Clemson's baseball season is at the mid-point, but the steam started escaping long ago. An opening day loss to West Virginia and a letdown loss to Winthrop on the heels of the team's first series win over the Gamecocks since 2010 were the early warning signs. Now well into the throes of conference play, the Tigers sit at 14-14 (5-7 ACC).
Worse yet, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest are already in the books. Clemson still has series against North Carolina, Georgia Tech and the top two programs in the ACC Atlantic 11-1 Louisville and 9-3 Florida State - meaning things could get worse!
It's not just tough breaks and bad luck either. Clemson has hit just 16 home runs through 28 games (0.6 HR/game). Wake Forest, who just took two of three in Clemson, has swatted 34 home runs (over 31 games, 1.1 HR/game). Florida State has hit 30 home runs in 30 games. Miami has 24. Heck, Furman has 20! The nation's best power hitting team, UCF, has 46 home runs on the season, nearly three times Clemson (more on UCF shortly). At some point, we can no longer blame a cavernous outfield (which isn't so cavernous after home plate was scooted forward this offseason) or the high seam baseball (which had the seams lowered this season).
We're a defense and pitching team you say? Well with 40 errors, including two in the Tigers' Wednesday loss to Presbyterian, there are more than 160 teams with a better fielding percentage.
If this was the occasional down year, like 2008, maybe we'd look the other way, but that's certainly not the case. From 2005-2010, Clemson missed the NCAA tournament once (2008), but advanced beyond regional play five times, reached Omaha twice and won the ACC tournament once. 2008 was a down year, but even the best programs will have those on rare occasion and we shouldn't overreact. Unfortunately, this year is different.
Clemson has failed to advance out of regional play each of the past four years and this season looks even less promising as College Sports Madness is currently projecting four teams from South Carolina to make the NCAA tournament, none of which are Clemson. Last year it was Oregon scoring 18 runs against Clemson. In 2013 it was two losses to Liberty that ended Clemson's season (more on Liberty soon). In the years prior, that it was South Carolina and UConn knocking Clemson out. This isn't a blip on the radar. Clemson simply isn't an elite baseball program right now.
With all that negativity (and realism) said, it would be one-sided and incomplete to not mention all the challenges the baseball staff runs up against and Steven Bradley, a fantastic writer for Upstate Today and formerly with IPTAY Media, explained it all here. He breaks down some of the scholarship disadvantages Clemson faces, the lack of profit from the program, and the cost associated with terminating Leggett prior to the expiration of his contract.
Some of these are legitimate points that are being addressed, namely academic common market, but to argue that Clemson shouldn't spend $200,000 to buy-out a coach literally while they are spending millions on new facilities for the sport is nothing short of poppycock. That would be tantamount to someone who just bought a half million dollar home refusing to spend $1,000 to fix a broken heater, leaving the home cold and undesirable - which is exactly how February baseball could feel next season.
This is the point that worries me most though, because the way the Athletic Department is spending money these days has me scratching my head. The Clemson Insider reported on Monday, March 30th that the baseball team is currently using the Jervey locker rooms while the $9 million baseball operations center is being built right along the first baseline. That's not the weird part though. The strange part is that while they're pouring money into the facilities at Doug Kingsmore, they are waiting until the Women's Basketball team begins using Jervey to hook up cable for the TVs! Yes, they're prioritizing spending on Women's Baskeball, which is so sparsely followed that the team can share Jervey with the Volleyball team while Littlejohn undergoes renovations. Meanwhile, they've just upgraded the baseball dugouts, added 150 premium seats, and are currently spending millions on the baseball operations center, but apparently those Northland Cable bills are just outrageous.
They added the Chapman Grandstands miles away from home plate which only fill up on rare occasion and provide a sub-par gameday experience. They're spending $62 million dollars on a football "operations" facility that sounds more like a Dave and Busters than anything else (it will have mini golf and laser tag). Meanwhile, The Clemson Insider claimed, in that same March 30th report, that the baseball team is penny-pinching on the number of baseballs they can go through during batting practice.
I say all that to lend to credence and highlight one very thoughtful projections of how could all play out:
Jack Leggett will coach Clemson in 2016 regardless of the outcome of this season
If this season ends badly then next season will be announced as his final before he retires, and he’ll have a farewell tour of sorts.
If this season goes well, he may stick around a couple more years but I’d expect him to put a succession plan in place (probably LeCroy). - PenthouseTiger
So what am I arguing for? Do I think Jack must go immediately? I do not! Jack has done great things at Clemson and deserves more respect than that. He is a Hall of Famer and absolutely should not have to leave with his tail between his legs mid-season.
When the season comes to a close though, Dan Radakovich may be in an unenviable position. Barring an amazing second half run, which seems less and less likely by the day (especially given the upcoming schedule), he will have to weight his options without orange tinted glasses and be decisive - refusing the kick the can down the road for another season.
And frankly Clemson baseball is not in a good position at all, not by the standards Leggett himself has set at Clemson during his tenure. Even with a massive turnaround it is hard to justify Leggett continuing in his position. Everyone wants a legend to know when it is time to leave. It may be a coach, a player, or even an executive, but fans always want these greats to depart at the right time with the appropriate amount of grace. Unfortunately the ego of these people often leads them to hold on longer than they should, requiring tough decisions from higher ups. That is the situation Clemson may be faced with here. Letting Jack Leggett see out the final year of his contract may be the nice thing to do, some may even argue that he deserves it, but the single most important thing is the health of Clemson Baseball. And right now it is ill.
I mentioned UCF and Liberty earlier. Both are having successful seasons under their current coaches who Clemson should be keeping tabs on.
Terry Rooney at UCF has the Knights playing great baseball. The program has only reached NCAA regional play 11 times, and he has led them to two of those appearances in his short five years. The Knights were ranked #6 in the March 30th Baseball America poll this year and are currently projected to host a Region in Orlando.
Jim Toman of Liberty was an assistant under Ray Tanner at USC for a decade before becoming the head man at Liberty. In 2014 he was named the Big South Coach of the Year.
There's also Monte Lee who led the College of Charleston to a Super Regional last season. Before coaching at his Alma mater in Charleston, he was an assistant at South Carolina and Spartanburg Methodist, the latter of which is in his hometown. Surely those South Carolina roots are appealing to those who would like to see Clemson more successfully recruit out of the state, something that is of the utmost importance given the scholarship restrictions Steven Bradley discusses at length in his article.
Realistically, it would require an unlikely turn of events for Clemson to get into the NCAA tournament, and an even more unlikely turn of events to advance past Regional play or win an ACC Tournament Championship. If those goals are not reached, Clemson shouldn't feel obligated to wait another year, regress further from elite status, and extinguish even more fan interest.
This article isn't a call to fire Jack. He is a Hall of Fame coach who has done great things for Clemson and when his time at Clemson comes to a close after this year or after five more years, he should be thanked. Rather, this is a call for Radakovich to be decisive. One doesn't spend $9,000,000 on new locker rooms and coaches offices or $62,000,000 on laser tag and then hide behind a $200,000 buy-out to avoid making the tough decision. If the move has to be made, he must show the gumption to make it and get one of the great baseball coaches while they're available.