June 17, 2013 1:19:44 PM
OMAHA, Neb. -- Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen knew he was the odd man of the group when he arrived at the news conference for the four coaches in the upper bracket of the College World Series.
But Cohen doesn't mind that his program has more CWS appearances (nine) than Indiana University (one), the University of Louisville (two), and Oregon State University (five) combined. In fact, Cohen, who was an outfielder on the 1990 MSU team that played in the CWS, feels it is a good thing that more programs believe they can advance to the sport's biggest stage.
"I think that there's so much parity in college baseball in some respects can be viewed as a really good thing in the sense that every school can start workouts in the fall thinking being here in Omaha is a realistic goal," Cohen said. "In other respects, some folks might not view it as a good thing as it's harder for any fan base to think getting here is easy."
On the other side of this season's CWS bracket, LSU leads the way with 16 appearances in Omaha, followed by the University of North Carolina (10), UCLA (five), and North Carolina State University (two).
In the changing world of college baseball, schools from north of the Mason-Dixon line and mid-major programs have a better chance to get to Omaha. This
season, MSU, one of nine Southeastern Conference teams to play in the NCAA tournament, is surrounded by the Big Ten Conference champion (Indiana), the Big East Conference champion (Louisville), and the Pacific-12 Conference champion (Oregon State) that are from parts of the country that aren't your typical college baseball hot spots.
"I really think it started in 2000 when Louisiana-Lafayette and San Jose State got to Omaha," Baseball America editor John Manuel said. "That was the second year of the 64-team field, and it showed that the CWS was attainable for mid-majors. The 64-team era has seen Notre Dame, Missouri State, Oregon State, Kent State, Stony Brook, and all kinds of new blood to Omaha in the last 15 years."
Manuel said rule changes and upgrades by schools outside of the traditional elite have impacted the level of parity in the sport.
"Parity extends beyond Division I because Iowa Western Community College has won two NJCAA World Series in the last four years and northern schools have won more Division II titles, such as Southern Indiana in 2010 and then West Chester (Pa.) in 2012," Manuel said. "There are so many leveling factors in college baseball. You didn't have to be talented to hit well with the old bats. The 11.7 scholarships are a huge factor in leveling the playing field, so are the changes in recent years of 35-man rosters, 27 players on scholarship, and 25-percent minimum (aid required to college baseball players). All of those have reduced the talent advantage of larger programs and driven more talent to non-traditional power schools that want to compete."
Cohen has seen a program like Stony Brook University, which played in its first CWS in 2012, amass talent and have a roster that included nine drafted players. He also watched last season as Scott Stricklin led Kent State University to its first trip to Omaha. The University of Georgia hired Stricklin to be its new head coach, but Cohen knows schools it may not be the norm to see the CWS packed with schools from warm weather states any longer.
"I think athletic departments care more about college baseball than they ever did before," Cohen said. "There were not a lot of programs in this country that cared about baseball. Now it's totally changed. There's so many more programs that care about it and invest in it and in terms of facilities and coaches, budgets, and things like that. It's helped college baseball that schools have decided to put the money into their baseball programs."
MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, who has worked in athletics departments at the University of Kentucky, Baylor University, Tulane University, and Auburn University, said the landscape of college baseball has changed in the past 10 years. While at Tulane, Stricklin saw the Green Wave (a two-time CWS participant) go from the nation's No. 1 team in 2005 to spending the 2006 fall semester at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
"I think one thing that makes this sport so much of a connection to the people no matter where you are in the country is the history of baseball represents a passion immediately," Stricklin said. "Baseball is an easy thing to sell to your fan base really because most everybody grew up playing it in Little League or at some level. You don't have to show people the rules to baseball. They know how the game is played at a basic level."
At 7 tonight (ESPN2), MSU will face an Indiana team that has seen benefited from unprecedented funding. In August 2011, the IU Board of Trustees officially approved construction of a new baseball and softball complex on the north edge of the Bloomington, Ind., campus. Construction on the new $19.8 million complex began in the spring of 2012 and was completed prior to this season. Bart Kaufman Field features indoor and outdoor hitting cages, a new turf field, a press box to accommodate 15 media stations and radio announcers, a new scoreboard, new stadium lighting, accommodation for TV cameras and production trucks, and stadium seating for 2,500 fans.
However, even Indiana coach Tracy Smith joked about IU baseball surpassing the passion and history of the school's men's basketball program. Smith, a native of Kentland, Ind., knows where his program sits in IU's athletic philosophy, but he's fine with trying to win a national championship coming from outside the national spotlight.
"Our recruiting coordinator Ty Neal, who is moving on to be the next head coach at Cincinnati, one of his ideas at our new stadium was with a big rectangular, asphalt surface that was in his mind, perfect for a basketball hoop for recruiting," Smith said. "We are not even close to overcoming basketball at Indiana. Coach (Tom) Crean has some nice comments that Indiana is a baseball school now. Being born and raised there, it's a basketball state now, was then, and always will be."
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