NEW ORLEANS — Rick Jones said he isn’t comfortable with losing, and he knows he never will be.
So it’s been a particularly difficult year, even compared to the four frustrating ones before it, for the most successful baseball coach in Tulane history.
With less than a month remaining, the Green Wave (20-20, 4-7 Conference USA) is suffering through its worst offensive season since 1968 and is in jeopardy of snapping a streak of 19 consecutive winning seasons. It comes as a shock to those in and around the program who vocally expected a return to the NCAA tournament this season, led by 10 seniors who have experienced some fleeting success.
Rather than coming together to mount a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2008, Tulane’s poor performance has disgruntled fans and even national analysts pondering the direction of the once-powerful Green Wave program, which appears to have lost its way. Around Turchin Stadium, there are audible grumbles about whether or not Jones, despite his distinguished history, will maintain his post into the future.
It’s a concept Jones readily and heartily dismisses.
“You think this is the way I want to go out or finish my career, whenever that happens to be? Of course not,” Jones said. “Are you kidding me? Anyone who knows me knows this not how I operate. Even the people I love would tell you my ego wouldn’t even tolerate that notion. We will do whatever it takes to get out of this. We just have to find a way how.”
While Jones’ detractors point to the recent string of results, the 20th-year coach pins a confluence of events, including NCAA rules changes, untimely injuries, a recruiting class poached by Major League Baseball and tournament selection committee politics for the prolonged postseason drought.
With only 11.7 scholarships to divide among 30-plus roster spots and an annual tuition pushing $60,000, recruiting is a challenge before baseball matters are even discussed. While it’s always been the task for Jones and his staff, the NCAA toughened it in recent years by forcing transfers from other Division I schools to sit out a year and required that anyone receiving scholarship aid must get at least 25 percent of full cost, when a 10-percent or even 5-percent scholarship is a significant amount of money and used to be easily spread around the roster.
“It sort of changed the game on us because if you get someone hurt and they’re on a scholarship, it really leaves you without any margin for error,” Jones said. “We have a lot of guys this year who take up a lot of our scholarship pot, and they aren’t playing because our pitching staff is so banged up. There’s nothing they, or I, can do about it.
“And we used to be able to fill in some of those holes with transfers and guys who wanted an opportunity to play after things didn’t work out at their first stop, and we got some very valuable players that way. But now, because they have to sit out a year, it’s so much harder to get those guys in the door.”
As someone who has worked on both sides of the public-to-private divide, LSU coach Paul Maineiri said there is a distinct difference recruiting and building a roster at a relatively inexpensive state school like LSU and his previous stop at Notre Dame. While recruiting misses and injuries occur across the country, Manieiri said building quality depth was nearly impossible with the restrictions he faced.
“When I was at Notre Dame, when I’d talk to my administrators, I would hold my thumb and index finger a half-inch apart and say we were ‘this close from being really great.’ Then I’d hold up the same distance and say, ‘But we’re this close from being not too good,’ ” Mainieri said. “It’s really difficult to be at a private school that is so expensive. An injury or a player not performing up to expectation can have a devastating effect on a team, particularly at a private institution where it’s so hard to get them into school.”
However, some private schools are flourishing, regardless of any recent rules changes. Vanderbilt is currently No. 3 in the country, and fellow Conference USA program Rice has appeared in 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments.
“I think the difference between the private schools that have fallen off, like Tulane and USC, and the ones that are dominating their leagues, is the enormous university endowments at their disposal,” Baseball America’s college reporter Aaron Fitt said. “Stanford, Rice and Vanderbilt use institutional aid to supplement their 11.7 scholarships, and it’s the key. It’s too hard to build depth and overcome recruiting misses without it.”
Tulane’s program isn’t receiving the same level of university assistance as that powerful trio, Fitt said. Tulane president Scott Cowen declined to comment when asked via email for his assessment of the financial aid given to baseball players compared to those schools.
Still, the problems aren’t entirely out of Jones’ hands. Some of Tulane’s most publicized recruits in the past five years never made the impact to match their investment, whether due to injury (like former ace pitcher Randy LeBlanc) or underperforming (like power hitters Jamie Bruno and Cody Robinson). Also, Tulane’s current crop of struggling hitters features six starters who have been with the program for at least two years and have failed to boost the anemic offense.
“I know there are plenty of reasons why we aren’t as good as we used to be, but there has to be a better way to do this,” said Tulane season-ticket holder Tim Sweeney. “The games just aren’t fun right now. I think the coaches could probably be better supported, but the buck stops with them. It’s just really hard to go to the games and sit through it.”
Jones, for his part, said he takes responsibility for the state of the program and is determined to return the Green Wave to the prominence it attained between 1994 and 2008, when it appeared in 12 NCAA Tournaments and made two trips to the College World Series.
But there are a lot of obstacles to overcome along the way.
“Nobody is more frustrated by this than I am because I live it every day,” Jones said. “I’ve had some great fortune here at Tulane and things went well for a long time, but we’ve gotten hit by some things we haven’t been able to overcome.
“It is my job to make sure we move past them and get ourselves back into not just NCAA tournaments again, but back in the discussion as a serious power. Once you compete at that top level, it’s all you want to do. We have to get ourselves back there. I’m not stopping until we do.”
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