Where Did All the At-Large Bids Go?

Non-power conference coaches finding it tough to reach NCAAs


Jan. 16, 2007

By Mark Etheridge

Special to CSTV.com from SEbaseball.com


Coaches not fortunate enough to work in the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-10, or Conference USA are finding their path to Regional play has gotten more difficult. Since 2000, Regional berths for teams not in those five leagues have dwindled from 42 to 34. Considering 25 of those 34 are automatic bids, the likelihood of non-power conference teams snagging at-large bids has been cut in half.


The jockeying for at-large bids is getting more intense, as schools from less powerful conferences are feeling the pinch.


"Of the seven bids FAU has received, my greatest source of pride is that all but one were at-large bids," Florida Atlantic head coach Kevin Cooney explained. "An at-large should reflect the quality of the season by the players and coaches. For mid-major schools, those at-large bids are becoming scarcer."


In college baseball, the smaller school has always been able to compete. A couple of players can make a sizeable difference. Coaches could make up for a lack of talent by outworking the next guy. That may still be true, but the margin has gotten smaller.


As university administrators discovered colleges like LSU and Arkansas actually make money from their baseball programs, the baseball budgets for the warm-weather football power schools have expanded. New stadiums have been funded and built. Practically every power conference facility has enjoyed some form of upgrade. Salaries and recruiting budgets have grown.


And sure enough, those programs have improved. Schools like Kentucky and Vanderbilt used to be bottom-dwellers in the SEC. Now they are challenging for titles. The SEC does not have an easy win on the conference schedule. And there should not be one, considering the commitment those universities have to their programs.


"There is really no question that ten or so teams in the big conferences can certainly compete in a Regional," Northwestern State head coach Mitch Gaspard said in a SEBaseball.com interview last season. "The thing I'd like to point out about teams like ours is that we are fighting with a short stick. We don't have their budget. Also, when we play those teams it will be on the road. Most of the big-conference teams are not coming to Natchitoches (Louisiana). Teams in those leagues can have an average year and still get into a Regional. For us, we have to have a super year just to be among those 10 or 12 final teams they consider for the at-large bids. We need to be rewarded for having a good season."


Gaspard was an assistant on Alabama's CWS teams in the 1990s, so he has seen both sides. He made a good point on the budgets. Not only do teams like his have to dig out of a hole, they are using a shovel while the power schools cruise up in bulldozers. Also, a team like his has to excel contending for a conference championship to merit at-large consideration. Even then, if they do not have a strong RPI they have no chance at an at-large berth.


"I suppose the inflated RPIs of power conference members sway the committee," Cooney said, "but is the team near the bottom of the SEC or ACC deserving of a bid because their RPI is on steroids due to the conference in which they reside? Shouldn't a team from a smaller conference be rewarded for their good season despite a lesser RPI? A good case in point was Troy not getting a bid in 2005 despite great players who put up good numbers (won A-Sun by 4 games), a great record (37-21 and 23-7), but an RPI (#64) that probably cost them? Maybe the benefit of the doubt needs to swing from Goliath to David."


Last season, McNeese State (RPI #83) won the Southland regular season but lost in the conference tournament. The Cowboys stayed home. Two seasons ago in addition to Troy, North Carolina-Wilmington had a similar fate after winning the Colonial.


Meanwhile, schools in the SEC get a built-in, 30-game RPI boost with their conference schedule. No knowledgeable baseball observer will dispute that the eighth- or ninth-place SEC team is one the best 64 teams, but should a team that does not compete in its conference deserve the privilege of playing for the national title?


That is really the question. What are the criteria for selecting the Regional field? Are they trying to find the best 34 at-large teams? Or are they looking to reward teams with good regular seasons with a postseason opportunity?


Former Regional selection committee chairman Charlie Carr explained his interpretation of the criteria after the 2005 field was announced.


"We look at overall record, RPI, non-conference record, strength of schedule, road record, last 10-15 games, how they did in the tournament, and how they fared against the top 25 and top 100.


"Comparing teams from different schedules is difficult," Carr added, "Just like comparing east coast versus west coast is difficult. We look for head to head first, then common opponents. It comes down to many ingredients. There was very little difference in many of them. If we can't find anything that way, we can go to our Regional advisory committee. That part does not include statistics; it is people watching teams."


Carr's explanation seems to split the difference. It values RPI ranking, but also looks at win/loss record. So again, do they take the best team or the team with the best resume?


"I think the best 64 teams should be in Regionals," Auburn head coach Tom Slater said in a SEBaseball.com interview last season. "I don't hear a lot of talk about this problem in basketball. We have a tool to determine those top teams: the RPI. Since that is what they want to use to compare teams, that has to be a big factor along with strength of schedule, and a team's record against good teams. The SEC's performance in Regionals speaks for itself."


Slater is right. The SEC has been successful in Regional play. In 2005, the conference received a record nine Regional berths. All nine teams made the Regional final, with six winning. Last season, the SEC got eight teams into the postseason, with LSU missing the cut despite making the conference tournament. Seven of the eight made the Regional final with four teams winning.


Mississippi State got in despite not qualifying for the SEC Tournament, drawing the ire from mid-majors everywhere.


"How can a team that doesn't make their own conference tournament get in over teams who won their conference," Lamar head coach Jim Gilligan asked "If they don't want anyone but the big conference teams to participate, then they need to tell us and we'll go have our own tournament."


The whole argument is frustrating for schools like Lamar, Northwestern State, and North Carolina-Wilmington. The only way they can get respect from the committee is to take it. Last season, College of Charleston won a Regional on the road at the SEC co-champion's park. Winning gets attention, and is the have-nots' best chance at slowing their at-large percentage decrease.


On the other side of the fence, the SEC should not have to apologize for their success, their top-to-bottom balance, or their Regional performance. By any standard used, the conference race is brutally competitive.


"We play in the best league in the country, top to bottom," said Florida coach Pat McMahon. "Most leagues have top teams and bottom teams with a lot of separation in between. In this league, you are an injury or slump away from going to the bottom from the top. There's just not much difference."


The success of these warm-weather schools - not just the SEC as the ACC had four teams in the College World Series last year - triggered a rule change that will be implemented next spring. Next season the earliest a game can be played is February 22. Pushed through by teams with a weather disadvantage, the goal is to help level the playing field by bringing the start dates more in line.


Like most things in life, this issue basically comes down to money. Schools in the south are generating revenue with their luxury suites and record attendance. Since there is money to be made, the schools in the north understandably want to get in the action. The problem there is not as much demand for facility upgrades and suites because the weather makes it uncomfortable to watch baseball until at least April, and also fan apathy, since many of the northern teams can not compete at a national level.


Ironically enough, this legislation was passed the same season Oregon State - a cold-weather school in a predominately warm-weather conference - won the College World Series.


In a nutshell, the financially committed programs are winning games and gaining postseason opportunities. The distance between the money programs and their counterparts are widening. The Regional field reflects that trend.


Where did all the at-large bids go? They followed the money.

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