June 29, 2006
CLEMSON -- Shortly after his team defeated Oral Roberts to secure its first trip to the College World Series since 2002, Clemson baseball coach Jack Leggett made no bones about his plans for Omaha.
"Our goal, obviously, is to win the national championship," Leggett said. "We're going out there to win."
Clemson had yet to win the whole thing in 10 trips to the CWS, but this visit probably held the Tigers' best opportunity. They were the No. 1 national seed and had won 24 of 25 games. On the NCAA Tournament selection show, ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson anointed Clemson as his favorite to claim the national title.
That's what made Clemson's flame-out in Omaha so tough to take for players, coaches and fans who went expecting so much more.
In any other year, the Tigers might have been just happy to finish among the final eight teams. But, clearly, this wasn't just any other year. And heading home after just three games was a major disappointment for a team that claimed the ACC's regular-season title, the conference tournament title and an undefeated record in the regional and super regional.
"Especially being the number one seed, we expected some better things," sophomore center fielder Brad Chalk said, after a 7-6 loss to Cal-Fullerton eliminated the Tigers. "We accomplished three out of four of our goals."
Did this team underachieve? That was the big question after Clemson followed a come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech with back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Cal-Fullerton. Leggett vehemently objected to the thought, saying the Tigers did some impressive things.
"I would argue with anybody that says this team underachieved," Leggett said. "I think this team achieved a lot of what it was capable of achieving this year. We brought the ACC championship to Clemson."
It's absurd to say that the season was a failure, after the Tigers won 53 games, claimed their first ACC title since 1994, and won 24 of 27 conference games after starting their league slate 0-3 following a sweep at Virginia. After winning 39 games in 2003 and 2004, then falling one victory short of Omaha in 2005, Clemson reasserted itself in the ACC and nationally.
Nevertheless, there's a legitimate case to be made that, when viewed through the context of expectations before this team took off for Omaha, Clemson underachieved. Because there's absolutely no doubt that the Tigers picked a bad time to play some of their worst baseball of the season.
Take away an eight-run outburst in the eighth inning of the 8-4 win over Georgia Tech, and Clemson had just five hits (all singles) in the first two games. The Tigers also were just 2-for-17 in leadoff situations against the Yellow Jackets and the Tar Heels.
After pounding nine hits in the first four innings against Cal-Fullerton while taking a 6-3 lead, Clemson produced just four hits the rest of the way, as the Titans scored four straight runs to win it.
A few Tigers left some unsightly offensive numbers in Omaha. Tyler Colvin, a junior who recently was drafted 13th by the Chicago Cubs, was almost unstoppable in the 13 games before the CWS. He was 3-for-13 with one RBI in the three games. Sophomore Taylor Harbin was 1-for-12 with no RBIs, after going 8-for-14 with 12 RBIs and four home runs in five previous NCAA Tournament games.
Clemson was remarkably clutch at the plate in its regional, super regional and the CWS opener against Georgia Tech. The Tigers came from behind in the seventh inning or later in four straight games, lending an aura of destiny to their run.
All of that ultimately fell apart, thanks in large part to Clemson facing better pitching. But it's fair to wonder how much the Tigers succumbed to the pressure of playing in college baseball's grandest event.
Before his team left for Omaha, Leggett said he was emphasizing the importance of his team staying loose. But with Leggett in charge, doing so is easier said than done. In 2002, Clemson was one victory away from the championship game before suffering two bitter losses to rival South Carolina and going home. The Tigers were unquestionably tight with their backs against the wall four years ago, and the same might have been true this time.
And don't forget the pressure of finally bringing a national title to Clemson. The Tigers have been to Omaha 11 times without leaving a winner, and the only streak longer is Florida State's 18. In fact, no one has been to Omaha more without playing for a championship in a game or series. Leggett has taken the Tigers on five of those visits to Omaha, and Clemson has won two games just twice (2002, 1996).
Was the season a success? Undoubtedly. But there's also no doubt that going 1-2 in Omaha left a sour taste in the mouths of everyone in orange.
LEGGETT, PHILLIPS STILL NEGOTIATING
The end of the season brought inevitable questions about Leggett's contract, which has only one year remaining.
Leggett and athletic director Terry Don Phillips were thought to have resolved all of this a year ago, when Leggett announced that he and Phillips had orally agreed on a new deal. The two sides were never able to come together, however, and no one is sure how negotiations will go this time around.
There seem to be two central issues: how to define Leggett's total package, and how much his buyout should be.
Leggett gets about $240,000 annually in guaranteed money. But cash from camps, endorsements and incentives can push his total compensation past $500,000, with the potential to make $600,000 if all incentives are met.
Leggett believes that only his guaranteed money should count toward his package. Phillips prefers to include all of the money, because Leggett uses Clemson's name when he profits from the Tigers' lucrative camps.
As for the buyout, a long-term deal apparently was close to finished last year, before Leggett objected to an increased buyout. Question: If Leggett wants a long-term commitment from Clemson and is committed to being there over the long haul, isn't a buyout immaterial?
That's not to say that Phillips isn't being a little too stubborn himself. The AD doesn't seem tremendously concerned about Leggett leaving for another job, because he thinks plenty of other coaches can lead a successful baseball program at Clemson.
That may be a short-sighted view, given that Leggett has guided the Tigers to almost half of their CWS appearances. Phillips is justifiably perturbed about Leggett's preoccupation with money, but there's no doubt that Leggett is one of the best coaches in the game. And there are no guarantees that his replacement could replicate his success.