tournament use a 32-host format?
  8. What’s your No. 1 complaint about the NCAA Tournament?

Notably, the survey was taken before the New College Baseball Model was debuted. The plan, which calls for the season to be pushed back a month, quickly gained support after Michigan’s Erik Bakich and other prominent coaches released it in late May. Some coaches said they would now consider adopting the New Model as the thing they would change about the game because they believe it is the path to more schools making money (or at least coming closer to breaking even) on baseball, which would then give it more leverage to get more resources in other areas.

“If we went to the New Model, the other things would happen over time,” one coach said. “We’re not getting more scholarships or coaches without adjusting the model to be a revenue producer at most places or at least less of a money loser at most places.”  

While the New Model has garnered impressive support just in the last few weeks, it is not a completely new idea. There have long been coaches, particularly in colder climes, that would like to see Opening Day moved later in the calendar so that they wouldn’t have to play on the road for the first month of the season while they waited for the weather to warm up at their home ballpark.

Pushing the season back, whether by a couple weeks or a month, garnered enough votes to push an increase in scholarships for the top spot in the voting. And while there are obvious weather-related factors to moving baseball out of February, a later start date would also give it a more prominent place on the calendar. As it stands, baseball season begin during basketball season, conference play in many cases begins the same weekend as either basketball’s conference tournaments or the first weekend of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament shares June with the conclusion of the NBA playoffs. Moving the season back by even as little as two weeks greatly reduces the crossover, allowing for more and better marketing, TV slots and fan attention.

“For me, it’s 100 percent about trying to market it,” one coach said. “It’s honestly not about a North-South thing. It’s, ‘How can we position ourselves better?’”

But, ultimately, the most popular suggestion of one thing to change about college baseball was adding more scholarships. The sport, much to its frustration, has been stuck at 11.7 since the NCAA in 1991 reduced scholarships by roughly 10 percent in all sports.

For a sport that rosters 35 players, 27 of whom can be on scholarship, and competes with a professional league for its incoming players, a limit of 11.7 scholarships makes things tough for both players and coaches. Finding a way to loosen those regulations would likely help programs attract and retain more talent.

“I just think there’s so many kids graduating with student loan debt, especially relative to other college athletes,” one coach said. “The dollars our kids have access to compared to the amount of players we need to get through a season and be competitive is out of whack, especially when compared to other sports and especially compared to the revenue we generate.”

There’s no one uniform number of scholarships coaches would like baseball to get to. Evan an incremental increase, like getting back to the 13 that baseball had prior to the NCAA’s across-the-board cuts would be welcome. More would certainly be even better, but coaches understand becoming a headcount sport with a full complement of 27 scholarships is probably a pipe dream.

“Is it the model of everyone on tuition and books and 27 guys? That’s a fairytale world, we know that’s not going to happen,” one coach said. “So, is it 27 scholarships and books? I think it’s just more scholarships.

“It’s a travesty that we don’t have more scholarships in our game.”

A third full-time assistant coach (or more) was also unsurprisingly a popular pick among head coaches. A proposal to convert the volunteer assistant coach to a full-time position last year was voted on by the NCAA’s Division I Council but was defeated. The issue has not gone away and is expected to be revived sometime in the coming years.

Those three items – more scholarships, pushing the season back and more coaches – dominated the voting, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the responses. After that trio, there was little consensus. In all, there were 30 other suggestions for things to fix college baseball. There was support for eliminating the various roster caps baseball operates under – 35-man roster, maximum of 27 scholarship players and 25 percent scholarship minimum. There was support for more practices in the fall and during the preseason. There were big ideas like creating “true parity” within the sport and increasing the number of minorities among the sport’s leadership, an issue that college baseball struggles with.

One of the most discussed ideas beyond adding more coaches and scholarships and pushing the season back is the idea of breaking Division I college baseball in two subdivisions, like what football has created. The proposal has backers both among coaches in the biggest programs, who want to be able to enact significant reforms but are blocked by schools that aren’t as heavily invested in the sport. It also has backers among coaches at low-major programs, who feel that they are competing with a deck stacked against them due to their disparate levels of revenue, facilities and even scholarships.

“A lot of our voting is controlled by numbers, it’s not always controlled by what the best situation for each institution is,” said a coach at a Power Five conference school. “The Power Five has proven willing to expand. If a program is going to be in that opportunity, they need to be willing to do that. Right now may not be best time to discuss it because of finances but it’s important that we put best product on the field.

“It’s difficult to go to a mid-major on a Tuesday and there’s no replay, no pitch clock and they’re not using four umpires.”

While that coach said it may be difficult to discuss a split into subdivisions given the current financial state of college athletics, a low-major coach said the current situation will only serve to exacerbate the differences and further show how useful splitting in two would be.

“Especially now, you’re going to have some people in an 11.7 (scholarship) sport have 5-6 scholarships but are still playing at that level, whereas you have 100 teams with 11.7 scholarships and amenities on top,” he said. “So, when these lower teams go play, they may not have a fighting chance unless you overachieve. You have the haves and the have nots, and you weigh which teams can provide what and that’s how you split it. I think there’s more of the have nots, in terms of the 11.7 scholarships, that will be created (by the financial crunch).”

Any split into subdivisions would be tricky to navigate as many mid- and low-major conferences are dominated by one or two programs that may be inclined to stay up in the top subdivision, while the rest would prefer to be in the lower subdivision. How to resolve that issue would require some finesse, as would determining the qualifications for membership in the top subdivision. It also would be a challenging process to convince the NCAA’s decision makers that this was a necessary step, as football is the only sport to use subdivisions. But, even for the obstacles, it remains a big-picture idea that some around the game believe would be a positive step.

The current financial reality brought on by the beginning of a recession and the uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on sports makes this a time for bold thinking. Part of the reason the New Model has found new traction among coaches is because it promises to push college baseball closer to a revenue sport, which would grant it a better seat at the table to discuss some other changes to the game.

Whether that bold thinking ushers in a new college baseball calendar or any of the coaches’ other ideas for improving the sport remains to be seen. But at a key time in college athletics, college baseball coaches have shown they’re ready for some outside-the-box thinking.

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