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CHICAGO - With a road schedule reminiscent of a trucking agency, the Purdue college baseball program has become a national aberration.
In a sport where the best schools rarely leave home outside of conference play, the Big Ten champion Boilermakers rank No. 9 nationally despite playing their first 20 games on the road. Poor early-season weather, massive travel and an unforgiving tournament qualifying system provide obstacles for Northern schools competing against their Southern and Western rivals, yet Purdue has persevered and prospered.
But the school - and its Big Ten brethren - are demanding changes. Fed up with travel and early-season inclement weather, Big Ten baseball coaches are proposing a split season with games shifting from the spring to the fall. If that's not approved, the frustrated coaches also are pondering a break-up with the NCAA.
“We're trying to figure out how we can make Big Ten baseball better and put it on a level playing field,” said Iowa baseball coach Jack Dahm, whose team plays Purdue Saturday in its regular-season finale. “Right now, nobody wants to put it on a level playing field. It might be time for a drastic change.”
Big Ten baseball has languished into national irrelevancy since 1984, the last year a Big Ten program advanced to the College World Series. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, only four Big Ten teams have advanced to the round of 16.
College baseball uses a Ratings Performance Index that is similar to college basketball in determining at-large NCAA qualifiers. At this time, there's no distinction between home and road victories, although tweaks are slated for next year. With most Big Ten teams playing at least 15 road games to start the season, most have low RPIs before the league play, damaging their postseason chances.
“The reality of it is that most of our conference champions in every one of our sports is on the list for being nationally competitive. It's not necessarily the case in baseball,” Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi said. “It's because of the weather and the time of the season, and I think there's a distinct and definite disadvantage. We're trying to address that.”
The Big Ten, which unsuccessfully has offered a litany of past rules changes, will deliver one more this summer which league deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia laughingly calls “rational and less offensive.” If enacted, schools and leagues have the option of playing up to 16 games in the fall or remaining in the spring. Even Big Ten schools are split on the topic, with Nebraska preferring the current setup and the others wanting a fall segment.
Traviolia has discussed the proposal with other conferences' officials and will recommend the proposal this summer to the NCAA's Division I Baseball Committee. If it passes and moves through the NCAA rules process, it's probably two years from becoming official.
“We think this is a pretty modest change that could really benefit the Northern schools,” Traviolia said. “This is optional legislation where if a school decides they don't want to play any games in the fall, they don't have to.”
The proposal does face stiff resistance, according to American Baseball Coaches Association Executive Director Dave Keilitz. Of the nation's top nine college teams, all but Oregon and Purdue played at least their first seven games at home. No. 1 Florida played its first 22 games within its state. No. 3 Baylor played its first 21 at home. Northern schools often travel south during the first month, filling Southern teams' coffers and victory columns from teams getting used to live outdoor pitching.
Iowa, for instance, played its first 16 games on the road within a 30-day span.
“Right now it's not going to get significant support from the coaches nationally,” Keilitz said. “I certainly think it's worth a try for the Big Ten to submit it and see where it goes.”
Baseball's current structure hinders Big Ten programs financially. The league's 10 public baseball schools combined to spend more than $14.13 million in fiscal year 2011, according to documents supplied to The Gazette via each state's open-records laws. Not including Nebraska ($898,552), nine public schools' ticket revenues totaled $170,904.
The 10 schools combined for more than $2.23 million in travel that year. Iowa spent nearly $200,000 and Minnesota totaled more than $416,000.
“That's the funny thing people say about Northern schools is that we're not committed but look at all the trips we go on and the cost of them,” Dahm said.
Everything from RPI to the weather frustrates the coaches. Michigan Coach Rich Maloney, whose team twice advanced to regional play the last five years, wonders if the league should just secede from the NCAA and compete through the summer.
“I think we're getting to the point where without access, everything needs to be on the table,” Maloney said. “With the amount of money that Big Ten schools are putting in their programs and not getting to taste the championship level, it doesn't make a lot of sense. We need to make changes to allow for more access.
“All of us want to go to Omaha so for us to break off, it would be serious big time.”
Keilitz said the Big Ten would suffer in recruiting but grow revenue if it switched to a summer-based league.
I really feel personally if that they were do that, they would draw significantly. If two Big Ten schools are playing against each other on a nice night in late June or July, I think they would draw extremely well. Now the downside of that is you wouldn't have any competition other than themselves, depending on how many games you would want to play.
Traviolia sympathizes with the baseball coaches but said secession is not part of the discussion.
“I think that's certainly an extreme measure to take,” he said.
Added Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta, “I'm not ready to go there.”
If the league does get the OK to split seasons like in golf and tennis, Dahm said Iowa would play around 10 games in the fall. He said he's had discussions with Southern coaches about playing a home-and-home series, where Iowa would host a fall series and return the favor in the spring. He said the Hawkeyes would trim some of the travel out of the spring.
Dahm and Maloney both said a fall series could generate more revenue, especially if wrapped around a football weekend. But it's more about playing games in decent weather and, ultimately, winning them.
Dahm, for one, is trying to stay positive.
“I think it has a chance of going through,” he said. “I think it's an idea worth trying.”