A year after Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich outlined an offseason plan for coach Jack Leggett to improve the baseball program, the Tigers went 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
The questions now turn to what’s next and who will be the coach trying to get Clemson through a regional for the first time since 2010, the team’s last trip to the College World Series?
The 2015 season was marked by inconsistency on the field and wondering about the program’s future off the field after Radakovich’s challenge to Leggett last summer.
The Clemson AD said earlier this year he’d wait until the end of the season to evaluate the program. The 22-year Hall of Fame coach’s job status has been a hot topic among the fan base all season, and he admitted outside questions were a factor his squad had to deal with all year.
“If there’s a positive vibe, everybody feels good. If there’s not, it makes it a little bit tougher,” Leggett said after the season-ending 10-8 loss to Pepperdine on Saturday in Fullerton, Calif. “Our kids are focused. They work extremely hard. They love to play baseball. When we get out on the field it’s been about us and playing together.”
Clemson, which also lost 7-4 to Arizona State on Friday, went 32-29 in the regular season and 1-2 in the ACC Tournament after nearly missing that event. The Tigers then slipped into the NCAA Tournament as the last team in but fell to 1-6 in the last three regional appearances.
Leggett didn’t want to talk about his job status Saturday; he wanted to make that day about his players, who stuck up for him after the game.
“I love the man, first and foremost,” junior second baseman Tyler Krieger said. “(Leggett’s) taught me more than anybody. He’s right there with my parents in my life. It’s not always all about baseball. He’s a great baseball coach, but he’s taught me more about life than people think.
“I think baseball just didn’t go our way this year. We played well at times we had pieces together. We just didn’t put it together all the time, and that’s the key – consistency.”
Junior right fielder Steven Duggar echoed much of Krieger’s sentiments toward Leggett, saying that he came to Clemson to play for a hall of famer.
“I know how I feel about them,” Leggett said about his players. “I know how they feel about me and that’s the important thing.”
Leggett, who didn’t receive a contract extension last year on a deal that ends in 2016, certainly wants to be back. He guided the Tigers from a .500 record at midseason to a 16-13 mark in ACC play and won eight of 11 games heading into the regional. But Clemson couldn’t overcome a struggling bullpen and miscues in the field that plagued it all year.
“I’m really proud of my team,” said Leggett, who’s won 953 games at Clemson and over 1,300 in his coaching career. “I’m proud of how they’ve battled all year long. We had our backs against the wall. We played some really good games and had some really good moments. We’ve had some tough moments, but that’s baseball. It’s a very good conference and a very good schedule that we play.”
Now the Tigers begin another early offseason with more questions than just Leggett’s future. Offensively, nine of the team’s 12 hitters return in 2016, including Reed Rohlman, the team’s top hitter, and Chris Okey, one of the nation’s best power-producing catchers.
However, Krieger and Duggar, who both hit over .300 as mainstays near the top of the order, are draft eligible. Junior Matthew Crownover, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, is likely leaving early for pro baseball. Zack Erwin could also join him, leaving an entire weekend rotation to replace as Jake Long, a T.L. Hanna product, is a senior.
Center fielder Tyler Slaton will also have to be replaced, and there could always be others leaving the program via transfer, depending on what happens with the coaching staff. Clemson does have 14 newcomers arriving for next season in PerfectGame.org’s 11th best recruiting class nationally.
Leggett also hopes that the Academic Common Market helps baseball moving forward. Earlier this year, the university agreed to join a program that helps out-of-state students receive in-state tuition costs if desired programs aren’t offered in their states. With 27 roster spots and 11.7 scholarships, it could get Leggett players previously unavailable.
And while there’s a new $9 million player facility set open soon, there’s an image still under repair. One of Radakovich’s challenges to Leggett was to improve the coach’s public persona, but Clemson’s home attendance declined for the second consecutive season. Obviously winning would aid that issue, but the Tigers don’t want to head into another season trying to play through outside noise and apathy.
“If people are talking negative about the program, we don’t care,” Krieger said. “We know the integrity of this team, the integrity of this program, and we take a lot of pride in everything that we do, because we are Clemson University.”