New Schedule Unsettling for Northern Teams

College baseball's first look at a uniform start date begins Friday in an effort to level the playing field between the Northern schools and Southern schools. According to Minnesota coach John Anderson, the situation is still severely tilted.

The Golden Gophers received a bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, but their skipper admits that all elements must fall in place for that to occur again. The Big Ten isn't recognized as a top conference, and Minnesota's geography puts a tremendous strain on the school's budget. The current schedule set-up makes the cost-benefit analysis for most Northern schools laughable.

"I wouldn't be surprised if our budget for baseball is more than Mississippi's," Anderson said. "We are definitely committed to the sport, but we don't have the same access to the postseason. There must be a better system. This is nightmarish."

The uniform start date pushed the season back a few days and compacted the schedule with two fewer weeks of baseball. The goal is to allow every team, regardless of climate, to have equal practice in the fall and to give the spring weather a little extra time to shape up. Also, Southern schools have always begun playing at the first of the February, or even before, which results in fewer midweek games and gaudier records.

"The effectiveness can't be decided yet, but at least teams can't just play on the weekends," Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said. "Miami and some other schools would always start in January and only throw their three starters throughout the season. Now, pitching depth is more of a factor. That part is evened up."

However, Anderson thinks the tinkering may have accomplished more harm than good. Instead of fixing the problem for schools like his, everybody else now faces some of the same difficulties.

"Compaction does nothing but complicate things," said Anderson, who is entering his 27th season as head coach. "If you want a solution, extend the season later in the year. Move it more into the summer. I understand the situation with the draft, but we train the players and put them on scholarship. The current set-up leaves no time for academics or make-up games. If the rain becomes heavy for a few weeks, what do you do? Nothing but lose out on scheduled games.

"There is a reason the pros begin in April. It is a weather issue."

Right now, the Big Ten plays four conference games per weekend with one game Friday, a Saturday doubleheader and final matchup on Sunday. That is changing next year, as the league will switch to the traditional three game series. It will lighten the load on the student athlete, but it will also play havoc on coaches attempting to complete their schedules.

"We are resigned to the fact that 56 games is probably out of the question," Anderson said because the budget is not large enough to travel a great deal during the midweek. "I expect us to play 48-50. There is just no way, and that is a problem. On top of everything else, our conference will be judged by the NCAA committee without the full allotment of games, possibly by a substantial number. We are the only D-1 school in our state.

"Maybe the answer is to have two separate classifications like football and have the northern schools start later and end later. I don't know the answer, but the sport is suffering because we can't get everyone together to fix this. I know we can't tell Mississippi not to play in February, but this change isn't going to fix the majority of the dilemmas."

The lack of outdoor availability for practice and early-season games also affect the prototypical Northern schools with other major problems- a lack of respect and exposure. While the SEC is used to eight teams reaching the NCAAs, the Big Ten simply hopes for a crooked number.

Since the Big Ten is considered weak to most segments of the country, a hefty conference record is a prerequisite, not a way to a sure-fire selection.

Also, RPI is becoming as important in baseball as it is in basketball, thus Minnesota must take its show on the road against top-level competition in the nonconference. The Metrodome allows them to host some upper-tier programs as well. But an indoor complex for the Gophers is an exception, not the norm up North. Last season, Minnesota ran its RPI into the top five early in the season after wins against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Virginia Tech among others.

After that, it is a matter of winning while the rating still falls.

"We can have a weekend where we win four games and our RPI drops," Anderson said. "Meanwhile, some other teams can lose a series to a good team and have their ranking rise. We need wins early before trying to hold on."

Holding on applies to more than winning games or worrying about records. Some northern schools are simply trying to hold on to their programs – a task that is becoming increasingly difficult. The monetary demands to field a successful program for schools that are geographically isolated are staggering and normally aren't worth the reward potential.

The Big Ten has begun a four-year improvement plan for its schools participating in baseball. Conference teams are recommitting to the sport with competitive salaries, stadium improvements and increased awareness of Big Ten baseball.

"The next four or five years are critical," Anderson said. "There will be a lot of changes everywhere, but if this doesn't work, don't be surprised if the conference doesn't even put up a fight with programs that want to drop the sport. The money is outrageous to stay competitive, so some programs will decide, ‘What's the point?'"

Despite the difficulty, most schools field teams. Wisconsin is the lone Big Ten squad to fold, while Iowa State and Colorado don't play baseball in the Big XII.

Money is needed to support the cause, but with a lack of spectators, there aren't many ways to generate income. Winning on a national level will increase fans, but that is difficult without a substantial budget. A double-edge sword occurs.

The Big Ten is becoming deeper, but it is a long process and struggle to gain true legitimacy relative to the SEC, ACC and Pac-10. Michigan increased awareness in 2007 by toppling No. 1 overall seed Vanderbilt in the Nashville regional. Minnesota beat nationally-ranked San Diego, and Ohio State is usually a player on the national scene.

"I wasn't surprised by any of our teams having success last year," Anderson said. "I know we are all a lot better in May than February."

That is true, but the Northern schools can't miss any chances to make a splash.

Winning in February is mandatory for May to even matter.

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