http://www.startribune.com/sports/ http://www.startribune.com/stories/513/4840224.html Big Ten chief seeks level playing field in college baseball Dean Spiros Star Tribune Published June 22, 2004 T he crowning of a College World Series champion is being played out in familiar fashion this week in Omaha, with eight Sun Belt schools taking part in the double-elimination tournament. But for the first time in the event's 58 year history a committee has gathered in Omaha to begin contemplating NCAA legislation that could dramatically change college baseball. College baseball has been dominated for nearly 40 years by Sun Belt schools that have used their distinct weather advantage to reduce the national championship to a tournament for the privileged few. The committee is debating possible changes being pushed by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany that would help level the competitive playing field. Delany and his supporters are calling for a Feb. 1 starting date for practice, a March 1 starting date for games and the pushing back by at least two weeks the College World Series to allow Northern schools the opportunity to play more games at home. Northern schools also are seeking a change in the criteria used for selecting the 64-team NCAA field and where those regionals are held. If the proposed changes aren't accepted, Northern schools are considering creating their own playoff, and crowning a separate national champion. "We do not believe we can't compete," Delany said. "We do believe we've proven we can't compete in this environment. If no change occurs our people will have decisions to make." "Number one, we could accept it. Another one would be to ask for legislation that would allow us to explore an alternative type of championships for schools in different climates." Gophers coach John Anderson said Big Ten coaches are unanimous in their support of Delany's push for change and -- if it comes to that -- the creation of a separate championship. "The NCAA has in its bylaws that every student athlete should have a chance to compete for an NCAA championship," Anderson said. "That's not happening in baseball. My position all along is that until we show them we have an alternative nothing will change. "The coaches [from Sun Belt schools] I talk to basically say, 'Where else are you going to play?' " The Gophers are the prime example of the advantage Southern schools have. Minnesota won College World Series titles in 1956, '60 and '64, at a time when NCAA regionals were based on geography, meaning the Gophers competed against Midwest teams to reach the World Series. The NCAA now bases regionals on national seeding. The Gophers haven't been to a World Series since 1977, and this year the Gophers were the only Big Ten team to get a postseason bid. Nine Southeastern Conference teams made the 65-team field, and four advanced to the College World Series. Florida State assistant athletic director Charlie Carr, a member of the nine-person special committee, is aware Northern schools are considering extreme measures. "I would hope our group could make a decision that is in the best interest of everybody and that it would be respected," Carr said. "I don't know if there is a magic answer for everybody. "We don't play hockey down here. A lot of schools can't afford to play as many sports as they would like. There are all kinds of fairness sides to it. That doesn't mean we're going to leave or do something on our own." Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi supports a possible alternate championship. "I don't think that's good for anybody, but if we don't ever feel we have a chance to compete maybe that is what has to happen," Maturi said. College baseball never has had a uniform starting date for practices or games. As a result, most major Sun Belt programs are out on the diamond in January and play their first games in early February. Anderson blames the college baseball coaches as a group for allowing the system to stay in place for so long. "Our football coach would never allow Miami to start practicing before his team could," Anderson said. "He would never allow Miami to play more home games than he could play." Northern schools interested in trying to compete on a national level traditionally make trips to warm weather states in late February and March. They often do not fare well. Ohio State coach Bob Todd said the Buckeyes played 16 road games before they were able to practice on their home field. They were 7-9. Ohio State is the last Northern school to win the NCAA championship -- in 1966. "We've had some good dialogue," Todd said. "But I've been discouraged of late by comments from people in warm weather climates who say their people aren't really interested in this. The atmosphere has changed." If so, it threatens to turn an already delicate situation into an ugly battle. "I have an empathy for the constrictions our cold weather schools have," Carr said. "There is a difference, and it makes a difference how the season plays out. Our job is to try to come up with what is best for everyone. "Just as we have cold weather schools who are in need of some help there are some mid-major schools who have financial problems and some of the things we have talked about would increase that burden. "If we extend the season, that translates into a lot of money and that has a dynamic affect on a lot of schools. And we have to look at what is in the best interest of the student-athlete." The Northern schools' push for better representation in the NCAA field also will be a hard sell. It's unlikely Sun Belt schools would agree to revert to regional qualification. "What has evolved has been a system that tries to pick the best 64 teams and I think there is merit to that," said Carr, who leads the selection committee. The battle lines have begun to be drawn. "Twenty percent of the country controls the national championship," Todd said. "It's not fair. It's time we make a stand. I feel a heavy burden in that I represent 80 percent of the country. In my own clear conscience I have to make it clear that there is no compromise in this area: We have to have a March 1 starting date for games and we have to move Omaha back at least two weeks." The committee's recommendations are expected to be sent to the NCAA's championships/competition cabinet late this summer. Any changes likely would not be put in place until the 2006 season. "We need some competitive equity in a sport that has none," Delany concluded. "If it goes down after a fair argument in the body politic that's one thing. If [the committee] doesn't advance the issues that is another thing." At which point the North is expected to rise up. "We have the ability to bring together a television package, a model, that would be legitimate," Delany said. "Our study shows that baseball can be very successful in this part of the country. We have good weather; we just don't have it in February, March and April." Dean Spiros is at [email protected]. © Copyright 2004 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.