Fred Jordan won his 800th career game earlier this year, becoming the first Southern Conference baseball coach and one of 27 active coaches in Division I to reach the milestone.
“It was very humbling, the amount of encouragement and messages we got from across the country,” said Jordan, in his 25th year as The Citadel’s coach.
The painful irony is that Jordan’s milestone victory came in the midst of what might be the worst of his 25 seasons. The current Bulldogs are 13-25 overall and 3-6 in the Southern Conference heading into this weekend’s series with league-leading Western Carolina at Riley Park. The Citadel has lost 12 of its last 13 games, that skid starting on March 30 when three starters were suspended (and later dismissed).
For a proud man whose Citadel teams won six SoCon tournament titles and four regular-season titles between 1994 and 2004 — and whose 2009 and 2010 teams won a combined 80 games and two more SoCon championships — the losing is tough to take. The Bulldogs have had just one winning season in the last five, and it’s worn on the 58-year-old Jordan.
“Of course it has,” said Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, a former Bulldog player who served as an assistant coach under Jordan. “I’ve reached out to him. And I can tell you, he’s a competitor who doesn’t like to make excuses.”
What’s happened to Citadel baseball? That’s a popular question for Bulldog fans who remember the late Chal Port and his team’s run to the 1990 College World Series, and the successful years that followed under Jordan.
The answers lie in the ways the landscape of college baseball has shifted in the last 10 to 15 years, particularly in recruiting, mid-major competition in the state, and the MLB draft.
In 1994, Jordan and McDonnell found a prospect named Terrance Smalls playing for Holly Hill High School in the Hanahan Invitational Tournament. Smalls became a four-year starter at The Citadel, starting every one of his 238 career games, batting a career .321 and playing on two NCAA Regional teams.
“Best shortstop we’ve ever had here on my watch,” Jordan said of Smalls, whose brother Tavy also came to The Citadel and was a standout four-year player.
Terrance Smalls played point guard on Holly Hill’s basketball team, so did not play year-round or even fall baseball. With the advent of travel baseball and showcase events that attract scouts from hundreds of colleges, finding, signing and keeping a talent like Terrance Smalls is much harder now than it was then.
“We made a living off the sleeper-type kids — Dallas McPherson, the kids from Stratford High School, the kids from Sumter,” said McDonnell, who worked at The Citadel from 1993-2000. “Now, those sleepers are harder to find. Kids now have rankings early in their careers, they are at showcase tournaments. You try to compete to get earlier and earlier commitments.
“That hurts you, because when a kid commits early to a mid-major, the bigger schools are going to follow and it becomes a little bit like football. I hate to say it, but we are starting to get de-commitments in baseball like we have in football.”
Jordan has seen players committed to The Citadel wind up signing with a Power Five school such as South Carolina. He currently has a commmitment from a high school sophomore.
“Will he make it to campus?” Jordan asked. “I don’t know.”
When Riley Park opened by the banks of the Ashley River in 1997, it made a real difference for Citadel baseball.
“A major shot in the arm for recruiting,” Jordan said.
At that point, College of Charleston played its games at a makeshift field at Remley’s Point, not moving to Patriots Point until 2001. Other mid-major schools in the state could not match Riley Park, and few were fully funded with the NCAA limit of 11.7 scholarships.
All of that has changed. College of Charleston’s facility underwent a $3 million renovation in 2007, and the Cougars have become a mid-major power; successful Coastal Carolina opened its new Spring Brooks Stadium last year. Wofford had to play games off-campus until Russell C. King Field opened in 2004; Furman opened a $2 million, 10,000-square foot baseball complex next to Latham Field in 2013.
“Back in the ’90s, we had Riley Park and Charleston to sell,” McDonnell said. “The mid-major schools in the Carolinas and Georgia, they were not at the baseball commitment that we were at. That was a huge advantage for us. Riley Park is still beautiful, but a lot of administrations have made the investment in baseball. They are building nice facilities and paying their coaches.
“If you look at how many different teams have won the SoCon in the last six years or so, you see the parity that’s now in the league and in college baseball.”
That list — The Citadel, Georgia Southern, Samford, Elon, Georgia Southern and Mercer.
“Samford and Elon,” McDonnell said. “They weren’t even around back then.”
The Citadel has had seven players drafted in the last three years (all of them juniors), better than two per year. After last season, junior pitchers Skylar Hunter, James Reeves and Austin Mason all were drafted and signed.
In the “glory days” from 1994 to 2004, the Bulldogs had 16 players drafted in 11 years.
One major difference: The “slot system” for the draft that MLB began in 2012. Players now know what signing bonus they can expect.
“It affects everyone,” McDonnell said. “We lose more juniors now than we ever have to the draft. A kid sees himself in the seventh round — $200,000, bam, I’m gonna take that.”
Citadel first baseman Bo Thompson was a 13th-round draft pick in 2014. With his signing bonus, he was able to pay off his student loans and start a savings account. When he comes back to The Citadel to finish his degree, his tuition will be paid for.
“Guys like Terrance Smalls do not come back for their fourth year under today’s system,” Jordan said. “If a guy can bank $150,000 and get his school paid for, I don’t blame them for going.”
How does Citadel baseball move forward? By stockpiling pitching and adjusting scheduling and expectations, McDonnell suggested.
“In Coach Jordan’s world, with the challenge of mid-major recruiting and the landscape of the draft, he probably has to scale back a little in scheduling,” McDonnell said. “Citadel baseball always has been about pitching, and the draft really affected that this year. I think that as they get back to recruiting enough quality pitching and scale back the schedule, like most teams they can say, ‘Let’s try to win this thing every three or four years.’”
Jordan, who has this season and next left on his current contract, says the Bulldogs are not that far off despite their record. After winning 43 games and the SoCon tournament and regular-season title games in 2010, The Citadel won 35 games and made it to the SoCon title game three years later, in 2013.
With 24 wins in 2014 and 28 last year, Jordan says the Bulldogs were building toward another title run before last year’s draft and this year’s dismissals set them back.
“It’s tough,” Jordan said, a catch in his voice. “But we’ll overcome, I guarantee you that. This program is my life, and we are going to overcome.”