Commentary: Leggett Reaching Rarefied Air

by - Correspondent -

Some people for some reason never seem to get their proper due.

A quick look at the numbers shows Clemson has a baseball coach that not only ranks among the nation’s elite but also, maybe more importantly, ranks favorably to his mentor and Clemson legend Bill Wilhelm. Wilhelm, rightfully so, receives uncompromising praise for building Clemson into a national power in baseball over his 36 years at the helm. Wilhelm’s legacy is cemented in not only his accomplishments at Clemson, but for also hand picking Leggett as his successor during the last two years as coach.

So stacking Leggett’s resume against Wilhelm is not done as a slight to the mentor, but as a measuring stick of how well Leggett has kept the engine going while increasing the level of productivity to the brink of greatness.

Wilhelm won 1,161 games in a remarkable 36 seasons at Clemson. Leggett has won 607 games, half of Wilhelm’s total, in only 13 seasons at Clemson. It is highly unlikely that Coach Leggett will coach anywhere near the 36 seasons that Wilhelm did. If, however, you project Leggett’s numbers over 36 seasons he is on pace to win 1,821 games (almost 700 more games than Wilhelm won at Clemson).

Coach Wilhelm amassed a remarkable .683 winning percentage during his tenure. Leggett has topped that dramatically, heading to Omaha this week with a career .702 winning percentage at Clemson.

50-win seasons seem to be the general barometer in college baseball for great seasons. Wilhelm’s teams won more than 50 games five times during his tenure. Leggett has already coached six teams that have broken the magical 50-win plateau.

Coach Wilhelm introduced Omaha to a Clemson Nation. Wilhelm’s teams reached the College World Series six times. Leggett will take his fifth team to the College World Series this week. In Omaha, Wilhelm’s teams posted a 4-12 record, unfortunately never advancing deep into the eight-team tournament. Leggett’s teams are 5-8 in Omaha, having gone to the brink of the championship game in 2002.

Wilhelm’s teams finished in the top 25 an amazing 16 times during his tenure. Leggett’s teams have 11 finishes among the top 25 in college baseball. Wilhelm’s teams made the NCAA Tournament 17 times. Leggett’s teams at Clemson have reached the tournament all 13 years he has been at the helm.

Side by side, Wilhelm and Leggett are even in most categories or Leggett is outpacing his predecessor. That is a staggering perspective considering the long shadow of success Wilhelm cast over the program, much like all legends do at their schools upon retiring.

Leggett has compiled a 27-20 record against rival South Carolina during a time of baseball revival to national prominence in Columbia. Leggett leads a program that is now 6th in all time NCAA Tournament appearances, 3rd in consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and 11th in all time College World Series appearances.

Leggett, all the while, remains a bit of an enigma in Clemson baseball lore. While appreciated and respected for his accomplishments, my perception is that Leggett still has not endeared himself in the way Coach Wilhelm did while at the helm. Maybe my perception of that is incorrect, but it seems obvious when considering the reverence placed upon Wilhelm even as he was coaching the team throughout the latter part of his 36-year career. Maybe we live in a different era and coaches having success are given shorter leashes by fans that are paying more and more into the system. I suspect most Clemson fans like Jack Leggett, but I wonder if most Clemson fans believe he’s one of the top coaches in America.

As a point of reference, some of the doubt may come from the fact that Leggett has only won two ACC Titles while at Clemson, five less than Wilhelm. Wilhelm’s teams also finished first in the ACC regular season an astonishing 19 times. Leggett’s teams have only accomplished that three times. I could argue the scales are not evenly distributed during Leggett’s tenure, as the ACC has become a serious sport for most of the conference and expansion has added Florida State, and now Miami, into the fold. But that is another argument for another day. Admittedly, there is a stinging sensation that still lingers a bit from the two ugly losses to South Carolina in Omaha during the 2002 CWS.

But other than the above, Leggett is almost untouchable in his record as a Clemson baseball coach.

Terry Don Phillips, as his practice, will not negotiate contracts publicly until after the year is over. This has been Phillip’s steady mantra, even in the face of public outcry (see the end of the ’03 football season with Tommy Bowden). As frustrating as that may be for the fan, it is good policy to avoid distraction and diversion for the parties involved during times when the focus should be 100% on coaching.

So Phillips will sit down with Coach Leggett in the off-season to negotiate a contract with a coach that is winning and winning big. Baseball, regardless of popularity at Clemson and now around the nation, is still a non-profit endeavor for Phillips. The unwritten rules for signing a baseball coach should be different than that of a football coach. Baseball plays on the dime that football generates, and that is not a fact that is overlooked during these negotiations.

I would suspect Clemson couldn’t afford to pay Leggett much beyond what they pay him now, relatively speaking. The pocketbook Phillips has to work with certainly has a bottom to it. To give Leggett a fair deal, Phillip’s will probably have to extend his finances beyond what a coach at a non-profit sport really should be entitled to if you looked at the pure financial structure of the Athletic Department in 2006. Phillip’s, I’m sure, understands he will be extending his finances some as he inks Leggett. The question is how much is Phillips willing to extend himself?

Leggett will have plenty of chips on his side of the table during the negotiations, even beyond what numbers and accolades that were listed above. College baseball, at least at the level it is being played at Clemson, is demanding higher salaries for coaches than most schools can really afford to pay for the sport. Not only will Leggett have those numbers to parallel for his negotiations, he may also have other suitors willing to yank him away from Clemson if Phillips can’t or won’t match the cash. It certainly won’t be the first time someone has come calling for Leggett, and if he remains at Clemson and continues to have the success he has had it won’t be the last time either.

I like Jack Leggett. I like what he does for his baseball teams and I like how he represents Clemson University. You rarely get coaches like Leggett off the market and I would suspect finding someone that can do better than Leggett at Clemson is almost impossible. He most certainly deserves everything he gets in the new contract and I hope Clemson and Terry Don Phillips have the available resources to give Leggett a good and fair deal.

Leggett replaced a legend that was almost non-replaceable, all the while taking the program to another level. Legends are not replaced in most places without serious growing pains (See Danny Ford or Dean Smith). Clemson was very lucky to hire Jack Leggett 13 years ago. I’m not so sure we could be so lucky again if we had to hire someone to take over the program from Leggett if we can’t lock him up in the off-season.

Leggett has cruised into rarified air as the coach at Clemson. And that kind of air is worthy of adulation, respect, and money.

If baseball is a game of numbers, Leggett is a coach worthy of legendary status.


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