What’s changed in college baseball? The sport is better

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Jay Johnson
(Photo: Jonathan Mailhes)

Forty years ago Monday, I became hooked on college baseball.

I was still a week away from graduating high school, but on May 16, 1982, I watched from atop the third base dugout at Seminole Field in Tallahassee, Florida as Tulane’s Eric Lane clubbed three home runs in the championship game of the Metro Conference Tournament as the Green Wave defeated Florida State 11-7 to earn an automatic berth – just the second in school history – to the NCAA Tournament.

Two weeks later, Tulane and the University of New Orleans would have a pair of classic matchups in a 48-hour span – the Privateers won both in their final at-bat – as a Division I regional was held in Louisiana for the first time. A loaded Wichita State team, sent to UNO as one of the tournament’s top five overall seeds, would claim the regional title and go on to finish as runner-up in the College World Series.

The irony wasn’t lost on me Monday afternoon with the news that, barely 24 hours after a sweep in Wichita dropped Tulane to 10-11 in American Athletic Conference play, the university and head coach Travis Jewett were parting ways after six seasons.

It’s apparent how the sport of college baseball has changed in those 40 years.

For our area teams, it has been hard to maintain the success rate they once enjoyed.

After reaching the College World Series in 2001 and 2005 and making 17 postseason trips in a 25-season span from 1982-2006, Tulane has reached the NCAAs just twice since 2008.

Even LSU, a postseason regular which made 15 trips to the CWS between 1986-2009, has gone to Omaha just three times in 13 years since their most recent national title.

It’s not just a Louisiana issue.

  • Five-time champion Arizona State hasn’t reached Omaha since 2010.
  • Cal State Fullerton, a four-time champion with 18 CWS appearances, has only been twice since 2009.
  • Miami has been to Omaha 25 times, but just twice since 2008.
  • Oklahoma State reached the final eight 11 times in the 1980s and 1990s, but just once this century.
  • The most successful program in college baseball history, 12-time champion Southern California, last made it to Omaha in 2001.
  • That Wichita State team that won the first-ever Louisiana regional and lost in the championship game twice to LSU hasn’t been to the CWS since 1996.

Some of the teams we see dominating the sport now had never even been to Omaha when LSU last hoisted the trophy. Vanderbilt has made it five times, all since 2011. Texas Tech made its only four appearances between 2014-19. Four of Louisville’s five appearances in Omaha came in the last decade.

So as Troy Dannen begins the process of hiring a new coach at Tulane and Jay Johnson is in the final week of his first regular season as head coach at LSU, the question remains – why this shift in success?

The sport is not only better, it’s deeper. More schools are funding their programs at a high level.

Tennessee, a team that reached Omaha with Tulane in both 2001 and 2005 but didn’t return until last year, is a consensus No. 1 team and putting together arguably one of the best regular seasons the sport has ever seen. It took several hires to finally, seemingly, get it right with Tony Vitello.

Virginia Tech, who Tulane defeated en route to that 1982 conference tournament title, is currently No. 3 in the nation. John Szefc, a former assistant at UL Lafayette, is leading the resurgence.

Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Maryland and Connecticut – located in areas that are anything but baseball hotbeds – are all ranked in the top 20.

As for the state of Louisiana in 2022, LSU will make the field of 64 but is likely traveling after a three-game sweep at the hands of Ole Miss last weekend. Louisiana and Louisiana Tech are on the proverbial at-large bubble and can either make or break their cases in the next two weeks. Everyone else – including Tulane under interim coach Jay Uhlman – will need to win their conference tournament.

In all likelihood, Tulane will have a new coach by the time a champion is crowned in Omaha in late June. Will it be one of those teams we’re used to seeing over the last 40 years, or someone new?

As crazy as it’s been, it’s still the best time of the year to be a college baseball fan.

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Lenny Vangilder

Sales/Content/Production

Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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