July 10, 2002 CLEMSON It's difficult to find the words to describe what happened to the Clemson baseball team at the College World Series in Omaha.
Embarrassing is a good start.
One game away from playing for the first national championship in the school's history, Clemson hit the choke switch and lost two straight. What made the situation even worse was that the Tigers lost twice to South Carolina, their most hated rival. And the losses both were blowouts 12-4 and 10-2. The Tigers had a 3-0 lead through three innings in the first game, which means South Carolina outscored Clemson 22-3 in the final 15 innings.
There were several stories in local papers about the great accomplishments of this Clemson team, and how two losses to South Carolina to end the season could not and would not ruin the season. Hogwash.
The two losses to the Gamecocks absolutely ruined the Tigers' season, even in some of their own words, and will go down as one of the biggest choke jobs in Clemson athletic history. All the 2002 baseball team will be remembered for is losing two straight to South Carolina to end the season. Clemson won 54 games and was ranked No. 1 in the country for seven weeks, but the Tigers came up dead empty in the clutch 0-5 versus Florida State and 0-2 vs. South Carolina in Omaha.
South Carolina's domination of Clemson in the CWS could be the end of the infamous "Chicken Curse." South Carolina beat Clemson in football and men's basketball and split six games in baseball during the 2001-2002 school year.
After several years of struggling to adjust to the Southeastern Conference, South Carolina now can make a legitimate argument that it has a better overall athletic program than Clemson, and that's something that hasn't happened in these parts for some time.
Disaster In Omaha: An Autopsy
Why did the Tigers crash and burn in Omaha? There were several reasons:
For starters, head coach Jack Leggett's rigid approach locked up his team. The Tigers played totally paralyzed in the two games against the Gamecocks. When the pressure was on, Leggett went into a Clemson-like bunker mentality.
After the Wednesday game, he accused South Carolina of hat tossing (after two Clemson players struck out three times apiece) and bat flipping after hitting home runs. Leggett's accusations came off as whining and crying. On the national stage, some people labeled the Tigers a bunch of sore losers.
Then, to make matters worse, Leggett had a knee-jerk reaction at Thursday's practice. He kicked the media out of the dugout and away from the batting cage and said no players would be available for interviews. With sports information director Tim Bourret back in Clemson, there was no one to stand up to Leggett. Bourret later was quoted by one paper saying that he agreed with Leggett's decision, which represented another sad commentary on Clemson's totally backward approach to media/public relations.
Finally, Leggett agreed to let shortstop Khalil Greene and starting pitcher Matt Henrie talk to the media. Then, Leggett took Henrie off the list and said that just Greene (good player/absolutely positively no quote) could talk. The entire situation was a joke. First-class programs playing in national events don't limit player interviews, especially in underpublicized sports.
After a tense three-hour practice on Thursday, the Tigers were ripe for total failure. The pressure put on them by Leggett was more than they could handle. How tight were the Tigers in the final game? Here's just one example: The normally sure-handed Greene, everybody's national player of the year, committed three errors.
After Leggett complained about South Carolina's antics in the first game, USC head coach Ray Tanner apologized, but he also fired a blast at Leggett.
"He (Leggett) tends to talk about what his team doesn't do when they lose, and I tend to talk about what teams do to beat us when I lose," Tanner said. "It's just a different path that we take, and I think it took something away from the game."
How bad was Leggett's decision-making in Omaha? After watching catcher Collin Mahoney hit several batting practice fastballs aided by a gale-like wind over the fence before the first South Carolina game, he scratched Steve Pyzik, who started the first two games of the CWS, and inserted Mahoney. Mahoney struck out three times, dropped a ball at the plate that would have cut down a Gamecock runner, and had a throwing error.
Meanwhile, the starting pitching was horrible. Truthfully, it was worse than horrible. The Tigers had two good starts in the regional, but in the super regional and at the CWS, Clemson's starters were AWOL.
Senior Steve Reba pitched less than seven innings in two CWS games and got roughed up in both outings. When the season started, starting pitching was the team's biggest question mark, but somehow Leggett and pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan managed to patch together a staff. But when the heat was on in the big games against Florida State and South Carolina, Clemson's pitchers turned into batting practice machines.
Clemson's offense also disappeared against South Carolina. The Tigers never managed to string anything together against the Gamecocks. South Carolina pitchers threw a steady diet of curveballs and off-speed pitches at the Clemson hitters. It was the perfect strategy.
Third baseman Jeff Baker, a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies, struck out three times in the first game, all on curves. Baker's woeful performance in Omaha is going to test the negotiating skills of super-agent Scott Boras. Baker, a junior, is not expected to return to Clemson for his senior season.
Draft Empties Roster, Recruiting Class
Even more depressing than Clemson's performance in Omaha is next year's roster. It may be a while before the Tigers return to Omaha.
In addition to losing the meat of their batting order (Greene, Baker, Michael Johnson), the Tigers probably are going to lose several recruits. Four of Clemson's 18 signees were picked in the first round of the June major league draft. The most highly regarded of the group is Jeff Francoeur, who signed a football scholarship with the Tigers.
Francoeur, a native of Lilburn, Ga., was picked in the first round by, you guessed it, the Atlanta Braves. He reportedly gave the Braves a dollar figure before the draft, so there were no secrets. Nobody expects to see him in a Clemson uniform any time soon.
Coaching Staff Also Takes Hit
Leggett was forced to absorb another big blow on June 25 when long-time assistant and top recruiter Tim Corbin took over at Vanderbilt.
Corbin coached at Clemson for nine years. During that period, the Tigers won more than 71 percent of their games and reached the College World Series four times.
Recruiting is where Corbin really will be missed. Entering the 2002 season, all eight of Corbin's recruiting classes were ranked in the top 25. His 1999 group was ranked No. 1 in the country, and he was named the nation's assistant coach of the year in 2000 by Baseball America and the American Baseball Coaches Association.
Vanderbilt was 25-27 in 2002 and has not had a winning record in the Southeastern Conference in more than a decade. Before coming to Clemson, Corbin was the head coach at Presbyterian College, so he has some idea what it takes to recruit at a private school with high academic standards.
"I was attracted to Vanderbilt because of the tradition of the school itself," Corbin said. "I like the idea of selling Ivy League education with Southeastern Conference baseball. I can see by the improvement in facilities that the University wants a quality baseball program."
Before accepting the Vanderbilt job, Corbin talked with Fresno State and also was mentioned in connection with the opening at East Carolina.