The offseason wasn’t but a few minutes old before the questions started flying about Jack Leggett’s future with the Clemson Tigers’ baseball program.
When asked in a post game interview if he was confident that he would be back as head coach of the baseball team in 2015, Leggett responded, “Am I fully confident that I’m going to be back coaching next year? I’d like to tell you that’s a ridiculous question. I’ve been here for 21 years and have a track record that’s pretty good. I’m sure we’ll sit down and talk about it.”
The thing about it is that it is not a ridiculous question.
Clemson made the NCAA Tournament for the 20th time in Leggett’s 21 seasons at the helm of the baseball program in 2014; a feat not to be ignored. However, the Tigers also went 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1981; a stat in itself that raises some eyebrows. So, the questions now becomes, is it time for Leggett to be removed as head coach? In my opinion, no — at least not yet.
Clemson’s baseball program is a storied one. Whether it’s Hall of Fame coach Bill Wilhelm, national players of the year Kris Benson and Khalil Greene, or even the now controversial, yet legendary coach Leggett, there are plenty of bright spots in Clemson baseball history to look back on. Behind football, it is perhaps the sport that Tiger fans care about the most. And that is why the criticism of Leggett and the current state of the program is not unwarranted. Clemson fans want to win, and they won’t settle for early NCAA Tournament losses, especially ones as embarrassing as this year’s.
The fact remains that since 1958, the baseball program has only had two head coaches — Wilhelm and Leggett. That sort of consistency and uniformity is unprecedented in college athletics, especially today. So would a shakeup at the head coaching position get this program back on track? I don’t see any reason to believe that that would be the case.
In Leggett’s 21 seasons as Clemson’s head coach, he has not only reached the NCAA Tournament 20 times, but he has led the Tigers to six College World Series appearances, the last coming in 2010. In fact, that CWS appearance in 2010 is probably where most of the disdain towards Leggett stems from. For those who don’t remember, Clemson was one win away from the Championship series in Omaha, when rival South Carolina beat the Tigers twice to advance instead. The Gamecocks went on to win the National Championship that year, as well as the following year in 2011. When your most hated rival is winning national championships, some ill will may understandably arise.
My biggest problem with Leggett is that he too often dismisses the criticism from fans and media alike. His reaction to the question about possibly not returning to the dugout next year proves this point perfectly. He appeared to be so taken aback, outraged even, that the conversation would even come up that he may not return. But what he has to understand is that in a season in which your team goes 36-25 overall, 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament, and his home before the calendar turns to June, these questions are going to arise, and rightfully so.
In that same post game interview following the season ending loss to Xavier, Leggett said,
“The future is always bright for this program. It has been one of the top programs in the country for a long period of time. I haven’t lost any confidence in anything that we do. Everyone looks at our program on the outside looking in. Five percent of your fan base is always unhappy about something, but people who know what our baseball program is all about and people who look at our program from the outside and know college baseball, know that as a coach, we have a strong, traditional, prideful baseball program. Not many programs have been in the NCAA Tournament 20 out of the last 21 years, been to nine Super Regionals, and been to Omaha six times during that span. I would think that the future is always bright for us. We just have to continue working hard.”
Some of what Leggett said here is perfectly true. You are never going to please everyone. There is always going to be some constituency of your fan base that is unhappy. That is simply the nature of sports, specifically at Clemson University. He is also right in saying that Clemson’s postseason appearances are only matched by a select few programs. However, what Leggett seems to fail to realize is that it is no longer a small percent of fans that are tired of him; it may be a growing majority now.
Leggett went on to say,
“I’m a little disappointed. I go into every season thinking that we are going to get to Omaha like everyone else does that follows our program. I don’t feel like that, for whatever reason, we ever had everybody gelling at one time, playing as well together that I thought we could. To me, it’s a little disappointing. I’m always disappointed when we don’t win the last game of the year, it’s just the way I’m wired up”
There are three main reasons that all of this talk about firing Leggett has gained steam, in my opinion. First, there was the embarrassing nature in which Clemson lost their two games in the Nashville Regional, getting trounced 18-1 by Oregon before falling to a mediocre Xavier team in the elimination game. Secondly, the Tigers won four fewer games this season than a year ago. Last year Clemson had one of their youngest teams in recent memory. They were led by mostly Sophomores and Freshmen, yet still managed to win 40 games. This season, with a year more experience under their belts, the Tigers digressed, winning just 36 games, earning a lower seed in their Regional, and not winning a single game in the NCAA Tournament. Finally, Leggett’s comments above simply don’t sit well with myself and other Clemson baseball fans. First Leggett appears upset at the thought of not returning as head coach, then he discusses his programs storied success under his leadership, and he ends by saying he is “a little disappointed” in a season in which Clemson had their third fewest wins under Leggett and went 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over 30 years. So sure, Leggett can say that the future is still bright, but the past three seasons have given fans very little to be excited about, and the head coach just doesn’t seem to get that.
Having said all of that, I am still going to defend Leggett, at least for one more year. It is not easy to find a head coach that can put together two decades of success. Two or three bad seasons does not a coach make. When looking at the grand scheme of things, Leggett is one of the best college managers of his generation, perhaps of all time. It would be unwise to make a rash decision on Leggett’s future just days after the end of a disappointing season. Instead, I think Radakovich will meet with Leggett, discuss how the program can return to its successful roots, and Jack will be handed the keys to the car one last time to prove that he deserves this job. Next year, Clemson will return Sophomore OF Steven Duggar, Sophomore IF/DH Tyler Krieger, and Freshman C Chris Okey among many other position players. They will also bring back Sophomore LHPs Matthew Crownover and Zack Erwin, as well as Freshman RHP Drew Moyer. While some juniors may be drafted and will have a decision to make about whether or not to come back to school, the core is still there for a good baseball team in 2015.
It is for this reason that I think Leggett will be, and deserves to be, given a chance to be the head coach of the Clemson Tigers for another season. There has been too much success, to many good memories, to simply dismiss him after a few disappointing seasons. The writing is now on the wall though. If Leggett can’t win in 2015, I think Clemson will be conducting a head coaching search around this time next year.