Clemson’s Leggett optimistic, but pressure is on baseball coach

Clemson baseball coach Jack Leggett begins his 22nd season with the Tigers. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

This hasn’t been the longest offseason of Jack Leggett’s career.

At least, that’s the impression Clemson’s Hall of Fame baseball coach offered on a rainy Friday outside Doug Kingsmore Stadium, preceding the Tigers’ 2015 opener vs. West Virginia by three weeks.

“You know, it’s been tough, but I don’t know one (offseason) that hasn’t been tough,” Leggett said. “When you’re competitive, they’re all tough. I think this one has been exciting in a lot of ways because there’s some things we can learn. It’s more challenging and exciting.”

The eight-month wait for redemption has been unique in that Leggett began new directives handed down by athletic director Dan Radakovich last summer.

Those include a six-player counsel meeting regularly with the coaching staff, offseason visits with coaching staffs at the college, minor league and major league levels, and some remolding of Leggett’s public persona among the disgruntled portion of Clemson’s fan base.

Yet here was Leggett, comfortable in his skin with a bevy of reporters asking him how the Tigers plan to right their own wrongs after four straight years falling short of the College World Series — the longest drought of Leggett’s 21-year reign over the program.

“Honestly, I do feel more relaxed. Because I really like the people I’m surrounded with,” Leggett said. “You guys know how competitive I am and how passionate we are about what we do all the time. I don’t look at is as a flaw; it’s one of our better traits around here.”

While Leggett approaches the 2015 season with nothing but optimism, a couple of his players were passionate about taking accountability for the Tigers’ downfall last year: a 36-25 record and quick ouster from the NCAA Nashville Regional.

“If it’s the last game of the year and we’re not holding the trophy, I’m going to be upset,” junior infielder Tyler Krieger said. “This isn’t a situation where it’s OK to lose. I feel sorry for the program; like I feel like the players have all taken on the responsibility to not let that happen again.

“I’m not going to let those seniors walk off that field with tears in their eyes one more time, because it’s not what I like to see.”

Strong words also came from junior outfielder Steven Duggar, who along with Krieger serves on this newly minted counsel integrating young and old players such as senior center fielder Tyler Slaton, sophomore first baseman Andrew Cox, catcher Chris Okey and freshman left-hander Charlie Barnes.

“As a team, we’re not just looking at one guy to carry the load or tell us what’s right and wrong,” Duggar said.

Clemson has been picked to finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division, behind Florida State and Louisville. Last year’s 15-14 league mark was the Tigers’ worst since 2008.

“It’s a different ballgame now. Everybody in the ACC’s pretty good. There’s no bad Virginia Tech teams or bad Duke teams anymore,” left-handed ace Matthew Crownover said. “And there’s really good midweek teams we play each week, like the Kennesaw States of the world that make the super regional.

“So you can’t just show up because you have Clemson on your chest and expect to win, which we learned the hard way last year.”

On some level, the Tigers know Leggett is still coaching for his future. Radakovich chose after the 2014 season to retain Leggett, but not extend his contract past 2016.

“Wouldn’t want to pay for anybody else. He’s a father figure to all of us,” Krieger said. “We’re all ready to rock. February 13 can’t get here soon enough.”