For the Good of the Game?

By Geoff Zahn  

Former Head Baseball Coach University of Michigan And 12 Year Major League Pitcher
Over the last few years there have been changes to the NCAA Bylaws regarding the sport of baseball.  These changes have been initiated by both the coaches and NCAA.   The most recent changes brought about by the introduction of the Academic Progress Rate (APR) have caused complaints from coaches, delineated most notably by Ron Polk, head baseball coach at Mississippi State University.  The question is, are these changes and the other recent changes to the Bylaws really for the good of the game of  baseball across the entire United States?
In order to answer that question, it is appropriate to look at five aspects of the collegiate game and then offer possible solutions.  I will look at the situation from:

  • A brief History
  • The Playing Field
  • The Dichotomy of the Economics of the collegiate game
  • Inability of coaches, A.D.’s, and presidents to make hard changes to the game
  • The effect of the legislature initiated by the presidents and the NCAA Board of Directors


My motivation and qualification to address this issue stems mostly from my love of the game of baseball, believing it is the best game on earth.  I was a small college athletic director, pitching coach at Pepperdine University for one year and head coach at the University of Michigan from 1995 -2001.  In addition, I spent 18 years in pro ball, twelve of which were in the big leagues.  But it is my love of the game and passion to see baseball prosper in the entire country that has prompted this article.

The most devastating influence, by far, on the game of baseball all the way up to the Major Leagues was the implementation of Title IX.  Don’t get me wrong, Title IX was important to promote women’s athletic participation, but it never should have been implemented to the detriment of any men’s sports.  When the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships in baseball to 11.7 equivalencies, they unknowingly killed recruiting in the lower income areas.  Additionally, the smaller amount of scholarship money available meant reduced rosters, especially in northern states because of the economy of the game, which I will deal with later in the article.  Like it or not, baseball in America is a big money sport like football and basketball.  It was an avenue for lower income households to provide their sons a chance to play in college and possibly go on to a professional career. (See Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, etc).
When I got back to the University of Michigan, one of the first calls I received was a father asking me if I was going to recruit the inner city.  I said sure, but I quickly learned it just wasn’t going to happen much.  When I went to the homes and offered my .3 or .5 equivalency, I got laughed out of the house.  The usual response was, “We don’t have that kind of money to make up the difference, and besides, he already has a full ride in football or basketball waiting for him in D1 or D2”.  Unless major league baseball signs lower income players to pro contracts out of high school, they generally aren’t getting those athletes, and the result has shown on major league rosters.  That decrease also shows up at the high school and collegiate level.  According to Tom House and the National Pitching Association, annually, worldwide, there are approximately 6.8 million Little Leaguers, 2.8 million High School players, 90 thousand collegiate players, 8.8 thousand minor leaguers, and 1000 major leaguers.  The largest drop off is from Little League to High School, and I believe that of the many reasons for this, the loss of hope for a significant scholarship in baseball is definitely a factor in reducing the number of players continuing in the sport.


Football, Basketball and Hockey can full ride at least a three deep roster.  Baseball can’t even full ride a one deep roster.  When the NCAA tried to compare baseball and softball to determine like equivalencies, they were comparing apples and oranges since softball usually employs two pitchers and softball coaches have been happy with a roster of 20 or under.  Collegiate baseball, especially now that the season is compacted to 13 weeks, needs the eight position players, five starting pitchers and at least two good relief pitchers.  This will become even more important with the advent of more law suits against coaches and teams for abuse of pitch counts.  I can foresee in the near future baseball and insurance companies getting together to form absolute standards for pitch counts to be used as a standard of safety.


The second thing that has affected the game in the north was having to increase the number of contests to try to compete for an RPI rating to get into a tournament.  Up until 1980, northern teams were playing about a forty game schedule, but because of weather were actually playing from 30 to 40 games.  Weather was the major factor for that but they were still getting representation in the College World Series.  With the advent of the RPI determining seeding and some representation, all schools, to be competitive, were trying to play a full allotment of games even if the weather really didn’t allow for it.  Hence the start of northern teams taking three to four trips in February and March to Sun Belt areas to get games in even if they had no outside practice prior to these contests.


These pressures of equivalencies and early games have led to my next point.


The Playing Field

The playing field is not level.

If you are a Sun Belt school the roster restrictions brought about by equivalencies don’t affect you as adversely as a northern climate school.  The reason for this is that you get to practice outdoors most of the year.  This is extremely beneficial prior to your first contest when you can have intrasquad games to get your pitchers ready and to get a good idea which lineup is best for you.  Northern teams have fall ball outside, then move indoors for skill development, and in many cases, don’t get outside till they travel to warmer climates to play their first contests.  Most of the time their pitchers aren’t in full game shape and their lineup is not set, let alone having to adjust to being outside, adjusting to the sun and stadium lights for the first time in months.  The results of those first games are fairly predictable.  Sun Belt teams that have already played a number of games, playing at home against northern teams coming out of the field house, win a lot more than they lose.
The percentages show that the home teams are winning around 62% of the time.  Some Sun Belt teams are playing around 40 home games while northern teams like Michigan have around 20 home games scheduled and will fight to get those in.  The tweaking that has been done to the RPI system can’t make up for that discrepancy.


The RPI system for rating and seeding teams is a farce.  Its design was originally built for basketball demands:  Uniform practice in like facilities, like scheduling of home and away games, and the same practice and playing season for all participating schools.  The RPI system currently perpetuates the power in the Sun Belt and keeps making it more difficult for northern schools to move up in the rankings.  Why?  Because in order to move up, you have to beat teems with higher RPI’s or beat teams that beat teams with higher RPI’s.  Since the majority of the teams with high RPI’s are in the Sun Belt areas, it means that northern schools must go down to play these high ranked teams at home early in the season, right out of the field house, and they must beat them to enhance their RPI.  Once a northern team like Michigan leaves the Sun Belt and starts playing at home in late March, they have a very difficult time finding anyone outside their conference with even a decent RPI let alone in the top 40.  When it comes time for the tournament, if it weren’t for automatic berths for conference champions, there would be even fewer northern teams participating.


So the result has been that the power Sun Belt teams play a robust home schedule in good warm weather.  They have teams ranked in the top 25 scattered throughout and they dominate the All American lists.  All of this leads to a great product to promote and sell tickets and make money.  Teams up north play fewer than half their games at home.  Many of them don’t have good weather till mid April.  Few teams if any have been ranked in the top forty.  They have good players but they are not promoted.  All of this has led to less and less local publicity for northern teams and crowds of less than 1000, most of the time less than 500, for many of the games.


This uneven playing field leads me to my next issue regarding the good of the game.


The Dichotomy of the Economics of the collegiate game

In the Sun Belt area of the country there are many baseball teams playing more than half of their schedule at home, hosting northern teams and, even with giving guarantees to those schools, they are way ahead economically.  Baseball is well and viable there, because in many cases, it not only pays for itself but helps support the athletic budget.  These schools have done a wonderful job of promoting the game and bringing in income


As an example, Mississippi State, by Ron Polk’s account, sells close to 5500 season tickets.  Using a conservative arbitrary figure of $3.00 per game and 35 home games, the revenue is over $570,000.  That does not include concessions or the money brought in by regional and super regional games.  They averaged almost 13,000 a game for the super regional, and sent a check to the NCAA for $175,000 for two super-regional games, so you do the math.


Even if a Sun Belt team does not generate great crowds they do not have to travel far to get in all their games. This saves a tremendous amount of money and keeps them viable.


The result to administration is a healthy game, that in a good number of Sun Belt schools breaks even and, in many schools, makes money.


The game’s economy in the northern climate is much different and gets worse the farther north one goes.   Administratively, up north, the sport of baseball on the collegiate level is an albatross.  It does not pay for itself, come close to breaking even, and except for a very few schools, does not show the promise to be economically viable.  It has a relatively large roster, plays over 50 games of which about two thirds are away, plays in cold weather before small crowds, and, to be competitive, demands that they keep updating facilities.  Since there is virtually no income from the games, the pressure to have good indoor practice facilities and up to date stadiums rests on the general athletic budget or on private donations.


Just in the state of Michigan, several schools have or are raising millions to upgrade their stadiums and practice facilities.  Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan have upgraded and the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Western Michigan are in the process of upgrading their facilities.


As a northern example, the University of Michigan, one of the better programs, will have their renovated stadium ready for this season and are promoting season tickets.  There is seating for 2500 fans, and based on their ticket prices, if they sold every seat to season ticket holders, would raise approximately $150,000.00.  Compare that with Mississippi State’s revenue, and there is an enormous discrepancy.


This major discrepancy leads to the same in coaches’ salaries and salary structure, both for the head coaches and for their assistants.  It is not unusual for Sun Belt coaches to have three to five year contracts, some of which are rollover.  Many of them are for over twice or three to four times what northern coaches are making.  Most northern coaches are still on one year contracts.  The salaries for assistants coaches follows the same path.


I realize that everyone’s budget is different, but the opportunity to promote the game and play more games in good weather will always favor the Sun Belt economically under the current setup.


The trend in the north has been to reduce roster size and to be in favor of shortening the season to cut expenses.


The result is that it is very difficult to legislate fairness and a level playing field to all without hurting either the economically viable or unviable schools. This, to me, is the biggest reason for my next point:


The Inability of coaches, A.D.’s, and presidents to make hard changes to the game.


I found it interesting that the first point Ron Polk made in his letter related to the amount of money college baseball produces for the NCAA championships and for the popularity of the game.  That is a Sun Belt phenomena and does not reflect the schools in the north.  As I have mentioned earlier, the schools in the warmer climates have done a great job promoting the game and have demonstrated a large advantage over northern schools both in revenue and national rankings.  It is an exception when a northern or Midwest team is ranked in the top twenty five, and it is a rare event to see a northern team in the College World Series.  In the Midwest, Notre Dame was in the CWS a few years ago but before that the University of Michigan was the last team to go to Omaha back in 1984.


The natural position is to promote your own program and your own area.  The Sun Belt schools have pretty much controlled the game, and it is their popularity that has increased interest in collegiate baseball.  Why, if you were a Sun Belt coach, would you want to support any legislation that might hinder all that you have accomplished?


On the other hand, Northern coaches realize the tremendous disadvantage they are under trying to compete on the national level.  It’s always about leveling the playing field for them.  Year in and year out they have submitted legislation to help level the playing field, and while they have gotten some things accomplished, it has been a very slow process.


Any president, A.D., or Conference commissioner can look at collegiate baseball and see that the playing field is not level, but the Sun Belt schools are producing almost all the revenue, thus these schools and conferences that are viable do not want to hurt themselves.


Under the current structure, with the weather issues and time of the playing season, there will never be a level playing field.  Why then does the NCAA allow for the discrepancies that have existed in baseball for so long?  How could A.D.’s and conference presidents allow for such things as earlier starting times for some while compacting the season for others, some teams playing almost twice as many home games as other teams, teams playing their first three weeks on the road, teams having roster sizes in the forties while others are in the low thirties or high twenties?  Just ask yourself if these conditions would ever be allowed in football or basketball?  The answer is a resounding NO.


I believe that every conference promotes that they will be competitive on a national level in every sport in which they compete.  I don’t know the answers as to why baseball has been allowed to get so out of balance, but the truth is that it has and change has been excruciatingly slow.


This leads me to my last point that it is:



The Academic Progress Rate (APR) – The irony of the presidents and the NCAA Board of Directors driving legislature that might create a more level playing field.

The NCAA Division I Board of Directors has taken action to pass legislation to correct conditions data revealed by the Baseball Academic Enhancement Working Group showed  baseball has one of the highest transfer rates, and suffers from low APR and graduation rates among all Division I sports.  “The working group concluded that the low APR found among baseball teams is largely the result of baseball student-athletes (S-A’s) with strong academic backgrounds making slow progress toward a degree and tending to change schools or leave college early and often.” The slow progress and changing school phenomenon went a long way to drive the decisions to pass legislation to:

  • Establish a preseason start date of Feb 1
  • Institute a 13 week season
  • Deny the one time transfer rule
  • Mandate no less than a 25% equivalency must be given and reduce the roster size to 35 with no more than 27 players being on scholarship by 2009.
  • In the process of reducing the number of contests from 56 to 52


This group of legislation may help to level the playing field between Sun Belt schools and schools in cold climates.  By setting a preseason practice start date along with compacting the season to 13 weeks means that everyone has the same preseason time and everyone must adjust their roster to fit a 13 week season.


Many northern teams have been doing this for years.  They would go down south in late February or March over spring break, play almost every day for 10 days, then return home to the field house to practice.  They would then make 2-3 weekend trips back to warmer climates to try to stay sharp and to get games in.  When they could finally play at home, they would play 5 to 6 games a week to get their full compliment of games in to try to compete in the RPI system.  This meant that they had to have up to 5 starting pitchers and an ample bullpen to meet the demands of their compacted schedule.  They also would have very little practice time during their home outdoor season because of playing so many games per week.  In the Sun Belt areas, they could spread their season out and mainly utilize 3 starting pitchers playing 3-4 games a week.  If they had a 16 week season, it meant that their top three starters would have a good chance of pitching up to nine more games than the top three starters on cold weather teams.


Now all schools must play the same number of games over the same amount of time meaning that the top pitchers will have the chance to have the same number of starts, and each team will have to adjust their staff accordingly.


The legislation to do away with the one time transfer most definitely will cut down on the number of S-As moving to another program.  While it is admirable that a coach, seeing that an occasional S-A is not going to play, would try to help place that S-A into a program where he might play, I believe that circumstance is in the minority.


Coaches, S-As and their parents must share the responsibility for much of the transferring that takes place.


Coaches with little restrictions to their roster size have felt free to bring in large freshman classes to let the cream rise to the top.  The ones that can’t cut it are then told they aren’t going to play and that their scholarship will not be renewed.  This is more often a Sun Belt problem because of the pressure to win.  Up north there is pressure to win but because of the economics of the sport many rosters have already been reduced to around 32 or below with A.D.’s citing gender equity as the reason.


Players naturally want to play for better programs and don’t do their homework when it comes to recognizing their real chance to play.  There has developed a mentality that if they don’t make it at school A, they can always ask for a release and go to school B.  Every year when I was coaching at Michigan, I would get calls from parents or S-As after the start of the year inquiring if there might be room on my roster the next year for them.  Most of the time these were players that took a chance to go play for a good Sun Belt school and realized or were told they weren’t going to play.


The other problem has been good players somehow wanting to leave their current program late in the summer to go to another school.  While there will always be coaches trying to cut corners or get an advantage, I put most of the blame on parents for allowing their sons to even be approached by a representative from another school.  I can understand a young man getting a chance to fulfill a dream to play pro ball and leaving school early but not to make a lateral move especially if he was a vital part of his current team.


Regardless, by mandating that all rosters will be a maximum of 35 players and that scholarships must be at least 25%, there is going to be a lot less movement of players.    S-As, and coaches will have to make a more careful decision of where they go and who they initially bring in respectfully.  This may also mean that more coaches become keener at developing the players they have than being able to turn their rosters over every other year.


Ideally I don’t believe anyone should tell a coach how he is to divide up his allotment of scholarships.  There is certainly an argument to be made about the family who would come for free but just wants some token, like books, to let them know the coach is interested.  There is also an argument to be made that those coaches who continue to bring in large numbers of players on little money, trying them out, cutting their money, and having them leave, will be penalized by the APR legislation and that eventually these penalties will  work everything out.


So, is the collegiate game now fixed with everyone on a level playing field?  Or might there be more solutions?



Three Possible Solutions;


  1. Give this new and current legislation time to see what effect it has on the game.  If this is done, many more coaches in the Sun Belt will have to make adjustments than coaches up north.  Their game and dominance could be affected.  I do think that the overall APR will get better, allowing, over time,  some relaxation of the current legislation.


  1. Create a strong lobby for both increasing the number of scholarships to at least 24, and for regionalizing the RPI to allow for representation at the CWS from all segments of the country.

Increasing scholarships would allow baseball to compete with football and basketball for the better athlete and would give more young men, especially from low income families, hope of being able to go to college through the avenue of baseball.  It would also allow schools more cushion to make up for players who sign early.

The RPI is wrong and will continue to favor the same teams and conferences.  You will get some slow change because of the current legislation but Sun Belt teams will continue to play many more home games than northern teams. For the good of the game, having national representation at the CWS would bring back excitement for the college game in areas that have almost forgotten it.


3.   Radically change the game in the north. (Food for Thought)

Admit that the college game will never be played on a level playing field because of the difference in climate and the early starting time which is too early for cold climate teams.  My solution to create income and better training for the players is for the northern section to have two seasons.
The Sun Belt schools have done an excellent job of promoting the game and making it economically viable.  If, in order to try to level the playing field, new legislation shortens their season or makes them less economically viable, then that may not be the best solution for college baseball.
Northern teams, playing in the current time frame, will always have trouble generating attendance to match warmer weather schools.  During the best weather months for baseball, (June, July August, and September) the stadiums sit idle.  While they sit idle, college summer leagues thrive as do minor league franchises.  I would just like to see who could draw more fans, the A League Lansing Lugnuts or Michigan vs. Michigan State in the summer. I have to believe that properly marketed, summer collegiate leagues that have school identity can become very economically viable and create a good stream of revenue.

  • The northern teams should play an abbreviated schedule (40 games) later in the spring, ending at the same time as the Sun Belt schools.  They would have their own RPI and enter the NCAA tournament just as they do now.
  • After high schools are out for the summer, northern teams would get an early certification on their incoming freshman, bring them on campus, have one week of training, and then play a summer schedule in localized leagues.  Their seniors from the spring would be gone so they would be using their players that would make up the next year’s team.

These regional leagues would be formed to cut down on travel and promote local interest.  For instance, one league in the Midwest might consist of Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Oakland University, Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame.  They would play around a 45  game schedule to end about September first and then go into a tournament consisting of all summer league winners. This tournament would culminate in a fall World Series late in September or early October.  The argument that you must give kids a break from school doesn’t fly anymore because so many of the sports train year round, having their athletes on campus all summer.
This structure would also give baseball players a much greater chance of graduating in four years since they would no longer be sent away each summer to play in a summer league.

  • All collegiate leagues should have the option of playing the current early spring season or playing the dual season culminating in the fall.
  • I see this as a plus for everyone.  It would allow the Sun Belt teams to go back to starting earlier and spreading their season out to play 56 games to get the revenue they enjoy now.  The northern climate teams would have the chance to market their teams in great weather and to develop their players outdoors for a much longer period of time.


I believe these changes would allow college baseball to really be on a level playing field both in the development of players and economically.  Increased revenue from northern schools would make raising scholarship limits much more justifiable.


Baseball is still the greatest game on the planet.  It is played throughout the world.  In the United States, players from all over still make up major league rosters.  Collegiate baseball’s popularity lately has been mainly in the Sun Belt area.  All who love the collegiate game need to guard it, ensure a level playing field, and do all they can to promote it on a national level.  It is for the good of the game.