Until a couple years ago, Big Ten baseball was a joke. Now, with just a couple weeks left in the 2015 season, the conference has five teams projected to be in the NCAA field of 64 by D1baseball.com. To understand just how big of a jump the conference has made, you have to get a grasp on where it has been.
THE EARLY YEARS
Although several American universities began playing baseball in the late 19th century, the NCAA only began crowning a baseball champion in 1947. They did so by using a vastly different format from what we know today. Eight teams were selected by regional committees and then two of those teams would advance to the College World Series. A few years later, the field expanded slightly, and the CWS became an 8-team tournament. Wisconsin was the first Big Ten team to qualify for the College World Series in 1950.
In the first 20 years of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten won six national championships. Michigan (1953, 1962) and Minnesota (1956, 1960, 1964) were part of college baseball elite along with Texas and USC in the early years of the tournament era. And in 1966, Ohio State joined the party with a national championship of its own. No Big Ten team has won a title since.
THE LAST GLIMPSE AT RELEVANCE
From 1967-1983, as the size of the tournament began expanding, Big Ten baseball began to lose ground as a baseball powerhouse. Conferences like the SEC, the Southwest Conference (Big 12), and the ACC began to regularly qualify three or four teams for the NCAA Tournament, but the Big Ten had more than one team qualify for the tournament only five times in that time period, and in each of those fives seasons, just two Big Ten teams were invited.
Still, the conference had eight teams earn spots in the College World Series in those 16 years (Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa). And although none of these eight trips to Omaha resulted in a national title, the future did not appear to be as gloomy as it was.
THE EPITOME OF "NORTHERN BASEBALL"
"Northern Baseball" is a term used to excuse or explain the poor performances in college baseball by those programs geographically located North of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, it could apply to program North of the Carolinas. The logic goes like this:
If you are a star baseball recruit who can write his own ticket to any school he chooses, why would you choose to play at Illinois, for example, where you won't get to play a home game until mid-March and a Wednesday night game in late April might be played in 35-degree temperatures when, instead, you could go to Miami or Texas and sleep in your own bed for most of the season and play a Wednesday night game in February with 80-degree temperatures?
And, even if you, the star recruit, do decide to play at a northern school (say, Indiana), you and your club are going to be behind the learning curve when games begin. Why? Because you've been taking batting practice in a cage in the Mellencamp Pavilion instead of simulating real baseball on dirt and grass.
The 30 years of Big Ten baseball after Michigan's 1983 College World Series appearance were the epitome of "Northern Baseball." The Big Ten would get one or two teams, occasionally three, that would beat up on the rest of the league because they were better at recruiting and developing talent. But when they got into the NCAA Tournament, they rarely qualified for a Super Regional and never qualified for the CWS.
Seriously. 30 years without a College World Series trip for one of the country's premier athletic conferences. This was the cause of a dreadful effect: The Big Ten became a forgotten baseball conference.
If you are a baby boomer or you fall between that generation and mine, you think of Texas, Southern Cal, Cal State Fullerton, and Arizona State as the perennial powers of college baseball. If you are a member of my generation, it's LSU, South Carolina, Rice, and Miami. That's the Big 12, the Pac 12, the SEC, and the ACC, with some warm weather "mid-majors" sprinkled in.
For any generation, name me the northern most team (and not on the West Coast) that had consistent success from 1983-2012. Wichita State who won one title in 1989? Oklahoma won once too. That is not North.
So, what were the practical consequences of this trend? Northern teams did not get automatic bids. And why should they have? They were not competitive when they were invited. The SEC and ACC regularly send 5+ teams to the tournament. The Big Ten sent three teams four times. And has never sent more than three.
But the conference is on the verge of changing that because one program, in 2013 and 2014, changed the perception of Northern Baseball and the Big Ten enough to make this season possible.
A FORGOTTEN CONFERENCE IS REMEMBERED
Northern Baseball perceptions were changing somewhat at the end of the 2000s decade thanks to Louisville's College World Series appearance in 2007. But, Kentucky, for a variety of reasons, still is not a northern state, even if the weather in Louisville may be more similar to the weather in Bloomington, Columbus, and Champaign than the weather in Miami, Austin, and Baton Rouge.
But the Big Ten was still struggling. And things were not any better from 2010-2012. In 2010, Minnesota, the lone Big Ten qualifier, was a 4-seed in the tournament and failed to qualify for a Super Regional. Same story with Illinois in 2011. The only Big Ten team to make the tournament was a 4-seed and did not advance out of the regional. In 2012, two qualified from the conference, Michigan State and Purdue. Sparty was a 3-seed that went 0-2. And Purdue was a 1-seed, hosting a regional but being eliminated by MAC school Kent State.
But in 2013, and out of nowhere, Indiana flipped the script on the Big Ten's past three decades. After mild non-conference success that included a win over Louisville in the season opener and taking two out of three at Florida, the Hoosiers won eight in row to start Big Ten play. It appeared that they were going to be that year's team that beat up on everyone else in the conference and then got put in their northern place by the big boys.
But a 49-16 regular season record earned the Hoosiers something that few Big Ten teams had gotten in recent history -- a regional to host. And what they did with that opportunity was tear through the competition, defeating Valparaiso and Austin Peay (twice) by a combined score of 26-11, and becoming the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 2007 to qualify for a Super Regional.
Indiana was 52-16 and had won 20 of its last 26 games. Yet no one wanted to give them a chance in Tallahassee against National 7-seed Florida State. The Hoosiers trailed 6-5 after six innings in Game One. But in typical fashion for that club, they put together a huge inning in the 7th, scoring four runs. They would take Game One 10-9. In Game Two, the Hoosiers scored four in the bottom of the first, and added four more in the 7th and 8th that set up this:
For the first time in 30 years, the Big Ten had a team in the College World Series. The Indiana Hoosiers.
At 54-16, Indiana was clearly one of the best teams in the country. But people thought the Hoosiers were Cinderella. If the 2013 Indiana Hoosiers were Cinderella, they were the hottest version of Cinderella there has ever been. They were a team that was truly good enough to win a national championship. And they proved it in Omaha.
The Hoosiers beat Louisville 2-0 in their opener before being eliminated by two one-run losses, one to Oregon State and one to eventual runner-up Mississippi State.
Then, in 2014, for the first time in years, a Big Ten team entered the season with high expectations. And the Hoosiers met them. They went 44-15 and repeated as Big Ten champions after a 21-3 conference record and another tournament title. And the Hoosiers earned National 4-seed, marking the first time since the field expanded to 64 teams that a Big Ten team had earned a national seed.
2015: THE NEXT STEP
The 2014 Indiana season ended in shocking disappointment when Stanford hit a walk-off home run into the night at Bart Kaufman Field to win the Bloomington regional. But Indiana's run in 2013 and 2014 laid the foundation for what is happening in the Big Ten this season. That's not to say that Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State, etc., are good because Indiana was good.
Rather, it's the fact that so many of them are going to get a chance in the postseason for which those Hoosiers can be thanked. To come back from 30 years of abysmal results, the conference needed to naturally progress to a place where its teams could be trusted to compete as if they earned each spot they got in tournament. For years, even the one team that got in as the automatic bid could not fulfill that duty. But Indiana changed it all.
The Hoosiers made that natural progression for the Big Ten all on their own and in two short years. The Big Ten needed a team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and win a regional. Then they needed a team defy the odds and make it to Omaha. Getting a team to Omaha was what it was going to take to show that a Big Ten team could deserve a national seed. And a national seed showed that the Big Ten was not a conference of only mediocre teams.
And so, today, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, and Ohio State are projected to be in the field of 64. A conference that has never sent more than three teams to the tournament is on the verge of sending five (and Nebraska is just on the outside looking in). And that's not a fluke. It's the combination of their talent and the wild success of Indiana in 2013 and 2014.
Big Ten baseball is relevant. And it's all because of the program in 9th place.