Fully aware of the cyber lynch mob, Jack Leggett chooses to confront the next week with the same energy and spirit he’s given for nearly a quarter century rather than publicly acknowledge that this could be the end of his run with the Clemson baseball program.
Unwilling to quit on a season threatening to fall far below his own standards – let alone those of fans conditioned to expect better – Leggett prefers to believe there’s still a chance Clemson might put together a run that would launch the team into the ACC Tournament and beyond.
“Yes, it’s a little disappointing where we are right now,” Leggett said last week in an exclusive interview with The State. “We’ve dug a little hole for ourselves, there’s no doubt, but there’s still a shovel. We’re still working at it.”
With four games remaining on the regular season schedule, the signs are ominous. Clemson began the weekend tied for fifth in the ACC, third in its division behind nationally ranked Louisville and Florida State. A three-game series at FSU next weekend could either mark the finish or provide a reprieve that would likely require Clemson to win the ACC Tournament to reach NCAA postseason play.
Last June, after Clemson missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, athletics director Dan Radakovich put Leggett on notice. He installed criteria to assist in addressing what he perceived as concerns in the program’s direction. While Leggett complied, the mandate created a tenuous air. Potential recruits and their parents wanted to know if he would be here. One media outlet said Radakovich “settled for mediocrity.”
On the surface, the season’s results might seem problematic. Clemson has struggled to keep its head above water and could finish with the worst record in Leggett’s tenure and the fewest wins by a Clemson team since 1983. More disturbing – Clemson could miss the postseason for a third successive year.
After winning five straight early in the season and beating South Carolina twice, Clemson seldom found a rhythm, losing three of its first four conference series. Injuries and key issues in the bullpen made closing games an adventure, and Clemson was 3-9 in one-run games. Other than a four-game streak in April, the Tigers never again won more than two straight.
“It’s difficult because we hate to lose. It’s been difficult my entire coaching career to lose,” said Leggett, who came to Clemson in 1992 as Bill Wilhelm’s chief assistant and inherited the program two years later.
“We have been very fortunate over a long period of time to have good things happen for our baseball program,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for the players to hear negative things.
“There needs to be a positive vibe, because if affects recruiting and it affects these kids out on the field. They’re aware.”
Leggett stands proudly on his legacy, which includes six College World Series teams at Clemson, 11 players selected in the first round of the MLB Draft and more wins than all but eight NCAA Division I coaches – ever. Early last year, he was inducted in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Though there’s evidence that the landscape in college baseball shifted seismically the past several years to create parity, Leggett refused to make excuses, even though assembling a roster has become more difficult and changes in equipment – particularly the bats – have sucked some of the air from the game.
Where once Leggett could parse Clemson’s 11.8 baseball scholarships to as many as 35 players – in some cases only book money – now 27 can receive aid and none can receive less than 25 percent of a full scholarship. Those other eight kids Clemson used to sign are going to Wofford, Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern, teams that traditionally came to Clemson on Tuesday and Wednesday as warm-ups for weekend conference series. This season, they came and beat Clemson.
Longtime Baseball America editor John Manuel said few coaches did a better job of manipulating his roster under the old rules, of finding diamonds in the coal and helping them shine. Leggett might take a chance on a kid and try to develop him. If it didn’t work out, he would help the youngster find a place to play and look for a replacement because the rules allowed players to leave school A and play at school B the next season. A few years ago, the NCAA changed the transfer rule in baseball to mirror football and basketball, which require a year hiatus.
“I could name you a lot of really good baseball players, All-American players who came here for books or a thousand dollars,” Leggett said. “I could give you example after example of players who came here that I don’t know now if I’d pull the trigger on him.
“You have such a small margin for error in baseball,” he said. “And you probably have to recruit twice as hard to get a kid to walk-on here when before I could give him books.”
Clemson hasn’t been shy about providing facilities for baseball. Doug Kingmore Stadium is generally considered one of the grandest in the game, and there have been several projects over the years – including the current $9 million upgrade down the first-base line, funded in part by Leggett’s former players – that will include plush digs for players and coaches.
Unseen is Clemson’s inability to match some programs in resources for financial aid that could supplement the NCAA mandated scholarship allotment and provide waivers for out-of-state players.
Schools such as defending national champion Vanderbilt tap into multi-billion dollar endowment trusts. Clemson can’t compete. It’s an irony worth noting that Vandy coach Tim Corbin was one of Leggett’s most trusted assistants and remains a close friend.
“All any coach ever wants is to be in a place where people believe and support his program and his kids and his coaches as much as he does,” Leggett said. “That’s the most important thing. It’s not finances, facilities. It’s nice, but it’s having everybody on the same page, being excited about it and supportive.”
Leggett was offered a chance to coach in 1978 while he prepared for a tryout as an NFL kicker. It paid $600 per year.
“It was about being involved with the kids, trying to make a difference in their lives, trying to compete and kick somebody’s a-- every day because you have that drive,” he said. “Teaching the fundamentals of the game, see your kids progress, seeing them reach a height they maybe they didn’t think they could reach.
“I wanted to compete. I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives. And I wanted to make an impression on their lives so I’d have a relationship with them the rest of their lives.”
When some Clemson loyalists talk about making a change, Corbin or Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, another former Leggett assistant, are frequently mentioned as potential successors, but that’s aiming higher than they probably have a right to expect if they run off one of the most successful coaches in the game.
Radakovich hasn’t given him any hint, Leggett said, but some around the program are discouraged.
“Winning is a byproduct of your kids being invested in your program,” Leggett said. “That’s what’s most disappointing. They’re not reaping what they’ve put in the program so far. I hate to see them lose. That’s why I need everybody to believe in that.
“I think it would free them up.”
Leggett said he wouldn’t need to be told if it was time, insisting he’s no less a coach now than when he took six Clemson teams to the College World Series. Yes, he has heard from those who wonder if the game has passed him or if a younger coach might provide a spark.
“Are you asking me if I feel I’m less of a coach or have less of a knowledge base? No. You’re learning all the time,” he said. “I’m not any different coach now than I was in 2010 or 2006 or 2002.
“We just haven’t learned to get that run yet. It’s not from lack of effort, lack of loyalty or lack of preparation,” he said. “We’ve got to keep working to find ways to make that edge to go in that direction. We’re 90 feet from being 35-15.”
Even at his most introspective, Leggett doesn’t allow himself to wonder what he might do if it ended at Clemson.
“I’ve spent 38 years of my life coaching,” he said. “What would you do if you’re not coaching? It’s what I know. It’s what I’m good at.
“I have a quarter of a century invested in this baseball program, 40 percent of my life. I love the school. I love the university and what it stands for.
“I’m proud of this program. I’m proud to represent this program.”
So Leggett keeps his eyes on the next game, “and the next and the game after that.”
“We still have some goals intact. We still have some opportunities ahead of us, some challenges ahead of us,” he said. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to win as many games down the stretch and play as good as we can and hope we can find that Clemson magic thing we’ve always done.
“My focus is to come out here and get this team to play its best baseball of the year every game going forward. Otherwise it’s going to affect them. Just have to forge ahead and do our thing.”
Jack Leggett at Clemson:
• 6 College World Series
• 9th-most wins among all coaches in history
• 11 first-round draft picks
• 20 regionals in the first 21 seasons
• 20 winning ACC seasons in the first 21 seasons
• 21 MLB players coached
• 31 All-Americans coached
• 116 players drafted or signed pro contracts
• 240 wins over top-25 ranked teams
• 329 weeks ranked in the Top 25
• 950 wins in 22 seasons (average of 43 per season)