The charter bus with all the players on board was idling in the parking lot Thursday afternoon.
Wright State baseball coach Rob Cooper was inside the coaches’ dressing quarters at Nischwitz Stadium — a room decorated with huge photos of the Raiders’ three trips to the NCAA Tournament in the past seven years — hurriedly packing an oversized duffle for the road trip to Penn State.
He grabbed uniforms, shirts and caps and packed them alongside a time-worn adage that now fits him and his program like a straight jacket:
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
About the time Cooper was grabbing his gear, the Green Bay Post Gazette was reporting that Oakland University in suburban Detroit would be leaving the Summit League to join the Horizon League, of which WSU is a member.
A report also surfaced that Illinois-Chicago was about to leave the Horizon League for the Missouri Valley Conference, whose officials, a source told the Dayton Daily News, were on the UIC campus Thursday.
So on the ever-changing landscape of conference alignment in college sports, one thing appeared as if it would remain the same in the Horizon League: The conference would still have just five schools with college baseball (four schools in the league no longer play the sport) and that soon would cost the conference its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA requires a league to have at least six baseball schools for a bid and for a long time the Horizon had that. But Butler bolted for the Atlantic 10 this year — and it’s headed to the new Big East next season — and along with its nationally-celebrated basketball team, it has taken its baseball team.
The NCAA gave the Horizon a two-year grace period to rectify the baseball issue, but a year has gone by and nothing has been addressed.
And no Horizon League school is more affected by the devaluation of baseball than Wright State, whose program and coach have won national acclaim in recent years and now play at a state-of-the-art stadium that just got $1.2 million in improvements (including a turf field) in the past few months.
The “baseball problem,” as WSU athletics director Bob Grant called it, is such a big issue at the school that if the Horizon can’t rectify the NCAA bid issue, Wright State may well move to another conference.
Already the threat of a lost NCAA bid is hurting the program, Cooper said:
“You could talk to all the baseball coaches in the conference and they’d tell you the same thing — it’s been really tough going head-to-head recruiting with other schools. I’ve talked to kids now who say, ‘Coach, I’d love to play for you, I’d love to come to Wright State, but all these other coaches are telling me you won’t even have an automatic (NCAA) bid and I want to play in the tournament.’
“So we’re losing out on guys already. This has put us at a real competitive disadvantage. And the bad thing is you don’t know what to tell them because the league isn’t saying anything to us.”
One person Cooper has behind him is Grant.
“We take baseball very seriously at Wright State and we can’t be in a situation where there is no automatic bid available,” Grant said. “We love the Horizon League. We fit in well in the league, but we do have a serious baseball problem now. It needs to be solved and if not, we have to look at our options and take care of ourselves.
“I believe in the next 90 days you’re going to see a lot of movement. You’ll see the domino effect and it will be fast and furious. I’m not saying I like that. It’s really sad that all this craziness is making what once made sense — conferences where rivalries and proximity meant something — into just an after-thought now. And the student athletes who get shipped all over to play are the ones hurt by it.”
Grant’s domino theory is already in motion in the HL. There’s talk that Valparaiso is being eyed by other conferences, as is Loyola. And Youngstown State may consider moving because it is the only conference school with a football team.
There’s also talk that Missouri-Kansas City and Denver might be lured to the Horizon at season’s end and that Murray State and Belmont have been considered because of their basketball programs.
The HL is first and foremost a basketball conference, but baseball — going back to legendary coach Ron Nischwitz and now especially under Cooper — has a huge presence at WSU.
In the past seven years under Cooper, the team not only has been to three NCAA tournaments but has twice beaten the No. 1 team in the nation (Georgia and Virginia) and continued sending players to pro baseball and a few to the major leagues.
The success of the baseball program has been quite a calling card for the school.
“I remember when we played our (NCAA tournament) regional at Oregon State in ’06, I must have gotten 50 emails and letters from high school and junior college players in Oregon and Washington who wanted to know about our school,” Cooper said.
“This year when we played in California people came up and said, ‘We really like your team and how hard it plays And we looked at your website and wow, what unbelievable facilities you have!’ Now thanks to baseball, people in Southern California who knew nothing about Wright State know about the school and kids are interested in coming here.”
Now much of that is being threatened.
If players can’t reap the ultimate reward they may chose to go elsewhere. If Cooper can’t get the athletes he needs because of the circumstances he too may opt out. And the donors who put up all that money recently likely won’t reach for their wallets again.
“It’s just all tied together,” Cooper said. ”It’s a real issue we have to deal with because right now everything is being jeopardized.”
He shook his head, zipped shut his duffel and lugged it toward the waiting bus.
When he returned he knew he would have to deal with the heaviest baggage that now burdens his program.