Condensed schedule may have posed more problems than solutions
A condensed schedule was supposed to make the college baseball season shorter this year.
So why did it seem so long for several of the country's teams?
Arizona's season ended with Sunday night's 4-2 loss to national No. 1 seed Miami in the championship game of the Coral Gables Super Regional.
The Wildcats' disappointing end was almost greeted with relief, however, after they spent more than a month on the road this season, playing 31 games in 10 states.
"It's a nightmare," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "It's an absolute nightmare."
The NCAA instituted a uniform start date for college baseball for the first time this season. Every Division I team couldn't start playing its schedule until Feb. 22 (about three weeks later than many warm-weather schools used to begin play), and many were forced to play five games per week to squeeze 56 games into 86 days.
The NCAA instituted the new rule to level the playing field between Northern schools and those teams in the South and West, which have traditionally dominated college baseball because they're located in warmer climates.
The change was met with mixed reviews from coaches and players across the country. Coaches of northern schools lauded the new rule for bringing more parity to the sport. But coaches of schools in warmer climates criticized the change for increasing their road schedules, travel costs and, more importantly, academic demands on their players.
"It's a nightmare academically," Lopez said. "The NCAA says it's a student-athlete experience, but I'm not sure this experience is what the student-athlete signed up for -- not being able to go to school."
Guilmet, a junior from Citrus Heights, Calif., is majoring in the university's race track industry program, which requires him to spend a lot of time working with horses in stables.
"At the beginning of the semester, the [professors] were real supportive," Guilmet said. "Toward the end, they were like, 'Man, you missed a lot of work.' My grades suffered at the end of the semester because of it."
When the Wildcats opened a three-game road series at Pac-10 rival Washington on April 4, Arizona was beginning midterm exams for spring semester. Eight or nine Arizona players ate breakfast at 10 a.m. and then boarded a bus for a classroom at Washington, where they were administered exams by UW officials. The players returned to their hotel rooms around 2:30 p.m. and left for the ballpark two hours later.
After losing two of three games at Washington, the Wildcats flew to San Diego to play midweek games on Tuesday and Wednesday at San Diego State. Arizona flew back to Tucson the following day and opened a three-game series against Indiana State on Friday, April 11.
It wasn't even Arizona's spring break.
"We were on the road Tuesday and Wednesday for at least two or three weeks out of every month," Guilmet said. "There were times we flew from one place to the next. We weren't in Tucson for a week and a half or two weeks at a time. That's fine, but they're asking us to go to school, too. Teachers can only be so understanding."
Lopez said for the first time in his 26 years as a college baseball coach, he brought a full-time tutor with the team on road trips. The team had study hall while traveling to games and again each morning on the road. Tests were proctored at team hotels and sent to professors via e-mail and fax.
Before the season, Lopez sent a letter to every one of his players' professors explaining that he wasn't supportive of the NCAA's new scheduling rules. The letter was even signed by Arizona president Robert Shelton and athletic director Jim Livengood.
"It basically said, 'Please hang with us. We're stuck,'" Lopez said.
The schedule changes also dramatically increased Arizona's travel costs, even considering the rising cost of gas, Lopez said. He said the Wildcats spent about $43,000 more on travel expenses than they did during the 2007 season.
Texas Tech officials said their travel costs for baseball also increased sharply this season. The Red Raiders were often forced to use charter planes to travel to midweek road games so players wouldn't miss so much class during the week.
Florida State coach Mike Martin, whose Seminoles played seven midweek road games during the regular season, said the shortened season increased the importance in getting back to Tallahassee as quickly as possible.
"I didn't like it at all," Martin said. "If you're playing a Tuesday or Wednesday game, you almost have to play it at home or your kids will miss class the next day. You're trying to get all your games in and it's very difficult to sustain three straight weeks of five games. Playing 15 games in 21 days is tough, and that's what we were faced with. It should be four games per week and that would be perfect. They should go back to Feb. 1 to begin the season. Sure, you're talking about three weeks. But should my guys be penalized because the sun shines down here for those three weeks? It shines all over the country."
Apparently, the sun isn't shining everywhere during the early spring. A condensed schedule was supposed to make it easier for northern schools to play home games earlier in the season. But most of the schools north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River spent much of the first month of the season playing on the road.
Big East champion St. John's opened the season by playing in two tournaments at Winthrop University. The Red Storm played eight games in nine days in Rock Hill, S.C., and then flew to Northridge, Calif., for a four-game series against Cal State-Northridge from March 7-9. St. John's didn't play its first home game in Queens until hosting Long Island on March 12.
Many Big Ten schools also didn't benefit from the delayed start. Purdue opened the season with 13 consecutive road games at Baylor, Western Kentucky, Kentucky and Ohio, losing 11 times in the first three weeks. The Boilermakers didn't play their first home game until they beat Western Illinois 6-0 on March 22.
Likewise, Michigan State played three games in Florida, six games in Texas, three games in South Carolina and two in Louisiana before playing its first home game at Oldsmobile Park in East Lansing on March 29.
Many coaches of northern schools see the new rule as only a starting point to more dramatic changes. Many would like the season's start date delayed even further to give them an opportunity to play more home games and increase their revenues from ticket sales and concessions.
Big Ten champion Michigan played only 26 home games during a 60-game schedule this season. Conversely, Pac-10 champion Arizona State played 26 of its first 28 games at Packard Stadium in Tempe (the two road games were played 38 miles away in Surprise, Ariz.). The Sun Devils didn't play outside the state until they traveled to play at Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., on April 4.
Longtime Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson favors delaying the start of the baseball season a few more weeks, and not just because chilly temperatures in Kansas prevent the Shockers from playing home games in February.
"The season still needs to be moved back further in the year," Stephenson said. "We're still playing half of our season when basketball is going on. We're never going to become a major sport if you're playing half your season or more when basketball is the most popular."
It's a good-hearted attempt by the NCAA to try and balance the playing field in an outdoor sport where competing teams hail from different regions of the country, oftentimes with drastically different climates. But the science of scheduling is never perfect, and neither is that of increasing exposure and revenues. Most tricky is the science of navigating the differing moods of Mother Nature.
Since February in Queens and East Lansing, Mich., will always be cold (unless global warming is on a faster track than imagined), it seems Mother Nature has taken this round. And while the NCAA tries to come up with a solution, Guilmet and his teammates, along with all his student-athlete peers, will be waiting, most likely on a bus, or in an airport.
Heather Dinich contributed to the reporting of this story. Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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