CLEMSON - I asked Jack Leggett about frustrated Clemson baseball fans. He bristled.
Clemson has regressed in three straight baseball postseasons, and counting:
2010 College World Series
2011 Lost at home in NCAA regional championship game to UConn (2-2 in regional)
2012 Lost to South Carolina in NCAA regional at Columbia (2-2 in regional)
2013 Lost to Liberty in NCAA regional at Columbia (1-2 in regional)
2014 On NCAA tournament bubble
"The only fans we have are the ones that believe in our program and believe in our team. Those are the only ones I'm ever concerned about," said the head coach who has guided the Tigers to the College World Series six times. There are fewer true believers than last year, a lot fewer than four years ago. There were hundreds of empty seats at Doug Kingsmore Stadium for this week's critical ACC series against Boston College. That's just one reason why Clemson, barring a postseason surprise, needs to make a coaching change sooner than later.
The Tigers ended their dreary regular season Saturday with a 10-9, 13-inning victory over lowly Boston College, keeping Clemson on the NCAA tournament bubble going into next week's ACC tournament.
This May uncertainty is an extension of four seasons of gradual decline that has Leggett cast as a star-crossed victim of his own success:
2010: Clemson made the College World Series.
2011: Lost a home NCAA tournament regional to UConn.
2012: Didn't host a regional. Went 2-2 in the Columbia regional, losing twice to South Carolina.
2013: Didn't host a regional. Went 1-2 in the Columbia regional, losing twice to Liberty.
2014: Hoping to squeeze in.
"I still believe in this team," Leggett said. "We still have some things ahead of us."
Above all, Clemson with ace pitcher Daniel Gossett and capable lefty Matthew Crownover is clearly capable.
But the slide is unacceptable. A No. 46 Ratings Percentage Index ranking with a healthy team is inexcusable for a program that ranks among the best in tradition, facilities and support.
Anything short of winning an NCAA regional demands that Dan Radakovich find a head coach for a school that has had only two since 1958.
The Wilhelm way
Late Clemson head coach Bill Wilhelm was 63 in 1992 when he brought Leggett in from Western Carolina for a two-year stint as successor-in-waiting.
Leggett is 60. Naming a successor, mentoring the new guy for a year and easing out of the dugout would do four things:
Add instant excitement to a program that desperately needs a boost.
Allow Leggett to transition into an assistant athletic director spot or consider one of the head coaching offers sure to come.
Keep harmony within Clemson's model family of ex-players and coaches.
Maintain strong ties Clemson has to high school coaches in South Carolina, metro Atlanta and elsewhere.
If Leggett doesn't merrily go for this, he needs a push.
Most likely, Radakovich will ask for a staff shakeup, the admirably loyal Leggett will balk and Radakovich will make the tough call.
Leggett's body of work shines. Only six programs have more wins than Clemson in Leggett's 1994-2014 tenure. He is the 10th winningest coach in college baseball history. But maybe Leggett needs a change as much as Clemson does, before it gets uglier.
As it is, the once fundamentally sound Tigers are 10th in the 14-member ACC in pitching and 13th in fielding percentage. Someone deserves a pink slip just for that.
Talent, bad coaching
Frontline talent isn't the major issue, though Clemson lacks depth. Recruiting coordinator Bradley LeCroy has brought in skilled players and made good on his commitment to sign more in-state guys.
While the South Carolina Gamecocks continue to soar, a surprising number of Tigers would start or play big roles right now if the programs merged.
Gossett, the Clemson ace, would be in the Gamecocks' rotation and Crownover would get many innings. Steven Duggar (.295, ACC-high 25 steals in 27 attempts) would have a spot in the outfield, Steve Wilkerson (.316 and five homers) in the infield and Tyler Krieger or Garrett Boulware would get time as a designated hitter.
Freshman catcher Chris Okey would serve as the ideal backup/part-time DH and heir-apparent for Grayson Greiner.
The main thing Clemson lacks is a scary bat in the middle of the order, something they had with Kyle Parker and Richie Schaffer in recent seasons.
Much larger problems lately have been in-game coaching decisions, sloppy defense, bonehead baserunning, a cookie-cutter approach to player development and team chemistry.
Leggett, the rugged New Englander tough enough to play defensive back for the Maine Black Bears, keeps clawing.
"We're in the position we're in," Leggett said. "We'd like to be in a better position, but we're just not."
Clemson had a 6-1 lead in the series opener against South Carolina this season and led the third game, 3-1, in the ninth inning. The Gamecocks swept.
A 4-3 loss to Florida State cost the Tigers the series against another one of the nation's best teams. Clemson held No. 1 Virginia to five runs in three games but lost the series.
"We've been a little bit inconsistent and that's bothersome," Leggett said, "because we show flashes of greatness."
Flashes aren't good enough for frustrated Clemson fans.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
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