NCAA Tournament, "No Agent" Rule Could Change

ABCA convention meeting touches on colleges' hot topics

Follow me on Twitter

NASHVILLE—It wasn't so long ago that college baseball was forced to significantly overhaul its rules about transfers, scholarships and roster sizes in reaction to its lagging performance in academic measures. Many coaches griped that the changes went too far, but in the face of intense NCAA pressure, college baseball's power brokers had no choice but to enact change.

Now the sport is sitting pretty. Thanks in large part to the aforementioned emergency legislation, baseball's Academic Progress Rate has jumped from 933 in 2003-04 to 960 in '08-09—the largest improvement of any sport. The College World Series, which lost $227,000 as recently as 1998, netted a $4.3 million profit in 2010. The city of Omaha built a sparkling $127 million stadium to house the CWS, and it will open as scheduled in 2011.

And yet the Division I Baseball Committee informed the gathered coaches at this weekend's American Baseball Coaches Association convention that it is considering major changes to the NCAA tournament structure. This time, however, the sport's leaders are operating from a position of strength, rather than being forced to react to external pressures. The committee is doing its due diligence, but the postseason will not be radically altered unless there is sweeping support from coaches. And even if a change is made, it won't come into effect until at least 2013.

"The good thing is we're working from a very positive, very popular, everything's-going-in-the-right-direction base," said Dennis Poppe, the NCAA's vice president for baseball and football. "I think the committee should be commended for looking at, what can we do better? Most people are happy to maintain. If nothing else it gives us a lot of healthy discussion."

Not that everyone is in favor of maintaining the status quo. There is plenty of support for a revamped postseason format, most notably from Minnesota coach John Anderson, the lone coach who sits on the D-I Baseball Committee.
In a presentation for coaches at Thursday's Division I business meeting, committee chairman Tim Weiser laid out two possible models for a new tournament structure. One proposal features best-of-three series between two teams at 32 sites in the first round, with the winners advancing to eight regionals composed of four teams apiece (like the current regionals). Those winners would then advance to Omaha. Weiser and Anderson both said they were not enamored with that proposal.

Anderson and other cold-weather coaches favor the second option, which would split the NCAA tournament into three rounds of best-of-three series leading up to the CWS. That format would give 32 teams chances to host during the first round (as opposed to the 16 teams that currently host regionals), so cold-weather teams that do not usually host would have a much better chance to do so.

"First and foremost, I think we play in a format similar to that the whole season, where all the conference series and most of the nonconference series are best-of-three," Anderson said. "When you look at the amount of aid we have—11.7 scholarships—I think it's unrealistic to go into an NCAA tournament and think you can have quality baseball coming out of the loser's bracket. Anytime we play on a national stage in front of TV audiences, I think we should try to put the best performance we can out there, and when we play ugly games because the pitching deteriorates in a regional, I don't think it does our game any good.

"I think you'll get 16 more teams a chance to host, I think the championship will be more profitable. I think you'll see some upsets—when you put your best pitching out there against another team's best pitching, anything can happen. You'll have one more week to promote the College World Series in Omaha, one more week of national media attention."

Weiser and Poppe both said if they were forced to choose right now, they would be inclined to stick with the current format. But both also said they were intrigued by the notion of playing three weekends of best-of-three series. The biggest challenge would be finding an extra week to add to the postseason. ESPN has made it clear it does not want to move the CWS further back into the summer, and the uniform start date in February has already been moved back a week so teams would have one less week to deal with the cold weather. Anderson said he thinks implementing an extra week in the NCAA tournament would be worth sacrificing conference tournaments or shortening the regular season from 56 to 52 or 50 games, but that's a controversial stance.

"The biggest hurdle with that one to me is not the finances, it's the additional week, and how do we deal with that?" Weiser said. "There are a number of conferences that have a lot of reasons to keep their conference tournaments, whether it's financial, TV. I think it's going to be hard politically to go back and say, 'Well, we wanted to move the season back, now we want to move it forward.'

"So if I were to handicap it, there would be more reason to continue to do what we're doing than to make that kind of a radical change, unless there was some movement on moving the season up a week. But I don't think there's anything wrong with us having a healthy discussion: Is what we're doing now the best that it can be, and if not then what is a better way to go about it?"

Agent Rules Under Microscope

The NCAA is finally having another healthy discussion—a long-overdue examination of its rules regarding agent-athlete interactions. Prompted by some high-profile football cases this year, Poppe said the NCAA is conducting a comprehensive study of agents' roles across different sports.

After years of denying the simple truth that almost every drafted baseball player has an agent who communicates on his behalf with professional teams (in violation of the NCAA's "no agent" rule), the NCAA suddenly seems ready to acknowledge that its rules are in direct conflict with baseball's industry norm.

"I often say if I had a son who was lefthanded and threw 95, I'd want to know what his worth was," Poppe said. "I've been in the business a long while, and I wouldn't know what it would be. So we need to provide somehow within our rules an opportunity for a young man to be informed and still not professionalize himself, which may require a review of our current regulations. And I'm not saying this is going to happen, but it may require a more federated approach for each sport, because there are distinct differences.

"It's a long way of saying it's a major issue. We're looking at the differences between sports, ways that we can still maintain the principles of college athletics, but most importantly make sure these kids are informed. They've got to make a decision, and they've got to have information. How can we do that within our rules without causing them to violate the rules?"

In August, 2008, Poppe told BA that he thought the vast majority of players were not breaking the "no agent" rule. Major league scouting directors have told BA repeatedly that they go through an agent while negotiating with almost every player they draft—including those that do not sign. On Thursday, Poppe didn't deny it.

"We all know what's going on in the real world," he said. "Let's just make it right."

News & Notes

• The other interesting bit of news to come out of the ABCA convention was Weiser's announcement that a subcommittee has been formed to study instant replay. Three members of the D-I Baseball Committee will explore whether replay should be adopted in the College World Series, as well as possibly in the rest of the NCAA tournament.

Weiser acknowledged that there are plenty of complications involved with instant replay, such as determining what types of plays would be reviewable, making sure each stadium is equipped with the proper technology, adding a replay umpire and dealing with replay delays.

"It may go nowhere," said East Carolina assistant athletics director Gary Overton, who will sit on the subcommittee. "But we're looking at it."

• The NCAA will use a 20-second pitch clock in 2011, but no visible clock will be used during the NCAA tournament. Instead, umpires will carry clocks. Conferences can decide to implement visible clocks or not as they see fit.

• Poppe said TD Ameritrade Park Omaha is about 85 percent completed. All 26 luxury suites have been sold, and all 2,500 club seats have been sold. "If you had a seat at Rosenblatt, you'll have a seat in the same general location at the new stadium," Poppe said.

The first game at the new stadium will be April 19 between Creighton and Nebraska. The Bluejays will play their final 12 home games of the season at TD Ameritrade, then will host the Missouri Valley Conference tournament there from May 24-28. Starting next year, all of Creighton's home games will be at the new park.