The special guest in the room hinted that this meeting would be different from any other the Big Ten baseball coaches had been a part of. Conference Commissioner Jim Delany had a message for the heads of the sport.
“He basically sat down and said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to figure out a way to become more relevant on a national level,’ ” Michigan State coach Jake Boss Jr. recalled about this now-three-year-old turning point for Big Ten baseball. “It was good to see Commissioner Delany come into our meeting, first and foremost. That shows from the conference level they echo a lot of the commitment that schools like Michigan State and other places have made to baseball.
“It was impressive to have him there and exciting that he was taking such an interest in baseball.”
The interest from above accelerated the goal for an improved image. In 2013, Indiana became the first Big Ten school to play in the College World Series since 1984. This season, the eight teams in the Big Ten tournament at Target Field each had 30-plus wins and six are in position to receive NCAA tournament bids.
Conference regular-season champion Illinois entered the Big Ten tournament on a 26-game winning streak and ranked in the top five in two national polls. Seven teams are ranked in the top 48 of the RPI rankings.
The most NCAA tournament bids the conference has ever received in a single season is three.
“This is going to be a historic year for the Big Ten Conference,” veteran Gophers coach John Anderson said. Traditionally, Minnesota has been near the top of the conference standings but missed the tournament this season for just the third time in 18 years.
“There is a new emphasis on baseball. … Other people got tired of the same schools — Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State — winning the league. They did something about it and started to compete. … And the resources that have been given to baseball across the league, it’s made an impact.”
The Gophers upgraded their baseball facilities with the new $7.2 million Siebert Field. Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue have facilities arguably as good as any in the country. Iowa and Northwestern are investing in upgraded complexes, and Nebraska has a long tradition of quality baseball and a well-funded program.
Last year’s expansion of the conference to include Maryland and Rutgers bolstered the Big Ten’s baseball image even more. Maryland is coming off a successful final year in the Atlantic Coast Conference that included a Super Regional appearance.
“Having spent the last two seasons in the ACC, there are not easy weekends in this conference at all,” Maryland coach John Szefc said in comparing the two. “The difference in this league [the Big Ten] and that league we just came from is very slim, if any.”
The ACC is built of traditional college baseball power programs including Miami, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia.
The Big Ten’s expansion east also helped its recruiting presence, which had already seen steady improvement thanks to the Big Ten Network.
“I think it started back with the Big Ten Network, with the networking bringing an awareness across the country to the quality of baseball we had,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “With the network, you’ve seen an upgrade in facilities, and I think that’s been important. You’ve seen some new coaches coming into the league that I think have done an outstanding job, and the addition of several teams with Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers has also elevated the conference.”
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said he’s seen a significant improvement in the conference’s talent since the Cornhuskers joined four years ago. Pitching staffs have more depth and every game is a dog fight, he said. The Huskers just sneaked into the Big Ten tournament as the No. 8 seed, but Erstad prefers the much-improved competition.
“I love the commitment to [get better],” he said. “We want a competitive conference and we want to be [mentioned] in the same breath as any other conference in the country, and I feel strongly that’s where it’s headed.”