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October 2, 2007

Uniform start date has coaches talking

Times are changing for college baseball. More schools are spending money on their programs, and the sport's popularity continues to grow. As the evolution continues, some rules are changing for the good - and others for the bad.

The uniform start date is a rule worth supporting. It also has flaws worth addressing.

Last season, defending champion Oregon State began its season in late January. By comparison, most of the Big Ten schools didn't begin until late February.

The uniform start date may or may not make the Big Ten and other northern schools more competitive, but it does create a true "Opening Day" on Feb. 22. That development, in addition to many others, makes me a strong proponent of the new rule. You can put LSU's Paul Mainieri, UCLA's John Savage, Cal State Fullerton's Dave Serrano and Penn State's Robbie Wine - among others - on that list, too.

Having spent several seasons at Notre Dame, Mainieri has seen the early start date from both sides.

"While at Notre Dame, I was obviously a huge supporter of the uniform start date. I think it's good for college baseball," Mainieri said. "When you look at overall records, national statistics and others items, it's good to have everyone on the same page."

Mainieri also believes the rule change will benefit his pitching staff - especially the younger arms.

"The new start date will level the playing field somewhat for northern schools, but it will also force warm-weather schools into a tougher schedule," he said. "With the start date, more emphasis must be placed on the pitching staff. More midweek games means you have more opportunities to develop young arms."

It appears most coaches like the uniform start date; still there are some problems.

Scheduling issues running rampant

One thing the uniform start date has done is create scheduling issues for many teams. With the condensed schedule, most teams will be forced to play two midweek games, if not more.

"With the calendar they have in place and how tight it is, weather issues may cause some teams to not even play 56 games," UCLA coach John Savage said. "For programs like us in Los Angeles, it's easier to find quick makeup games. The same can't be said for other programs.

The Good
Not everyone is happy, but the uniform start date should make college baseball more competitive. Unlike previous years, teams on the West Coast and in the South won't have eight or nine games under their belts when the northern schools are just starting. The new start date also gives teams a 45-day window for fall workouts, which is beneficial for the development of younger players. Adding more excitement to the change, college baseball now has a true "Opening Day," which is slated for Feb. 22.
The Bad
When dealing with NCAA legislation, very seldom can you have a good without having a bad attached to the proposition. Though most support the uniform start date, the change has caused some scheduling issues. With the season now condensed, teams will play more midweek games. Additionally, teams now have a shorter amount of time to play 56 games. For schools in bad weather areas, this could become a glaring problem. Many coaches have proposed to move up the start date a week, but that won't happen anytime soon.
What this means...
The uniform start date was initially proposed and supported by a plethora of northern schools. Now that the new rule is in place, I like it. However, the northern schools now have an obligation - put up or shut up. If five or six years from now only two or three northern schools are making an imprint nationally, the NCAA will look foolish for catering to the northern schools. If the opposite occurs and those schools have more success, they'll look brilliant. We're all waiting to see what happens.
"For the good of college baseball, something has to be done. They have to give us more calendar days."

Savage has an idea of how to make things better.

"Scheduling is now a nightmare, so I think the simple solution is to keep the games and move the season back or start on Feb. 8 or Feb. 15. In my opinion, that solves everything," he said. "Keeping a traditional four-game week is just a common-sense solution, as nobody wants to lose games."

In the past, the Bruins have benefited from road trips to Texas A&M, Miami and Ole Miss, among others. The condensed season could put an end to intriguing cross-country matchups.

"Being on the West Coast, we're more than willing to travel. But with a condensed season and just three weekends of non-conference play, most teams will want to stay home," Savage said. "I definitely think it's going to cut down on some of the cross-country matchups. It's fun to play at venues like Ole Miss and it also helps our RPI. Just ask San Diego, who beat Texas last year."

Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano echoed Savage's sentiments and elaborated on the issue.

"Scheduling has become more thought-out and difficult. Being on the West Coast, it will be tough to get teams to come in, as the larger football schools can offer greater guarantees," he said. "I think the uniform start date will benefit everyone, but the date difference between the end of the fall and the season is certainly a concern. That's significant time to wait."

Though understanding, Penn State's Wine isn't that sympathetic to his West Coast counterparts.

"I can certainly see their point that the schedule is going to be tough, but we've been dealing with that issue since I arrived here at Penn State," he said. "The whole idea behind the uniform start date is to make the country more competitive. Essentially, the NCAA is trying to get everyone on the same page while also dealing with similar obstacles."

With a potential scheduling roadblock facing many West Coast coaches, the Pac-10 and Big West might take matters into their own hands. Though still early in the process, both leagues have discussed the possibility of adding a conference tournament. If it doesn't add a full-fledged tournament, the Pac-10 may decide to play four-game series once Oregon enters the mix in 2009.

"We've discussed having four-day weekends once Oregon starts playing in 2009," Savage said. "We might also have a conference tournament. For now, those issues are still up in the air.

"I'd say the Pac-10 is leaning more toward four-day weekends. With either scenario, we're trying to boost each member's RPI."

Serrano discussed the Big West's situation.

"The Big West and WCC teams won't have as many quality midweek opponents if the Pac-10 decides to have a four-day weekend or conference tournament," he said. "The coaches in the Big West have discussed starting a conference tournament. But for now, it's an idea that is still lukewarm in the eyes of many."

New fall workout rules beneficial

While many coaches are concerned the uniform state date will create more scheduling issues, all coaches are in agreement that it will aid development during fall workouts.

Teams can now practice within a 45-day window in the fall. It gives the coaches more flexibility.

"The 45-day window is good, because you're not as pressured to bang out practices as in the past. If you have a few days of rain, you don't lose your days. It gives teams a lot of flexibility," Mainieri said. "It's now easier to balance things out."

Serrano agrees.

"The first thing I'm noticing with the new rules in the fall is that it's going to benefit the development of the younger players," he said. "As opposed to 14 days or so like last season, we're going 33 days this fall. That allows younger players to show what they can do earlier than usual, as opposed to getting thrown in the fire."

In addition to the new fall structure, Wine hopes it leads to more teams playing fall exhibition games in the near future.

San Diego and Long Beach State are slated to play a three-game series, while Texas is scheduled to play Texas State and Baylor.

"The new structure definitely helps you develop more players in the fall. However, you're not playing outside competition," he said. "If you play other teams during the fall, you'll have a better gauge of where your team stands entering spring."

The uniform start date won't please everyone, but it's what college baseball needs - a step in the right direction.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at kendall@rivals.com.