Clemson players say Leggett saga wasn’t a distraction

Jack Leggett’s 22-year stint as Clemson’s baseball coach ended last June. (File/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark Crammer)

It seemed every game was a referendum on the head coach’s job security and the future of the Clemson baseball program.

Yet during Jack Leggett’s final season as head coach, returning players say the criticism from fans and coverage by the media never became a distraction inside their dugout.

“I wouldn’t say it was,” junior infielder Weston Wilson said. “It’s been tough years, the past few years. But that’s something we’ve got to put in the past and move on to what’s going to come this year.”

Leggett, who was inducted to the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2014, built a brilliant program during 22 seasons with the Tigers. He won 955 games and advanced to the College World Series six times, but it was his team’s shortcomings over the past five years that led to his ouster in June.

“I tried not to think about it, because that was my coach at the time and that’s who I was playing for,” junior shortstop Eli White said. “I didn’t try to focus on it at all.”

Senior pitcher Clate Schmidt, competing for this year’s No. 1 rotation spot, elaborated. “You know, everybody asked us that question. The thing we always say is we didn’t want to pay attention to that because we weren’t worried about it at the time. If we struggled to win the next game, well, you’ve got to move on because that’s the game of baseball.

“I think as a team, we did a great job of trying to push that out, and we didn’t let that affect us. It wasn’t necessarily tiring. Everyone thought it was affecting us, and it didn’t, really.”

So, at the very least, is there a different vibe around the baseball complex with new head coach Monte Lee and new pitching coach Andrew See, who replaced Dan Pepicelli.

“I love Coach Leggett and Coach Pep, but I think this staff has been able to influx some new positive energy,” Schmidt said. “We have new, different techniques they teach us. It’s pushed us to a whole another level.”

And the Tigers have a new clubhouse as well. A new players facility opened last fall, replacing a makeshift clubhouse, meeting rooms and players’ lounge.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a lot different around here from the past few years,” White said. “It’s all gone really smoothly and I’m excited to get going.”

The majority of last year’s batting lineup is back, while the majority of last year’s pitchers are gone. But to some degree, everything is a new slate under Lee.

“Having new coaches is kind of like a new tryout, in a way,” junior catcher Chris Okey said. “You express yourself trying to impress the coaches. I think the process went well. We’re all getting to know each other and the players have all the respect in the world for our coaching staff.”

The Tigers’ season begins Feb. 19-21 in a three-game series vs. Maine at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.