Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Leggett Firing Sends A Chill Though College Baseball

The news release arrived via email at 11:33 a.m. on June 4, with the stunning headline:

“Clemson Parts Ways with Head Coach Jack Leggett.”

Twelve days later, the brain still won’t wrap itself around the fact that somehow, a featherweight bean-counter of an AD named Dan Radakovich got away with firing a Hall-of-Fame baseball coach like Jack Leggett. It just doesn’t compute, and for those of you who don’t believe that college athletics is royally fucked up from the top down, this is Exhibit A.

Read Radakovich’s on-line bio, and then read Leggett’s. The inescapable conclusion is that Leggett’s professional body of work is more impressive, by a factor of about 10,000, than that of the man who fired him. Welcome to the Bizarro World of college athletics in the 21st century.

By all measures, Leggett was a great coach at Clemson. He won 955 games in 22 years as the Tigers head coach. He led them to six College World Series appearances and seven top-10 finishes in the national polls. His record in the NCAA Tournament was an exceptional 68-47. For his career, he ranked among the five winningest active coaches in college baseball with 1,332 victories, although Radakovich killed that one by making Leggett inactive, at least for the time being. Leggett coached the Tigers to 40 or more wins 16 times in 22 seasons, and to 50 or more wins six times, including a school-record 57 victories in 1994, his first year on the job. He sent countless players on to professional baseball, including several who excelled in the big leagues. Leggett was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Jan. 3, 2014.

Radakovich, by contrast, can proudly claim that in his previous stints as an AD — at American University and at Georgia Tech — he left both programs more or less exactly as he found them. His six years at Georgia Tech (2007-12) read remarkably like the six years that preceded him, except that Tech’s employees were probably much happier before he got there and are no doubt much happier since he left. Still, there’s something to be said for maintaining the status quo. Of course, it’s hard to escape the fact that “Georgia Tech Athletics: We Still Don’t Suck” isn’t exactly the most effective marketing slogan.

In fairness, Radakovich didn’t create the current environment in college athletics, but he is a product of that environment, perhaps the inevitable, quintessential product. His background is in finance, after all. That’s an all-too-attractive trait these days, given that the cost of doing business in college athletics is rapidly approaching a level that would appear economically unsustainable.

Despite huge TV and online media contracts, ultimately the money that drives the engine comes from boosters (a word that should make all of us want to take a hot shower). The internet has given fans (i.e., boosters) far too much access and immediacy, and consequently they want results now, now, now. And unfortunately, the typical college administrator would rather kill his or her own mother than ever offend one of the booster club’s heavy hitters, no matter how stupid, petty, small-minded and self-serving that booster may be (as far too many of them are).

This has led to a widespread corporatization of administration throughout college athletics. As the need to raise tons of money has risen along with the demand to win immediate championships, wearing a tailor-made suit and tie has become far more important than ever having worn a jockstrap. This is how someone with impeccable credentials like Leggett came to be working for someone with no apparent credentials whatsoever like Radakovich.

The fact that Leggett’s last College World Series appearance was in 2010 seems to be his greatest offense, which is ridiculous. Many great coaches have gone more than five years between trips to Omaha, including Jerry Kindall (Arizona), Ray Tanner (South Carolina), Jim Morris (Miami) and Mark Marquiss (Stanford), each of whom won two national championships. Meanwhile, none of the coaches (zero, not any, the null set) being rumored as Leggett’s possible replacement has ever been to the College World Series as a head coach. It just makes no sense.

South Carolina’s back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011 (and a near three-peat in 2012) certainly played a role in Leggett’s demise, but since Tanner stepped down as head coach to become AD in the summer of 2012, his successor, Chad Holbrook, has presided over a full-scale regression of the South Carolina program, to the point that the Gamecocks lost a regional at home to Maryland a year ago and didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament field in 2015.

South Carolina’s demise no doubt will help Leggett’s successor, even if it did nothing to save him. In the end, Radakovich, who famously trashed his Hall-of-Fame coach in an infamous newspaper interview a year ago, apparently had far less trouble walking Leggett to the gallows than his public pronouncements to the contrary would indicate.

The implications of the Leggett firing go far beyond Clemson and its rabid and often mentally unhinged fanbase. In firing Jack Leggett, Radakovich sent a deep chill throughout college baseball. There’s not a coach anywhere in the country who didn’t stop at some point over the last two weeks and ask himself, “If Jack Leggett can be fired, can I really be safe?”

The answer to that, unfortunately, is a resounding “No!”

Which brings us closer to home. NC State’s fanbase shares the same demographic DNA as Clemson’s. Wolfpack fans can be every bit as demented, delusional and irrational as their cousins south of the N.C.-S.C. state line. There is a large and loud segment of haters within the State fanbase that wants to fire somebody each and every day — be it the coach who doesn’t go undefeated every year, the AD who can’t seem to win because he’s being heavily outspent by every other school in the conference, or the poor media relations director who did nothing wrong but made a convenient target for whatever crazy reason. There’s a small subset of the aforementioned segment of haters that follows baseball, and that subset has grumbled about Elliott Avent for years. They’re grumbling louder than ever since the Wolfpack’s collapse at TCU in this year’s regional finals, but instead of grumbling they should stop and admire one of Avent’s very best coaching jobs.

Think back to February. Neither Baseball America nor D1baseball.com picked NC State to earn an NCAA at-large bid, and why would they? The team was coming off a disappointing 2014 season that began with great expectations and ended in the play-in round of the conference tournament. Lefthander Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, first-round draft picks and among the very greatest players in program history, were gone. The Pack also lost catcher Brett Austin and pitchers Logan Jernigan, Eric Peterson, Patrick Peterson and Andrew Woeck to the draft. The incoming recruiting class had talent but not elite-level talent. Several newcomers contributed, but only freshman lefty Brian Brown made a significant impact.

With a young and inexperienced team in an unforgiving conference and facing low expectations, Avent used a positive and upbeat approach to navigate a turbulent up-and-down season to a 36-23 final record. He deftly steered the ship through a deep slump in April, then went to the whip to bring his club down the home stretch with a red-hot month of May. Yes, the clock struck midnight six outs and one horrific balk call shy of an NCAA Super Regional. Still, who expected NC State to reach that point in the first place? Certainly, no one did back in February. Or April.

In a sane world, Avent wouldn’t have to worry about his job. His 19-year body of work at NC State is impressive — 14 NCAA regional appearances, 11 NCAA regional appearances in the last 13 years, four NCAA Super Regionals and a College World Series berth. He was national coach of the year in 2003. He’s coached 21 All-Americans, including six first-team All-Americans. He coached NC State’s only Golden Spikes finalist, and its only Brooks Wallace Award winner. He fields competitive teams year after year, and no one is more loyal to NC State than Avent. No one. Despite some flaws, Avent is an excellent baseball coach, especially on the field where his game-management skills are constantly overlooked and underrated.

Judging by the Leggett firing, however, this is not a sane world. Despite multiple years remaining on his contract and an excellent record of success, Avent works for a demanding and difficult AD (to put it kindly) who did not hire him and who already has fired and replaced eight head coaches since arriving in 2010.

So maybe Avent has good reason to worry about his job. He shouldn’t. A good reason to worry is not the same thing as the right reason to fire him. That reason exists only in the minds of the crazies on the online  message boards and the drive-time radio talk shows. Let it stay there and die there.