Clemson’s Leggett on hot seat

Tigers’ last trip to Omaha was in 2010

by aaron brenner

After consuming more than his share of humble pie last summer, Jack Leggett is hungry to show he’s still got it.

Leggett was not cut loose at the conclusion of his 21st season as Clemson’s baseball coach, but the possibility was extremely real. Ultimately, athletic director Dan Radakovich elected to retain Leggett, but the 2014 American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee is on thin ice since his contract was not extended past its current expiration date of June 30, 2016.

Before the Tigers could attend to the business of clawing their way back toward Omaha, the intense-minded Leggett was ordered to make a series of changes to his routine. Those included a formal player-coach counsel, outside visits with college and professional ballclubs, and some public relations counseling to spice up Leggett’s gruff off-field image with the fanbase.

Always prideful in his statements, Leggett was more reserved during preseason media day late last month.

“If you’ve been doing this as long as I’ve been doing it,” he said, “and you think you can’t learn any more, you’re in trouble.

“Everything we talked about at the end of the season was positive. We tried to make some of the adjustments we talked about, and we’re all on the same page. It’s all been good.”

There was still that confidence in one realm: Leggett declined to divulge which teams he and his assistants visited per Radakovich’s mandate, but he added “they want to know how we do things as well as us trying to figure some things out.”

Leggett became the fifth active Division I coach to reach 1,300 wins when Clemson upset Miami in the 2014 ACC Tournament, and during Leggett’s 21-year tenure with the Tigers, his team ranks seventh in the nation with 923 victories since 1994.

So when the six-time College World Series participant was on the hot seat, his players were taken aback.

“The man’s in the Hall of Fame. He knows what he’s doing. So we’re not too worried,” left-handed pitcher Matthew Crownover said. “We trust in him, and it doesn’t affect us. He’s the reason we came here.”

The truth is, if Clemson doesn’t improve upon its 36-25 mark in 2014 — and not just by small margins — those voices calling for Leggett’s dismissal will return.

“I’m not motivated by the people that aren’t behind this program. I’m motivated by the people that are behind the players, the fans, the coaches,” infielder Tyler Krieger said. “This is a great place. There’s special people involved. I can’t wait to get on the chase again with these guys because it’s something I love to do.”

Leggett had taken the Tigers to Omaha at least every four years, through the 2010 College World Series in which Clemson took third place. But since 2010, the Tigers are 5-10 in the NCAA Tournament, and have fallen in four straight regionals.

Primarily, hitting has become the issue; specifically, hitting at the right moments. Clemson spent most the spring of 2014 leading the ACC in hitting, but the Tigers have scored just 23 runs in their last eight NCAA regional losses.

In their three-game losing streak to end last season, the Tigers hit .196 with runners in scoring position.

“Getting hits haven’t been a problem; it was getting hits at the right time,” right fielder Steven Duggar said. “We put up doubles, we put up singles, get guys on in scoring position, and then for some reason we couldn’t get them in. I think you want to put an emphasis on it, but not too much because you tense up in those situations.”

When the Tigers’ big bats fell short in the clutch as Duggar said, players began to grow exasperated searching for answers. Clemson’s 2014 batting average with runners in scoring position was .324 in victory but .172 in defeat.

“If you know our kids, they’re motivated all the time,” Leggett said. “The bar’s been set high, and the reason is because we’ve been successful over a long period of time.”

What’s does Clemson need to restore its place in college baseball?

“I think we have it. We’ve got to stay committed to each other and continue to improve every day,” Krieger said. “There’s going to be ups and downs, there’s going to be adversity — that’s the game. I think everybody’s on board with the same mindset, and that’s what’s so excited about this team and this season.”