Can a mid-major win another College World Series?
I asked some coaches and ADs
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CONWAY, SOUTH CAROLINA:
In 2016, Coastal Carolina did something that teams in the Big South or Sun Belt really aren’t supposed to be able to do. They won the whole dang College World Series.
It wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan situation, like a George Mason miracle run to the Final Four. Coastal was good, and they had been good for a while. The Chanticleers had been a national seed in 2010 and made a Super Regional, and were an NCAA Tournament mainstay over the last decade.
College baseball isn’t college football. You don’t need to sign 55 blue-chip recruits to have a chance of competing for a national title, and teams like Coastal, institutions without massive TV contracts or huge budgets, regularly make deep postseason runs, and even occasionally win national titles. Fresno State won a national title in 2008, and both Rice and Cal State Fullerton won championships since the 2000s.
Last year, teams like East Carolina, Southern Miss and Georgia Southern were so strong that they hosted regionals in the NCAA Tournament. Teams from outside the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 regularly host regionals and win multiple postseason games.
But the last team from outside those four major leagues to actually make it all the way to the College World Series? Cal State Fullerton in 2017. Last year’s event featured four SEC teams, two Big 12 teams that are on their way to the SEC, Notre Dame, and Stanford. An underdog Ole Miss squad, the last team in the Tournament field, did win the entire thing…but Ole Miss baseball isn’t exactly a scrappy underdog program.
In a world where the most wealthy and powerful college athletic departments are only getting wealthier and more powerful…can a mid-major still have a real shot at competing for a college baseball national championship? Can there be another team like 2016 Coastal Carolina?
I figured a good place to look would be…Coastal Carolina.
“I don’t really like the term ‘mid-major’, to be honest,” CCU AD Matt Hogue told me. “I don’t think that’s an accurate depiction of what we are.” “I prefer to think of this more like the stock market…we have major cap program, mid cap programs, etc. Some are just better capitalized than others.”
When it comes to college baseball…Hogue is probably right. Mid-major might not actually be the best descriptor for Coastal Carolina.
When fans talk about P5 this or Power that, the designation usually centers on conference affiliation. The “Power” conferences generally have more money, more postseason access, better facilities and better-regarded players…at least in sports like football and basketball.
That’s not totally true in college baseball. The Sun Belt, where Coastal plays, is generally one of the five or six best leagues in the country, and looks to be even stronger now that the league added Southern Miss and Old Dominion. It is indisputably better than the Big Ten, an allegedly Power Conference full of schools with athletic budgets the size of Guatemala.
Last year, the Sun Belt sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, nearly as many as the Big 12 or Pac-12 (who each sent five) and more than the Big Ten and every other multi-bid conference (two). This year, some projections have them earning as many as five bids. As of this writing, Coastal Carolina is ranked 10th in the country, and Southern Miss is in the Top 25.
The Chanticleers play in Springs Brooks Stadium, a modern, on-campus stadium, with 2,500 permanent seats, with plenty of room for standing room or outfield grass seating. The stadium is right next to a modern indoor hitting facility. Everything might not be quite as big as what LSU or Ole Miss might have, but there’s nothing about the gameday experience that would make an observer think “this school doesn’t care about baseball.” Coastal Carolina very clearly does.
So does Southern Miss, their opponent during the weekend series I attended. The Golden Eagles were a national seed in the 2022 tournament, and have also been a college baseball postseason mainstay over the last several years.
Southern Miss AD Jeremy McClain is a baseball guy. He was a former D-II All-American baseball player, and has spent his entire career at Southern schools that care deeply about baseball. I asked him if he thought it was still possible for schools like his to really compete for national titles.
“I really do believe that it is still possible,” he told me. “We know that we aren’t going to be able to compete dollar for dollar with every other program, but baseball is the kind of sport where differently-resourced programs can still really compete.”
In college football, there’s really only one blueprint for building a team that can contend for a national title. Sign as many blue-chip recruits as you possibly can. Then, beyond building palatial facilities, big-budget programs will hire a small army of analysts and support staffers to build recruiting lists, analyze film, and micromanage every bit of strength and conditioning data they possibly can.
That arms race doesn’t quite exist in college baseball, at least at the same scope. Even with the NCAA increasing the number of allowable coaches, college baseball can only have four full-time coaches. So that means that teams have to be creative.
“Analytics and off-field development is a big part of what we do,” Coastal head coach Gary Gilmore told me. “In college baseball, everybody is so focused on the six months that we play. But what we do during the other six months is so important too.” Because CCU doesn’t have unlimited money, the team uses a student assistant to help with team analytics, and are hoping to get him the experience needed to get a job with a professional baseball team someday. Southern Miss, McClain told me, has also used students to help with analytical work, which he also agreed was becoming increasingly important for their program.
Coastal does have a full-time operations professional, as well as a full-time staffer for strength and conditioning. Programs like CCU have to pick and choose where to really make big investments, and Coastal has tried to do more on the player development side.
And this, big picture, is what raises alarm bells for Gilmore.
Historically, Coastal Carolina has tried to build a roster centered more on continuity, culture and development, rather than just initial star power, betting that they can teach a more under-the-radar prospect to become a strong player in a few years.
But in a post-NIL, post-transfer portal world, Gilmore says “we now really have to really accelerate the physical development pace for our players.” It’s going to be harder to convince players to stay and develop for two or three years, especially since baseball isn’t a headcount sport. Most players are on partial scholarships.
“One of the hardest things,” Gilmore told me, “is when we get them here in the summer, and they aren’t fully funded, so they’re digging into their pocket a bit.”
This may be where having bigger budgets will provide bigger advantages long-term
It’s probably not an accident that many of the mid-maj–er, mid-cap, schools that have enjoyed national success over the last twenty years are typically in Southern California (Long Beach, Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara), the Gulf South region (Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane) or near the coasts of the Carolinas (ECU, College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina). The warm weather makes it easier for these schools to schedule plenty of home games, especially against RPI-boosting programs early in the season, and all three regions are home to plenty of excellent prep talent. South Carolina and Florida can’t sign everybody, or even properly scout them all.
Both McClain and Hogue told me that it’s possible that growing budgets for major programs like in the SEC and ACC may make it harder for Sun Belt squads to out-scout them, but it isn’t impossible. The roster at Southern Miss mostly consists of in-state kids or nearby states. “In recruiting, we do beat Ole Miss and Mississippi State for kids sometimes,” McClain added.
And when they don’t, well, with quality enough development, it might not matter as much. “We’ve had a lot of success with players that weren’t on anyone else’s radar”, added Gilmore.
Of course, NIL and the transfer portal can change that. Southern Miss and Coastal Carolina aren’t backed by massive collectives, and that’s unlikely to change. Re-recruiting their roster will become even more important, because guaranteed NIL payments, even ones that aren’t nearly as large as football and basketball players, can be hard to turn down for players that aren’t on full scholarship. Juggling that potential roster instability, along with the threat of the MLB draft, makes baseball roster management particularly challenging.
So what’s next?
Hogue told me that “punching above our weight” is part of Coastal Carolina’s institutional legacy, and not even just as an athletic department. After all, the school only became completely independent of the University of South Carolina system back in the early 1990s, so the school doesn’t have a hundred years of institutional inertia to help with fundraising at home or in Columbia. You can’t do that without being disciplined with resources or without wearing multiple hats, and that approach isn’t likely to change in the near future.
Still, he stressed that baseball is a critical part of the department, and they’re committed to helping it be successful. That may mean that the school looks to create a ‘pitching lab’ in the future or make investments in other ways to develop athletes, so they can keep up as best they can with other schools that care deeply about college baseball.
On Friday night, over 2,100 fans showed up to watch Coastal and Southern Miss. Athletics staffers told me that typically, attendance would be much stronger for such a high-quality matchup, but with the end of the academic school year, they were competing against multiple Greek Life Formals and other campus events. Still, compared to the rest of the country, 2,100 is still a pretty good crowd, and the folks that did attend had no problems making noise.
They saw a good game. Coastal beat Southern Miss 15-7, hitting three homers and knocking around a good pitching staff for 16 hits.
There’s still a lot of baseball to be played this season, but whoever ends up finishing atop the Sun Belt should be in a good position to host a Regional, and both Coastal and Southern Miss should comfortably make the NCAA Tournament. At least two other Sun Belt teams are likely to join them.
“To make a deep run in baseball, you want to be playing your best at the end of the season, you need to pitch well, and you need a little good ol’ fashioned ‘baseball luck’” Hogue told me.
Based on what I heard in Conway, that’s still true, even with NIL, the transfer portal, and massive TV contracts.
It might be harder to pull off, but when has that stopped teams like these two before?
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