Sports

Big Ten baseball, long an afterthought in conference, no longer an easy out on national level

Illinois plays Michigan State in the Big Ten college baseball tournament in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Once the forgotten sport in the Big Ten, a push is underway to make its baseball relevant on the national level. An infusion of cash from the Big Ten Network has allowed five schools to open new stadiums since 2007. Coaches have bought in to a strategy to upgrade non-conference schedules. A major breakthrough came last year when Indiana was the first Big Ten team since 1984 to reach the College World Series. This week the conference tournament is being played on the grand stage of college baseball, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Illinois plays Michigan State in the Big Ten college baseball tournament in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Once the forgotten sport in the Big Ten, a push is underway to make its baseball relevant on the national level. An infusion of cash from the Big Ten Network has allowed five schools to open new stadiums since 2007. Coaches have bought in to a strategy to upgrade non-conference schedules. A major breakthrough came last year when Indiana was the first Big Ten team since 1984 to reach the College World Series. This week the conference tournament is being played on the grand stage of college baseball, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)  (The Associated Press)

Long the Big Ten's forgotten sport, baseball is making a comeback in the conference.

The most visible sign of progress: Indiana last year became the first Big Ten member since 1984 to play in the College World Series.

Aided by the infusion of cash from the Big Ten Network, five schools have opened new stadiums the past seven years. Nonconference schedules have been upgraded. Coaching jobs have become more attractive.

"I think that both the perception and reality of Big Ten baseball is that it is much better than it has been the past few decades," Big Ten associate commissioner Brad Traviolia, who oversees baseball, wrote in an email Wednesday.

Baseball once was a point of pride in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Minnesota won national championships in the 1960s and '70s and Michigan made the CWS four times in the early 1980s.

The drop-off was swift as warm-weather schools began putting resources into the sport and Big Ten schools allowed programs to languish. The impetus for the Big Ten baseball revival?

"A 29-year absence from the CWS was a huge gap," Traviolia said.

Baseball budgets rose across the league. Minnesota ($1.4 million this year) and Purdue ($1.2 million) have increased their spending by nearly 50 percent since 2009.

New stadiums opened at Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota in 2013, at Michigan State in 2009 and at Penn State in 2007. More money is going to salaries and operations.

"Everybody is trying to keep up with the Joneses," 33rd-year Minnesota coach John Anderson said. "I think (the Big Ten) will keep getting better, and I think we'll have a big impact on the national stage."

It was just two years ago that Anderson floated the idea of the Big Ten breaking away from the traditional NCAA season and going to a summer schedule. His coaching brethren dismissed the notion.

Purdue coach Doug Schreiber prompted serious discussion, though, with a proposal that Northern teams be allowed to play as many as 14 games in the fall that would count in the following spring's RPI.

The rationale, for both Anderson and Schreiber, was that long winters in Big Ten country make it extremely difficult to gain access to the NCAA tournament because conference teams must play nearly all February and March games on the road.

Those concerns were addressed last year when the NCAA began using a new formula for the RPI, which measures the relative strength of teams and conferences and helps determine at-large bids for the national tournament. There now is greater weight placed on road wins.

Traviolia said coaches agreed to put Schreiber's proposal on hold to see how the new RPI formula affects the conference. The Big Ten on Wednesday ranked 10th out of 32 conferences in RPI. Indiana (fourth in team RPI), Nebraska (27) and Illinois (50) all are in line for NCAA tournament berths.

Last year the Big Ten was sixth in RPI, with five teams among the top 65. Before that, the conference hadn't ranked higher than No. 11 since at least 2002.

"I think you'll see a renewed effort to have Schreiber's idea of counting fall games reconsidered," Traviolia said.

Most Big Ten teams have strengthened their schedules. There also have been some attention-grabbing hires. Rick Heller left a consistent winner at Indiana State last year to lead an Iowa program that hasn't won the conference since 1974. Erik Bakich left a rising Maryland program for Michigan in 2013.

Darin Erstad, an All-Star for the Anaheim Angels who had never been more than a volunteer coach at the college level, took over at his alma mater of Nebraska in 2012. Greg Beals went to Ohio State in 2011 after leading Ball State to unprecedented success.

While geography and climate will prevent the Big Ten from matching the top-to-bottom strength of the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, the conference is showing it no longer is content with being an easy out.

"All of our teams, at the right time of year, can play with anybody," Beals said.