Baseball Faces Academic Probation

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.7, September 2006,

With the long debate over when to start the NCAA Division I season settled, it appeared there would be some smooth sailing ahead for major college baseball. Coaches and administrators reached a compromise on start dates: Beginning in 2008, the first date for practice will be February 1, and the first game will be no earlier than the third Friday in February.

But now a new set of storm clouds has appeared in a warning from the university presidents on the Division I Board of Directors: Teams will be playing far fewer games in the future if the sport’s academic performance doesn’t improve. With baseball posting the third worst Academic Progress Rate (APR), bettering only football and men’s basketball, the Board is worried that the newly adopted common start date—a month later than some teams opened in 2006—could negatively affect players’ academic performance by squeezing 56 games into a shorter time period.

The Board considered reducing the maximum number of regular season games to 52, but after much discussion and lobbying by members of the baseball community who said the causes of baseball’s low APR went deeper than the number of games in the season, it tabled the proposal. Instead, it called for a plan to improve baseball’s academic performance, while threatening far greater cutbacks in games if it fails.

The Baseball Academic Enhancement Committee has one year to develop a plan acceptable to the Board. Two years after that, the Board will revisit the question of cutting games if academic performance has not improved.

“Nobody is sure what compacting the 56-game schedule will mean academically,” says Dennis Farrell, Commissioner of the Big West Conference. “I think there was some relief that the board didn’t reduce the season initially, and now it’s up to the baseball community to prove that the compaction is not going to have a negative effect on academics.”

Dave Keilitz, Executive Director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, feels the answers lie more in structural issues and the culture of the sport than in coaches’ day-to-day management of their programs. “I think the majority of programs are doing a very good job of evaluating and recruiting the right type of student-athletes,” he says. “I also think coaches are doing a good job of working with their kids academically. But those factors are minimal compared to the bigger issues like transfer rules and a lack of scholarships.”

Baseball coaches have long complained that the limit of 11.7 scholarships is too low for a sport with rosters that typically include about 33 players. And since baseball players, unlike football and basketball players, can receive a one-time transfer exception that allows them to change schools and retain immediate eligibility, there’s little to keep a player from transferring if he thinks he is not getting enough playing time or can get a better offer elsewhere. The result is lost APR retention points.

“I believe we can come up with a great plan that will improve the APR dramatically,” Keilitz says. “Whether the Board is willing to make the changes we recommend remains to be seen. If nothing is done with scholarships or the transfer rule, it’s going to be very difficult to improve the APR.”

But changing the transfer exception is no easy task. A proposal to eliminate it for baseball was defeated at the 2006 NCAA Convention. Farrell says there are two schools of thought when it comes to the transfer exception. “One is that it’s too easy for kids to transfer, and when they do, the school’s APR takes a hit,” he explains. “The other school of thought is that the one-time exception at least holds the student-athlete accountable because he has to be academically eligible when he applies for the waiver. While you lose the retention point when a student-athlete transfers out, without the exception, you might lose both the retention and eligibility points.”

Which brings the argument back around to scholarship limits. “Under the present rules, it’s difficult to fault a kid for transferring if he only has a book stipend for one semester and he’s not playing,” Keilitz says.

He adds that in addition to scholarships and transfers, the plan could address the impact of the professional draft, time demands made on players, early signing periods that have players committing to college scholarships before they start their senior year in high school, and numerous other factors. “It’s not going to be easy to find a solution, but it’s our responsibility to sell it to the coaches and say this is best for all of college baseball,” he says. “At the same time, we have to convince the Board of Directors that it will be good for baseball academically.”

Any plan to improve college baseball’s academic performance will likely involve some compromises on coaches’ parts. “Some people are a little offended that we have to go through this because we don’t have the lowest APR,” Keilitz says. “We aren’t happy with our APR, but there are others who also have problems, yet we’re the only sport going through this right now.

“We have to come up with a good plan, and coaches have to buy into it, or we are going to lose games,” he continues. “Some changes may conflict with coaches’ individual beliefs, but it will boil down to deciding whether it is more important to abide by the plan and keep the number of games we have, or continue doing things the way we have been and lose a significant number of games.”