Imagine a warm June night, a packed baseball stadium and two of the biggest names in college athletics battling for a championship.
The College World Series comes to mind, right?
How about Michigan and Ohio State with the Big Ten title on the line?
Minnesota’s John Anderson, the winningest baseball coach in Big Ten history, is pushing for his conference to break away from the NCAA’s traditional February-to-June schedule and play when the weather in the northern climes is more favorable. In short, the Big Ten’s boys of summer would be on the field in summer.
Such a move would cost the Big Ten schools any shot at playing in the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t bother Anderson.
“There were four SEC teams in the College World Series last year. We’re never going to catch those people,” he said. “The system works for them, and they’re not going to want to change it. People are going to criticize this idea, but we need to get people talking about it.”
Big Ten leadership has spent the last decade trying to provide northern teams greater access to an NCAA tournament usually dominated by schools from the South, Southwest and West.
Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said he and Commissioner Jim Delany don’t dismiss Anderson’s idea, even though it would be hard to imagine breaking away from the traditional NCAA baseball format.
“But there may be a point in time where we’ve felt like we’ve exhausted all the options we felt were reasonable,” Traviolia said, “and that may be the case.”
The Big Ten is instead working on a proposal that would allow teams across the nation to play up to 14 non-conference games in the fall. The results of those fall games would carry over to the spring for consideration in the NCAA tournament selection process.
A team choosing to play in the fall could resume its season later than the current mid-February start date and avoid those expensive trips to the Sun Belt. Proponents say northern teams could build a stronger RPI, the key component weighed by the selection committee, because they would have more home games.
Purdue coach Doug Schreiber, who came up with the fall-spring model, said the fall games would be optional and the trick would be to lure teams from the power conferences to come north in the fall.
Unlike Anderson’s proposal to play in the summer and forfeit the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, Traviolia said, Schreiber’s wouldn’t “upset the whole apple cart.”
NCAA rules don’t prohibit conferences or individual schools from playing in the summer, as long as they don’t exceed 56 regular-season games.
“They can do what they want,” NCAA vice president for baseball and football Dennis Poppe said. “Obviously, they’re diminishing their chance for selection into the (NCAA) tournament.”
The Big Ten hasn’t had a team make it to college baseball’s biggest stage — the eight-team College World Series — since Michigan in 1984. The conference’s last national champion was Ohio State in 1966.
Last season, Michigan State won the Big Ten regular-season championship, was runner-up in the conference tournament and had a league-best RPI of 82. The Spartans were passed over for an at-large bid. Illinois, with an RPI of 118, received the Big Ten’s only bid by virtue of winning the conference tournament.
There’s been a league-wide push for coaches to strengthen their schedules, but that requires games against elite teams early in the season. So that means road trips — lots of them.
Michigan State has made separate trips to Florida and South Carolina the first two weeks of this season. The Spartans will head to Texas this week, then back to Florida. In all, they’ll play 17 games before their home opener March 23, while Illinois will play 25 away or neutral-site games before its home opener March 30.
The home-field advantage is undeniable, and early losses hurt the Big Ten’s RPIs beyond repair. Coaches are hopeful a new RPI formula that goes into effect next year, one that will give more weight to road wins, will help.
“At the beginning of the year we’re completely different than at the end of the year,” Michigan State coach Jake Boss Jr. said. “The fact we play where we play, that difference is more dramatic. I’d be happy to play anybody anywhere at the end of the year, and I’d roll the dice and feel pretty good about what we have. Right now I sit here in my office and look out the window and it’s snowing. It’s not easy.”
The Big Ten also is handicapped by conference restrictions on the number of recruits who can be offered scholarships each year. The inability to “over-sign” makes it difficult for teams that lose a significant number of underclassmen to the major-league draft to replace the loss of personnel the following season.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, the Big Ten has received one bid six times, two bids four times and three bids three times. Only four Big Ten teams have advanced past regionals over that span.
The Big Ten previously has asked the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee to consider pushing the season into July and guaranteeing a minimum of two regionals be hosted by northern teams.
The proposals went nowhere. If the same thing happens with the fall-spring recommendation, the Big Ten’s Traviolia said, the idea of a summer schedule could become more appealing.
It would work best if other northern conferences were willing to follow suit, Traviolia said.
“That’s unknown at this point,” he said. “There are some good reasons for doing it. You hate to see these beautiful facilities some schools have constructed to sit idle for the prime months they could be used.”
Players typically migrate to wood-bat summer leagues after the college season, and Big Ten coaches say those teams make money off the players developed by colleges. By playing in summertime, perhaps with wood bats, northern schools could generate revenue. Anderson suggested a tournament for northern teams, perhaps culminating with a CWS-like event in Omaha in August.
He figures summer baseball would also result in attendance increases and provide fresh content for the Big Ten’s television network.
“BTN will televise baseball whenever the Big Ten plays it,” network spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk said.