CLEMSON — Clemson coach Jack Leggett is proud of the respect he gets from baseball colleagues after 20 years as the Tigers coach. And hes not worried about the fans concerned that while their coach is among the countrys best, hes fallen short in his own state.
Leggett begins his 21st season at Clemson on Friday, starting a three-game home series with Eastern Michigan. Hes led one of the countrys winningest programs the past two decades, reaching the College World Series six times in that span. This past January, he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and its obvious that Leggetts words carry clout he was one of the loudest voices in advancing the flat-seamed baseball, a change set for 2015 designed to increase offense.
I think if youve been around long enough people listen to what you have to say, Leggett says. They appreciate there may be some substance behind it.
But hes dealt with bitter disappointments in his own backyard from rival South Carolina which has risen to national prominence with College World Series victories in 2010 and 2011. The 2010 title came through the Tigers as Leggetts undefeated team was beaten twice on the games biggest stage.
That left some Clemson fans ruefully watching the Gamecocks victory parades and wondering if that was down the road for the Tigers.
Leggett heard the criticism then and again the past two years when they lost NCAA regionals at South Carolinas home field.
I dont think its fair, but at the same time, theyre entitled to their opinion, he said. The fans I see and appreciate are the ones that are positive all the time and appreciate how hard these kids work.
Leggett, wholl turn 60 in March, was a gritty infielder at Maine and was team captain when the Black Bears reached the 1976 College World Series. Leggett doesnt appear to have gained an ounce since then, keeping trim with mountain hikes that have taken him to peaks in the Alps and throughout North America.
When its time for baseball, its hard to find anyone more determined to win. He still sprints into the teams pre-game huddle and out to his coaching box at third when the Tigers are up. A season-ending loss sends into what he calls his post-season depression for a couple of weeks.
Thats the thing about Jack, said former South Carolina coach and current athletics director Ray Tanner. He is passionate about the game.
Leggett was brought to Clemson by the late, school great Bill Wilhelm and took over in 1994. Leggett won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles his first season. The next two years behind a rotation that featured major leaguers Kris Benson and Billy Koch, Clemson brought Leggett the first two of his six trips to Omaha, Neb. The last appearance came in 2010, a drought Leggett looks to end this season.
He hasnt changed at all, Clemson catcher Garrett Boulware says. He knows the game and he knows how to relate to players as well as ever.
Leggett also doesnt see much change in his style when he became the nations youngest head coach at 24 at Vermont in 1978. Hes grateful that the ABCA adopted the new ball, but still thinks theres farther to go to perk up the offense that fell off because of the dialed-back bats that were put into play in 2011. Leggett would love to see the game adopt the ball in use in the minor leagues, which he believes would add more pop without eliminating pitching and defense.
Tanner, a former North Carolina State coach, has known Leggett for decades and the two still discuss the state of the game and how to make it better. Tanner loves having Leggett on his side in such matters because of the pull he has among coaches.
Leggett loves what he does and sees no end in sight.
I like where Im at, he said, and I feel like Im no top of my game.