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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

New NCAA baseball head has vision

Kendall Rogers        

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Like most of us, it didn't taking long for the NCAA's Damani Leech to fall in love with college baseball.

Leech, of course, is now the most powerful man in college baseball. That post, for the longest time, was occupied by Dennis Poppe, who recently announced his retirement as the Division I Director for Baseball and Football.

To say Poppe accomplished a lot during his 39 years with the NCAA would be quite an understatement. In addition to helping transform college baseball into a more popular sport on the national stage, with ESPN signing record-setting television contracts to broadcast the postseason, his greatest accomplishment likely will go down as the changes in Omaha.

Since the 1950's, Rosenblatt Stadium on 13th Street in Omaha served as home to the College World Series. And though not popular in the beginning stages, and still not to some Omaha diehards, Poppe put together a plan to move to a sparking, new downtown stadium  in the early 2000's, with renovating Rosenblatt also an option on the table.

Damani Leech has taken over as the head of baseball for the NCAA. (NCAA)

That negotiation process took a long, hard nine years to complete. But Poppe got it accomplished and now state-of-the-art TD Ameritrade Park plays host to the College World Series, a true development that shows just how far college baseball has come the past couple of decades.

Following the footsteps of Poppe is like replacing a legend, but the personable and charismatic  37-year-old Leech is well prepared for the tasks that lie ahead.

"For me, the biggest impact Dennis had is just the relationship he had with Omaha and that community. As you know, the CWS stands far and away in terms of uniqueness. To have that relationship year in and year out, it's not easy to do, but it's something I plan on maintaining," Leech said. "There's no desire on my part to let up in any way. We're not going to sit back and rest and enjoy what we've got, we're going to challenge ourselves to help grow this event even more from what it already is."

Despite his new role with the NCAA, Leech is no stranger to college baseball. His love for the game began 10 years ago when Poppe asked him to join the NCAA staff in charge of the College World Series. Leech obliged and attended his first CWS in 2003 just in time to watch Rice take on Stanford for the national championship.

Leech, who hails from Tacoma, Wash., and played football at Princeton University, wasted little time getting hooked to the sport that now will become his top priority, along with other obligations such as overseeing men's hockey, tennis and rifle, and women's volleyball.

"It’s a little frustrating to my staff sometimes, but I don’t have one big idea, I have a lot of crazy ideas. I’m always asking our folks, “so, hey what are you thinking about this?”, he said. “There are a lot of things I want to explore with the College World Series and with the earlier rounds of the NCAA postseason to enhance the experience.”

“What the institutions around the country are doing with their facilities and now ESPN broadcasting all of those sites, it’s fun to see those facilities full,” he continued. “For me, it’s a lot of fun to go to a super regional with a capacity crowd. It’s outstanding, and it’s really, really exciting for me to be a part of.”

Leech admittedly has shifted gears over the past few years when it comes to the NCAA postseason. Five or six years ago, Leech was responsible for putting together a detailed feasibility study about moving NCAA Regional rounds to neutral sites.

His thought process on the matter has since changed.

“I put together this huge presentation about neutral sites, off-campus of course. But the more I’ve gotten on campus and seen how special this postseason is, now that you have Indiana, Kansas State and others rising up -- it’s special,” he said. “College baseball doesn’t get a tremendous amount of coverage during the entire season, so I don’t want to take that type of opportunity away from a school. It’s not the right idea.”

Speaking of the postseason, Leech added there’s no additional traction on changing the postseason structure. A couple of summers ago, former Division I Baseball Committee chairman Tim Weiser surprised me by unveiling a couple of new postseason proposals, one including a set of three-game series leading all the way to the CWS.

Safe to say that thought is on the back burner at this point, and may not come to the forefront for a while.

As for the more pressing matters facing Leech …

TD Ameritrade Park and the college "baseball"

Damani Leech takes over college baseball for the NCAA with a very healthy situation on his hands. However, as with anything in college athletics, it's not perfect.

The dimensions of TD Ameritrade Park and the ball currently used in college baseball remain hot topics.

There was plenty of debate during the 2011 and '12 College World Series tournaments about the dimensions of TDA considering it had the same dimensions of Rosenblatt Stadium. Yet, the ballpark faced north-to-south, with the south wind typically blowing in toward home plate during the summer months. At Rosenblatt, the ballpark wasn't exactly small, but the strong south wind that often accompanied the CWS often made it a launching pad.

Gone for the time being, at least, are the dramatic homers that we remember oh so vividly from the days at Rosenblatt Stadium. Instead, all we can remember after the '13 CWS is Oregon State's Danny Hayes appearing to hit a walk-off home run against Mississippi State, only to have the ball fall short of going out. After the game, MSU outfielder Hunter Renfroe admitted he thought the ball was definitely gone off the bat.

Later during the past CWS, N.C. State's Trea Turner and Indiana's Sam Travis both tattooed balls that would've been out of most college baseball parks. Instead, as often is the case in Omaha now, the balls fell short of dramatic homers, leaving both Turner, Travis and the fans perplexed. Indiana head coach Tracy Smith has since gone on somewhat of a Twitter crusade about the TDA dimensions and lack of homers in Omaha, echoing what many fans and coaches believe.

Fixing the TD Ameritrade "issue" without turning the ballpark into a launching pad is a delicate balance Leech is willing to work with. He admits the power numbers were down in '13, and that something can be done. However, out of the question at this point is changing the dimensions of TD Ameritrade Park.

The potential way to target the issue? Changing the way the ball is constructed.

"There are no potential changes to the ballpark configuration in the works right now. But what we are exploring and researching is the nature of the actual ball that we use. We're looking at the height of the baseball seams," he said. "We're looking at if we lower those seams, can we get additional drag effect and more distance on the ball. How many more feet can we get?"

"The good thing is that doesn't change the exit speed of the ball off the bat, potentially putting ourselves in a worse situation than we were in before from a safety standpoint," he continued. "Rawlings is currently researching the new baseball. For now, I think what the committee is saying is that we want to explore and look at it. Let's see what the research says and then possibly do something about the height of the seams. We want to bring a modest amount of offense back into the game, but not 20-run games with insane homers."

Those looking for immediate relief will be disappointed, but the long-term status of this issue looks positive. Leech added that once the research comes in, he will submit that information to the Division I Baseball Committee in November for review. The NCAA also will garner opinions from Executive Director Dave Keilitz and the American Baseball Coaches Association.

For now, it appears the 2015 campaign is the earliest we would see ball changes.

The agent/advisor-student-athlete relationship

One of the chief concerns of players and parents in emails throughout the year pertains to the agent/student-athlete relationship, and what's acceptable versus what's considered illegal, thus putting your eligibility at risk.

Over the past few years, the NCAA has slowly but surely begun to increase discussions on the topic, perhaps leading to more leeway in that department in the future. Plenty of instances in the past have stirred up some bad blood, such as former Oklahoma State left-handed pitcher and first-round pick Andy Oliver getting declared ineligible during the NCAA postseason, while Kentucky's James Paxton suffered a similar fate. There are even more similar situations.

Considering those controversial situations, Dennis Poppe surprised many two summers ago when he explained that he can understand why some sort of representation in the MLB draft is needed when you're going up against millionaire negotiators.

"I can see what people are talking about when it comes to this situation. It just makes sense," Poppe said at the time. "If I had a kid in this situation, who wouldn't want the best advice possible available to him?"

As Leech gets more acquainted with the situation, perhaps his views will shift one way or the other. For now, he's maintaining quite a neutral position.

"It's getting folded into the broader discussion. It's not really just a baseball issue, it's a student-athlete in general issue, and where we want to be from an amateurism perspective," Leech said. "I feel like it's a very complicated issue. You run into issues with the culture of the sport, along with student-athletes trying to get the most accurate information. It's pretty complicated and there's really no easy silver bullet at this point."

Fall games counting toward the spring schedule

If you're a northern coach looking to have games in the fall count toward your spring win-loss record, chances are good not much will change the next couple of seasons.

Some northern coaches, such as Purdue's Doug Schreiber, actually drummed up some impressive support last year in favor of some fall games counting toward the spring schedule and record. However, Leech doesn't appear to be a fan of it for now.

"This originally started as a northern institution issue and what not. There were some concerns about what this would do to the integrity of the entire process," he said. "I haven't heard anything else about it in a while.

"It really becomes a little bit of a difficult argument when you look at how competitive programs in that region are getting, especially programs like Stony Brook, Indiana, Purdue and Kent State, who have obviously been good here lately," he continued. "I'm not real sure how much steam it actually has at this point."

More NCAA notables

* For the past year, one of the big debates in intercollegiate athletics is in regards to stipends and whether student-athletes should receive them beyond what already is available. Leech said it's too early to tell what's going to happen in that department. First, he said, a realistic set of options would need to be put in place for football.

* The 2013 campaign was the first for the NCAA's new RPI formula, which placed more weight on road wins and home losses, in addition to less weight on home wins and road losses. Leech said the NCAA reviewed the numbers in July, saying there are no concerns about the new RPI formula at this time.

* Former Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan is no longer on the Division I Baseball Committee, and it's now up to Conference USA to officially replace him. A replacement is expected to be announced by November.

* As you might expect at this point with other governance issues on the forefront, there's nothing new on the scholarship increase front. For now, it's status quo.

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