Louisville Coach Dan McDonnell On Eligibility Relief, The 2020 Season And More

Image credit: Dan McDonnell (Getty Images)

It’s been about a month since the plug got pulled on the college baseball season due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that puts coaches and players across the country in a unique position. For someone who has been around the game as long as Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, it’s the first time he can remember that he’s had an April that doesn’t involve baseball. 

“I can’t remember, because as a kid growing up, I played baseball every spring,” McDonnell said. “Up in the Northeast, the only break I ever had was when basketball ended, because the weather was so bad, you had about two weeks before the baseball season. That’s all I can ever remember getting off, that February, early-March time.”

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When the initial debate surrounding whether to award eligibility relief to spring sports athletes began, McDonnell was a prominent voice supporting blanket eligibility for all players, at a time when it was no sure thing that it would break that way. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s in full support of the decision that everyone will get that year back

“The right thing to do,” McDonnell said of his assessment of the decision. “Baseball coaches know. We understand finances, budgets, scholarships, limitation, partial scholarships. A college baseball coach is so well prepared to handle these curveballs. The first thing was (that) these kids got robbed of a year, especially the seniors, but everybody. I felt for the juniors, because of that junior year, it’s their draft year.”

There are still some roster-building dominoes yet to fall. Coaches like McDonnell still need to see which players are selected in the upcoming draft, and MLB’s announcement that the draft could be as few as five rounds has even created additional uncertainty around that. 

Then there is the issue of figuring out which seniors are actually going to take advantage of the NCAA Division I Council’s decision and return to the team. Among national title-contending programs, Louisville is unique in that it has a number of productive seniors who also happen to be the types of players who have futures in pro baseball.

For those players, although they may not hear their names called in a shortened draft, the idea of signing a free agent deal to begin a pro career could be enticing, particularly when you consider that the $20,000 cap on undrafted free agent signings is about what the average senior draftee would sign for anyway. 

One such player is shortstop Justin Lavey, and he is already approaching things as if his college days are over, telling his hometown newspaper, the Kenosha News, that he is preparing to begin his pro career. Others could follow in his footsteps in the days to come, and McDonnell is cognizant and supportive of that. When his administration asked about his expectations for the number of seniors he’d have back, he was honest. 

“I kind of laughed and said ‘well, my four seniors want to sign professionally,'” McDonnell said. “They’re at a point in their career (where) they’ve won a lot of games, they’ve won ACC championships, they’ve hosted regionals, super regionals, they got to go to Omaha, and yeah, finished third and the hope was to win the national championship, but they’re athletically and academically ready to cross the line.”

Even after that’s all settled, there is still the task of figuring out how to alleviate the roster crunch and allow programs to carry extra players, potentially not just for one season, but into the future, as the expectation is that teams will be carrying five classes of players on the roster for several more years. 

Keeping with a theme with McDonnell, when it comes to these solutions, he’s interested in doing what’s best for the whole of college baseball, all while understanding that there’s simply not a one-size-fits-all solution in this situation. 

“You are hoping for (roster) flexibility, and that they do loosen the reins a little bit,” McDonnell said. “You’d love to get some relief with scholarships, not just for the seniors, but for maybe some younger players on your team, but then you realize, budgetary-wise, that might work at Louisville. There’s 300 Division I teams. How many schools is that actually going to work for?

“I’m definitely a big fan of roster expansion. Yes, I believe in scholarship expansion. Maybe more than 11.7 (scholarships) and maybe more than 27 players on aid, but I realize that is a huge, huge challenge. But I’m definitely 100 percent supportive of roster expansion.”

Of course, it’s not just baseball programs or even athletic departments in general that are feeling squeezed by an economy damaged by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also the school themselves, and in that way, McDonnell believes that baseball and other equivalency sports, which field rosters full of players paying a portion of tuition on their own, can help. 

“If you do the math, if 27 guys were on the equal amount, that would be 43 percent (in total tuition paid),” McDonnell said. “So 27 guys on scholarship pay more to go to that school than they get. That’s eight players not getting any money, so they’re paying close to the full amount, minus some academic money and other areas where baseball kids try to get money. My point is as you add numbers, more money is going towards the school.”

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