In catching up on news around the Big Ten and college baseball world one news release caught my attention, the announcement of the forthcoming retirement of Minnesota head coach John Anderson.
There was surprise in reading the release’s headline. The surprise wasn’t actually in the news itself. Although I’ve been away from formally covering the sport, I would still speak to coaches on a fairly often, it’s hard to completely distance yourself when you’ve seen coaches children grow up, interrupt their family time for a quote, enjoying an off-record bite or drink. Anyhow, as mentioned, the surprise wasn’t the news, it was long believe and whispered this would be Anderson’s final year. The surprise is what didn’t supplement the release: a lot of nothing.
I haven’t intentionally and consistently covered Big Ten baseball since the word pandemic was nothing more than potentially a nice Scrabble play, I’d still check out D1Baseball.com or Baseball America a few times a month. On Dec. 12, the University of Minnesota announced the 2024 season would be Anderson’s 43rd and final season leading the Gophers. News like that is hard to keep under wraps, so I assumed someone had put out a article that followed up on a tweeted scoop. I figured maybe I missed said article on either of those websites, so before writing this I went and double-checked. Now, Baseball America’s Ted Cahill did allude to Anderson’s retirement, lumped in with that of the retirement of Missouri State’s Keith Gutin, this past week in a 45 things to know 45 days before opening day column, but outside of that, no, I didn’t miss anything. That’s unfortunate.
Cahill reference’s Anderson’s 1,365 wins, 17th most in NCAA history, third most among active coaches, eight behind Gutin and 13 behind Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall. But beyond that it would appear Anderson’s retirement is just a part of the year-to-year coaching carousel, out goes one coach, in comes the next. I think it would be incredibly unjust if the final year of Anderson’s storied career is viewed as such, with a focus on who is next, the next rising coach, who would be the right fit for the Gophers, instead of fully appreciating the service and success of one who has spent 50 years at one school.
I don’t expect many, or really any, to truly remember a world of Big Ten baseball in 1999. The first year of the NCAA Tournament’s current format, as a Central Ohio native, I was pretty aware Ohio State was having a pretty good year. The Buckeyes were ranked in the top 20, I remember our seventh grade baseball coach quizzing us on who knew and where Ohio State was ranked – foreshadowing my hobby 10 years later. Bob Todd’s team would host a Super Regional against Cal State Fullerton and fall just shy of reaching Omaha, capping a dominant decade where Ohio State won Big Ten championships in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1999, made the NCAA Tournament in 1991-95, 1997, 1999.
The high times for the Buckeyes came to a halt as Y2K hit. The standard bearer in the first-half of the millennium’s new decade would be Minnesota. Anderson led the Gophers to Big Ten championships in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004. Minnesota regained control of the conference, and double the total of conference crowns under Anderson, adding four to the four win between 1982 and 1992, the former being Anderson’s first year as head coach.
Although Anderson had Minnesota at the apex of the conference, there was still a ceiling to the success and, ultimately the success of any Big Ten program. While Ohio State did host Super Regionals in 1999 and 2003, those came in the middle of the Big Ten’s, 30-year (1984-2013) College World Series drought, and would not be matched until Indiana hosted a Super Regional in 2014. As the new tournament format unfolded, going away from a more regionally-aligned format to that of a national one, more and more northern and Midwestern teams were shut out of realistically putting together the type of season that would enable a regional hosting, let along a super.
With the coaching pedigree and wins to be a credible voice in college baseball, Anderson tried best to use his words to level the playing field. Going back to that 1999 season, Arizona State was playing home baseball games against Utah to kick off the year of January 15. January. Not February. January. On February 15, 1999, Minnesota was playing its second game of the season against St. Cloud St.
We already know the plight of a Big Ten/northern program traveling to play games in late February, what are you to do when there’s teams with a month’s head start?
Along with Ohio State’s Bob Todd, Anderson became a leading voice for the universal state date. Regardless of how resourced a program is, where you’re located, there would be one start date for the sport. Seems like it would make a lot of sense, but that wasn’t the case until the 2008 season. From that year on you would start to slowly sees the awareness and respect develop.
Things like the Big Ten/Big East Challenge certainly helped, but so too did Illinois going and taking a road series at No. 1 national seed LSU. OSU having a 2009 season that included a win at No. 1 Miami and eliminating Georgia from the NCAA Tournament. Purdue would have its dream season in 2012, the same year Michigan State jumped out and broke a 33-year tournament drought, and we know what happens with Indiana’s break through in 2013.
Instead of opportunity, growth and success staying within Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, with maybe a sprinkling of Illinois, opportunity started to emerge throughout the conference, thanks in part to the voice and legislative efforts often led by Anderson.
Yes, there were some things advocated for that many would find unappealing. You’re basically leveling a family insult if you ever ask a Nebraska fan if they would consider breaking off and having their own summer baseball league and tournament. The battles and conversations of oversigning having fallen to talk of collectives, NIL and transfer portal. But if you look at the heart of what Anderson advocated for it always came down to one thing, the student-athlete experience.
If we’re to create a sport and environment that is to enhance the student-athlete experience, why would we tell a large part of the sport to be on a plane or bus, or bus and then plane, for upwards of five weeks? If we’re to support providing opportunity to higher education through one’s athletic skill, why would you compromise that if for one season a player didn’t perform in an expected manner? When so many of us know the specialness of being in Omaha in late June and the grand stage the College World Series provides, shouldn’t their be a leveling of the competitive landscape to afford as many athletes of that special moment?
The 2009 Big Ten Tournament was my first as credential media. It was held at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus, the Big Ten’s first predetermined, off-campus tournament site since 1992, a move Anderson advocated for, to again enhance the experience of the Big Ten baseball player. Prior to the Big Ten Tournament’s become a year-end staple, the DQ Classic would often be a high-level, calendar-marking event to kick off the season, providing the region with a reputable event that would bring in top teams from around the country, again placing an emphasis on what’s experienced by a Big Ten/northern baseball player. In fact, the 1989 DQ Classic saw one of the first regular season college baseball games to hit ESPN’s airwaves.
Going on 15 years now, I’ve seen a coach that has won a lot, helped develop top prospects, and been open and honest to media. But more than, I’ve consistently seen someone who has gone to bat for the players, the conference and the game.
It’s borders the unimaginable in knowing Anderson has been with the University of Minnesota’s baseball program since arriving in 1974 as a sophomore player. A student assistant coach in 1976, then full time assistant in 1979 before becoming head coach prior to the start of the 1981 season, and starting a career that would lead to 18 NCAA Tournament appearance, 11 Big Ten championships, 10 tournament titles and eight times named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
The world of college sports and the Big Ten will be a remarkedly different place when 2024 comes to an end. So too will Big Ten baseball and especially Minnesota baseball. Take a moment to appreciate what Anderson has not only accomplished but done for a lot more as he takes one last lap around the bases, it deserves more than a footnote.