Rules Force USC Baseball to Stop Recruiting

The new rules imposed by the NCAA's emergency legislation in an effort to improve college baseball's APR (Academic Progress Rate) are now in effect, and Jim Toman, the University of South Carolina's coach in charge of recruiting for highly ranked baseball program has had to stop recruiting any new players because of them.

"I've stopped recruiting," Toman said. "I'm done this year, at least until it's clarified that the new rules will remain in effect as passed. " He said USC currently has seven commitments towards the next class, and due to the new numbers restrictions, they can't take anymore. Toman said he has had to take five or six offers off of the table that had been offered to other players USC wanted prior to the new rules taking effect in April.

The APR includes eligibility, retention, and graduation as factors in the rate calculation. The most controversial new rule is a mandate that athletes receiving aid (scholarships) must include at least 33% athletic aid. College baseball has always received the least number of scholarships of any sport, 11.7. The other most controversial rule is one that caps the number of players a team can have, reducing the number from the current 50 players down to 35, with only 30 players being eligible to receive financial aid. Starting in the 2009-10 academic year, the number who can receive financial aid will be further reduced to only 27 players, each of whom must receive at least one-third of a full scholarship.

Mississippi State Head Coach Ron Polk has been the most vocal opponent of the new rules. He told ESPN, "They're giving us chump change, and now they're telling us how to spend the chump change. Why are our boys playing for 10 percent scholarships and 4 percent scholarships when other athletes are getting full scholarships? Baseball has always been hammered by the NCAA. This is another crisis."

Polk has a point in terms of numbers. Division I-A football teams receive 85 scholarships, and men's and women's basketball teams have 13 scholarships. To put the matter in perspective, counting special teams, football coaches are able to recruit three deep, or three times the number of players that start the game. Basketball is also close to three deep. When you factor in a middle relief pitcher and a closer, baseball can barely go one deep, and unlike the other two major men's sports where the athletes receive a full scholarship, baseball is forced to dole out their scholarships in fractions.

South Carolina currently has 22 of 36 players receiving less than one-third of a full scholarship this season, Coach Ray Tanner said. The new rule also eliminates what coaches call "book scholarships." Those smaller awards of $500 or so are currently given in return for a roster spot.

Tanner, who like Polk has been vocal in his opposition to the rule changes, said, "You can't do the numbers any more. It confines you. It's really taking away opportunities (for players to play college baseball.) I said that, and it seems a lot of people don't agree with that, but that's what it is - there's going to be fewer opportunities. You're going to have to play guys. A guy hits .200, and you're just going to keep playing him. That's just the new landscape. Guys get drafted and you lose them late, you're going to have a hole - you're not going to be able to replace them."

Thursday was the first day of this year's major league baseball draft, and Tanner admitted on Wednesday he would be watching it with some anxiety, to see if the high school players his team has signed or those already in his program who are eligible for the draft would be taken high enough in the draft that they would not join or return respectively to USC.

College baseball has another disadvantage compared to its more well heeled fellow programs of football and basketball. It competes head to head with professional baseball for the high school players it recruits. While a handful of the very best basketball players are taken each year by the NBA, most of the top college baseball programs recruit and sign high school players that they subsequently lose each year to Major League Baseball's June draft. The NFL has rules that prevent players from going directly to the NFL from high school.

Polk told ESPN that he believes the new rules will do more harm that good. Because of the new rules, Polk said college baseball teams won't be able to lure top high school players to their schools anymore. "How am I going to be able to convince a kid to come to college, instead of going pro, when I can only give him a 33 percent scholarship?" He also feels that teams will be forced to encourage juniors to enter the major league draft, instead of returning to school for their senior seasons, to open up roster for the following season.

Tanner referenced another problem with reducing the number of players a team can have: "Injured guys are going to count." Teams will be forced to take away the scholarships of injured players, because coaches can't risk spending a scholarship on a player who might not be able to play.

Another new rule that has been implemented is to force a player to sit out a year if he transfers to another school. In the past, baseball players could transfer from one school to another without penalty. Football and basketball players have had in place a rule to sit out one season at their new school if they transfer. Under the new rules, baseball players also will face that one-year penalty if they leave.

That rule also flies in the face of what is in a player's best interest, Polk believes. He thinks baseball players have been more likely to transfer because they can get better scholarships at other schools. "Am I supposed to tell a kid who's getting a 4 percent scholarship that he can't leave?" Polk asked.

Tanner and Polk both compete in the SEC, long perceived to be one of, if not the most, powerful conferences in college baseball, and both have coached their teams this year into the Super Regionals thus far, making both programs one of only 16 teams still playing. Also in the SEC is LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who was one of three coaches on the 27 person working-group that drafted the changes. He told Baseball America that scholarship changes were part of the original changes "until the ninth inning," with two proposals made. One would have been a straight increase to 15 or 16 full scholarships; the other would have moved baseball to 27 tuition fees and book scholarships.

Georgia Tech Head Coach Danny Hall told Baseball America that the 33% is "Effectively a scholarship cut. What I cannot figure out is why the NCAA continues to single out baseball." The new rules were implemented according to the NCAA to increase program's APR, but Hall told BA, "We had better scores on our APR than (men's) basketball or football, in spite of our troubles (with transfers), but I don't hear about special work groups or scholarship cuts for basketball or football."

The South Carolina baseball program's APR is 938, putting it in the 40-50th percentile within the sport when comparing it to other schools, and in the 20-30th percentile when ranking it with all sports. The key number in APR scores is to be above the NCAA target minimum of 925. Both the USC basketball and football programs were under 925 in the latest report, with scores of 902 and 913, respectively.

Most college baseball coaches have been vocal in their opposition to the new rules, but one coach spoke up in favor of them. University of Maine Head Coach Steve Trimper told the Bangor Daily News, "In the world of baseball, these rule changes are the single biggest thing that's ever happened to the game."

The University of Maine is a much smaller school than those in the power conferences like the SEC or the ACC, where Georgia Tech plays, and only funds between 9 and 9½ scholarships. The Bears also compete as a Division 1-AA football school. Trimper is confident the rules changes will help the Black Bears' compete in the America East Conference and beyond. Trimper's Bears closed out the season 22-31, the program's worst record since 1996 and its first losing season since 1998.

Trimper told the Bangor paper he thought the new rules would force changes in Top 25 programs. "These new rules are forcing everybody in the country to do it the way we do it," Trimper said of northern coaches' recruiting efforts. "I think in five years' time, the level of play is going to go up at all levels. It's really limiting the number of scholarship kids they (top programs) can bring in," Trimper said. "I really firmly believe it's going to help bring more equity to baseball."

Trimper was also in favor of the new rule affecting transfers, telling the Bangor paper that it "may limit Top 25-caliber programs from 'stealing' players away from other teams." He feels the new rules should not only make legitimate pro prospects balk at sitting out a year, they also should reduce big-time teams' ability to stockpile players, something Trimper views as a major problem.

Baseball, like most men's sports, is affected by the Title IX legislation imposed by the government to guarantee that women's sports receive equal scholarship opportunities with men's sports. Women's equestrian teams can award 15 scholarships, and women's crew teams can award 20 scholarships. Because women don't play football and Title IX requires an equal number of scholarships be given to men and women athletes, it causes men's scholarships in sports other than football to be limited so the schools can fund women's equally. It also forces the schools to add new sports for women. USC is adding a women's lacrosse team to be in compliance with Title IX.

Polk told ESPN, "I think Title IX was the greatest thing ever for college sports because I think women were really being discriminated against. I've got no problem with that, and I don't think anyone else does. Women's sports were under funded and didn't have the facilities and good coaching staffs. I just say, 'Where's Title X?' Our boys, our families and our coaches are being discriminated against in terms of scholarships."

There is a movement to change the rules, but for now they are in effect. 30 schools must request an override vote in writing by June 25 in order to make the NCAA legislative process again active on the issue. If 100 schools request an override vote, the changes could then be suspended from taking place until a meeting of the NCAA's board of directors takes place. The changes can be stopped altogether if five-eights of all Division 1 schools vote to over-ride in January 2008.

Tanner said, "I know when the college season is over that there is certainly going to be some dialogue among the coaches and maybe a special meeting. I know the administrators are listening to us. Whether we'll get it overridden or not remains to be seen. The landscape as we all know it will be changing if we don't get it overridden, at least the percentage part."

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