There is a lot of confusion over the selection process the NCAA uses to pick the teams for the upcoming NCAA college baseball tourney.
- Is RPI important?
- What about conference records? Non-conference record?
- Strength of schedule?
- Is it all about money?
Given the confusion, we went to the source for the answers. We present an interview with Damani Leech, NCAA Director of Baseball and Football in which he describes the selection process, answers questions about the future, aluminum bats, and somehow manages to cause me pain in the process.
CN: How did you get involved in college baseball and how did it lead you to this position?
I don't have competitive experience in college baseball. My baseball experience was limited to high school when I couldn't hit a curve ball well enough to play in college. I played football at Princeton University. Shortly after graduating from Princeton, I came to the NCAA and worked in rules compliance for a few years. Then about four or five years ago I moved into our football-baseball group with a background in football but being very familiar with baseball after playing it throughout my childhood and high school.
Getting into college baseball has been great. It's been both enlightening and educational but also pretty exciting and rewarding.
CN: The NCAA released college baseball RPI's for the first time in history a few weeks ago. Why now?
It started with men's and women's basketball a year prior to this. Men and women's basketball decided to release their RPI because there were a lot of other individuals that were coming out with their own versions of the RPI and it was creating some disinformation.
When basketball did it, it sort of gave everybody else the opportunity to ask themselves "Is this something we want to do?" A lot of sports were interested in releasing their RPI, so rather than having it being done in sort of a piecemeal fashion, our championship competition cabinet decided that all sports would release their RPI.
It could be released throughout the season on a schedule that each sport could dictate each year. This is the first year that baseball did it. We think it's good, it brings sunshine to the process and the work of the committee and also helps advance the sport and the championship.
The RPI gives people something to look at other than a coach's poll or a media poll. It's another piece of information for people to look at to get them excited for the championship.
CN: Can you describe the NCAA college baseball tourney selection process?
Generally speaking it's a 64-team bracket with 30 teams that automatically qualify - meaning they're the champion from their conference however that conference determines a champion whether by regular season play or a conference tournament. After we determine the "AQ's", as we call them, we pick 34 teams on an 'at-large' basis so the committee starts by picking the best 34 teams in the country.
The committee is going to use a variety of tools and information to pick those teams. The RPI is one tool. They look at various parts of the season; conference records, non-conference records and strength of their schedule. Each committee member has what we call a regional advisory committee and that's a group primarily composed of coaches. It's a group that the committee relies on throughout the season to get feedback from on a weekly or biweekly basis on how teams are doing in their regions. It's a very good resource to get a finger on the pulse of what's going on within their regions.
They take all the information, then come to the meeting and debate and argue and eventually come up with the 34 best teams so that once they have that they've got their pool of 64. They then go through the process of seeding which is equally difficult. Now you're talking about who are the best 16 teams and within that who are the best eight teams for your number one seeds. Then you try to determine your number two seeds and then after that's decided who's going to host in the first round with those regional sites. Then we'll figure out the bracket by filling in the third and fourth seeds.
CN: Which would have a higher priority, a RPI rating or a conference record?
That's different based on a committee member. We don't officially say one should have a higher priority over the other. We leave that up to them to decide. We constantly tell people that the RPI is just one tool we use in the process for evaluation. The RPI can be misleading at times so you have to look beyond the RPI ranking and look at the components that make it up. In some cases, things can get skewed for a team that is very strong but is in a league that is not strong from top to bottom and their RPI gets dragged down.
CN: Like a Coast Carolina.
Right. Their RPI is going to get dragged down based on the strength of the opponents in their conference and there's nothing they can do about it. They have to play those teams and even if they beat them it's still going to bring their RPI down a little bit.
CN: Conversely, you have a team like FSU that may play in a decent conference but they beat up a lot of smaller teams this year - a lot of weaker teams this year - and they end up with a fabulous record.
Not even that but FSU is a pretty easy one in terms of 'do they get in'. What really becomes difficult on an annual basis is a team that may be number two in a conference, they've got a great record, they're not the AQ, they have a few quality wins but they've got a lot of wins over teams that aren't very strong just because of geographically that's because who's around them versus a team that has a fairly mediocre record, just above .500 maybe, but they're in a very strong conference and they've got a lot of quality wins, along with a lot of losses but those losses are against some good teams.
Trying to make heads or tails of those two types of teams is what every selection meeting comes down to every year. There's two or three teams on one side and two or three on the other side and trying to decide which ones get in and which ones don't. That's really tough - that's where I don't envy the committee members.
CN: How long does this meeting last?
A few days. This week we'll start on Friday night, have dinner, and run through the selection process just to remind everybody what the process is. We'll remind them how the RPI works and take care of some other issues related to the championship. Then we'll start first thing Saturday morning evaluating teams and talking about which teams should get in and we'll finish up on Monday afternoon.
CN: Is there a lot of screaming going on?
(laughs) Not a lot of screaming but a lot of healthy debate. Once you get down to those final teams of who's in and who's out and debating those top seeds is really intense. It's so hard - you can barely slide a piece of paper between some of those teams that we're trying to draw distinctions between.
CN: What determines who gets a regional - the potential sales of tickets does that weigh in, or rewarding a team like a Coastal Carolina that's had a good season?
The committee tries to reward those teams for their competitive success during the season. For the most part if you're a number one seed, the committee will try to grant that seed the opportunity to host. When you don't see that is when that institution doesn't submit a bid which we've seen on occasion over the past few years. Or they've got a facility flaw, for example, the field is torn up. A couple of years ago we had a host who had just hosted a conference tournament and their field was just a mess. There maybe other flaws and we just can't give them a host opportunity. Of the 16 teams, 14 or 15 of them are hosting so you don't have yourself in a situation where an institution is buying the host opportunity.
CN: What in college baseball would you like to see changed? There's a lot of changes coming from the NCAA next year, but is there anything that didn't happen that you really would have liked to see that change made?
I really think we're headed in the right direction. I think with the consistent start date we're going to have starting next year, I think it'll be healthy for the game from a competitive equity standpoint. It's not exactly what a lot of the Northern programs wanted, but it's not as bad as things are now. It was a good compromise for the baseball membership and from a competitive standpoint will help the sport of baseball. Academically what we've done over the last year in the long run will be good for the sport as well.
It's not going to be easy - change is never easy. We're getting a lot of feedback now from coaches and administrators who don't like what was adopted. Change isn't easy, but it's definitely for the positive. It's hard for anybody to argue that in the long run those changes won't be good for the sport of baseball.
CN: What did the Northern schools want? They wanted to lengthen the season, right?
They wanted a consistent start date and that date to be late in spring as possible. From their standpoint, they just can't get out on the field and practice and play in January and February like the Southern schools can. Their alternative is to start the season really late and play a very condensed schedule, miss a lot of class for their student athletes to try to keep up with the Southern programs but that means practicing in a gymnasium or a field-house and then traveling down to Florida or Georgia and playing against teams that have been practicing outside for weeks. They go home with one win and four losses and start their season behind the eight ball from an RPI standpoint.
CN: This leads me to ask - with the rising costs of collegiate sports - coaches salaries in football and basketball, insurance costs, and travel, . What's going to happen to these guys in the next five years? There are around 300 teams playing Division I college baseball. Do you see the number of college baseball programs dropping because of the economics of the sport?
That'll be interesting - that's one of the things we talked about as it relates to the academic requirements we're adopting. Right now, one could give some of those student athletes what we call a book scholarship, as low as $500 and get them on your team to play baseball.
We're going to require that student athletes receive a scholarship that's not less than 33% of a full scholarship. There are a lot of student athletes that are receiving less than that. So if you're a program that's not fully funded now, maybe you're only giving five or six total scholarships on your team, it's going to be difficult to adjust what you're doing and start giving out 33% scholarships and still try to get 25-30 baseball players on your team.
Whether or not that tips the scale and leads some people to throw their hands up and drop the sport - that remains to be seen. We don't think that'll happen, we don't want that to happen, but it's certainly possible.
CN: I have to ask this question because I know there's people out there that it makes crazy - baseball fanatics hate the 'tink' of aluminum instead of a 'crack' of a wooden bat. What's the deal with the wooden bat thing?
(laughs) That's interesting because if you ask other people who are specifically college baseball fans and they talk about how much they love the 'ping' of the aluminum bat. That sound to them means 'college baseball' - it defines college baseball. It separates it from the pros. There's obviously people on either side of that debate.
To your point, right now our membership is pretty satisfied with where things are with our aluminum bats. Our research shows they perform sufficiently close to the performance of a wood bat. They're more economically more viable, and as we've talked about, not every institution can afford to buy wood bats throughout the season, so aluminum bats economically make more sense for a lot of our programs. I don't see any change on that horizon in the near future. There's been some legal challenges to that in recent months and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out over the summer but there's no hue and cry from our membership to move to wood bats.
CN: Last question - Is there a CWS that stands out in your mind. A team in the past 20 years that won it all the encapsulates what NCAA baseball is?
I haven't been working in it for 20 years, but in the five years years I've been involved, it wasn't a team, but it was a day. It was in 2005, and it was what we call the elimination games - winner go home. Nebraska was playing Arizona State. 90% of the crowd was wearing red and white and obviously pro-Nebraska. It was a great game, a see-saw game, lots of home runs - clutch home runs - in the ninth inning. It went to extra innings. I think an Arizona State player tied or broke a record for home runs with three home runs, hitting three in one game. Eventually they took it to extra innings and Arizona State won.
It was a great game. We were all standing up cheering like fans even though we're not supposed to be cheering.
CN: Did you pick that one out to cause me pain?
(laughing) No, I didn't think about that. I'm sorry.
You had to pick one game out of the entire CWS and you had to pick that one?
(laughing) I'm sorry.
CN: Nebraska people still wonder 'why did we pitch to this guy when he was hitting so many home runs?'
It became an Instant Classic the next day on ESPN. Wasn't there a player in that game whose dad had either passed away or was in the hospital? The story lines in that game were phenomenal.
The next game was just as good. That's why I say it was a 'day' and not just a game. The next game was Baylor against Tulane and Baylor was down six or seven runs early in the game. I remember Harold Reynolds and Mike Patrick (CWS Announcers) talking about how the game was over and who Tulane had to play next. Baylor rallied back and ended up winning. They ended up winning on an error - a throwing error and two guys from Baylor scored in the bottom of the ninth to win. It was a wild, wild game.
The look on Tulane's faces as they wondered 'how did that just happen' - while Baylor had that look of 'I can't believe we just did that'. That was a good day. It was good for the teams, good for the fans, just a good day for college baseball.
I thanked Mr. Leech for his time, sense of humor, and graciousness.
I may have to send the NCAA my therapy bills for bringing up the Arizona State loss, but I certainly appreciate him taking the time to talk to me.
-- JJ --