Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:
The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).
Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)
Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)
Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.
For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.
Then the 2010s happened.
And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.
The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.
Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.
The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.
Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?
Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.
After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.
So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.
In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.
And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)
The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.
Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.