Alabama coach Brad Bohannon has to feel like the Baseball Gods are against him.
After being hired to resurrect a once-proud Tide program in 2017, Bohannon has steadily improved the team’s roster and record. From 27-29 in 2018 to 30-26 in 2019, to the incredible 16-1 start to the 2020 season, Coach Bo had the team headed to a special season. That was until the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, and the season was scrubbed in early March. In fact, ‘Bama was just set to begin SEC play on March 13th when the season was called off at the 11th hour, on March 12th.
The Lottery Problem
Losing a promising season is bad enough, but on top of that blow to the rebuild, Bohannon and his staff have been working with one hand tied behind their backs. And they are being hamstrung not just compared to elite baseball programs, or even the rest of the SEC — though both are true statements. But, relative to the majority of Power Five programs, ‘Bama Baseball begins in a deep hole every season.
Alabama joins Texas and Missouri as the only states in the SEC footprint that do not receive state lottery money for higher education. That means 10 of the SEC’s 14 programs receive some additional aid in the form of voluntary lottery contributions passed along from the state. Yes, that even includes the SEC’s only private program, and one long-criticized for their shady financial aid tactics, the Vanderbilt Commodores. Indeed, the Vanderbilt structural advantages that exist because of their private status, willingness to drop “academic scholarships” on dozens of players, and simultaneously fund the program from Tennessee’s Educational Lottery program is why the ‘Dores are most often considered Exhibit A of college baseball’s inequality problem.
Therefore, we have four schools — Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, and Missouri — that have that before the pitchers and catcher even report in February. But, of those four, only Alabama faces additional hurdles to fielding a competitive team.
The Tuition Problem and Creative Accountancy
Baseball’s scholarship system is a unique mess; unique because of all of the revenue sports, it does not fully fund scholarships for its available roster players.
Per NCAA rule, only 11.7 scholarships are available to offer each year to a roster of 27 players. Therefore, teams have to get creative with their aid offer to stretch those dollars — again, unless you’re Vanderbilt or Stanford and the like, when a program can end-run around onerous Sunshine Laws and open records requests.
To stretch those dollars some more, nearly every school in the nation offers a waiver of out-of-state tuition. And every school in the SEC does, except one. See, excluded in that group is one tight-fisted university who wants to squeeze a few extra dollars out of its student-athletes with those sweet, sweet out-of-state dollars.
Read that again. Alabama is just one of four teams in the SEC without lottery money, and rather than making cost of attendance easier — and recruiting better, it is the only team in the SEC that refuses to wave that additional tuition.
There is shooting yourself in the foot, then there is reloading the Sig and pumping a few more rounds into the top of your shoe. And Alabama administration is categorically reaching for another magazine.
The MLB Draft Problem
Another blow to Bohannon and the Tide was the shortening of the 2020 Major League Baseball draft.
The MLB draft has varied greatly in total length, sometimes being as many as 80 rounds. This year, however, it was shortened to just five rounds. Why? Well, the same reason MLB has been in the news all offseason — terminating over three-dozen Minor League Clubs and then the eventual cancellation of the entire MiLB 2020 season. MLB wanted to save a few bucks, despite the fact that termination of these clubs caused incalculable damage to local economies and helped damage a sense of community in dozens of America’s small- and medium-sized cities. This “assault on hometown baseball” will be one of the cultural reckonings we eventually face whenever a sense of normalcy is reestablished.
So, with only 150 players being drafted, then obviously more players returned to school — indeed, they had little choice. And those draft decisions did not just affect present players, it impacted the high school and JUCO signees who would have otherwise gone on to the pros and entered the farm system.
The Vanderbilts, the LSUs, the Floridas of the world that typically lost 10-12 players a year to the draft, now will have those players on campus this fall. And, according to sources within the program, stacking more returning talent on top of the other advantages these schools receive, has left Alabama baseball possibly further behind in its rebuild (at least in a competitive sense.)
The Newest Blow: The Needs-Based Scholarship Problem
As if the other structural problems were not enough, on Wednesday the NCAA dropped a foul cherry on top of this dung sundae was dropped. And it landed hard.
The NCAA passed legislation allowing schools to use need-based scholarships to be stacked on top of existing aid for member institutions. That sounds alright, doesn’t it? Well, like so many other things in college baseball’s inequitable system, it enriches the privates and the haves, and leaves the rest of the Power Five behind...and it especially damages Alabama.
How does it work?
For example, let’s say tuition is $40,000 per year, and a family qualifies for $15,000 in needs-based aid. Let’s also say that a school can offer a 37.5% scholarship — the athletic aid portion. In both cases, the family is left with funding the remaining $25,000 of education, no matter the option it picks. That means that in practical terms a school could save that third scholarship by funneling the student under its needs-based system. Under the old system, the family previously would have to choose either of these options, but not both.
But, with the new stacking regulation, that means a family can use the $15,000 in needs-based aid on top of a 37.5% scholarship offer and fund 75% of the coast of attendance. That means a family suddenly has $30,000 worth of aid and then would only have to finance $10,000 of the yearly tuition cost.
This all sounds great for college baseball in general, and it is. More players will be likely to be able to afford to play college baseball, and that is always a good thing. However, selfishly it is horrible for Alabama baseball since the University of Alabama again shoots itself in the foot.
Considering the above, would it surprise you to know that Alabama does not offer needs-based scholarships to its players while the other 13 SEC program do? Indeed, the vast majority of Power Five programs offer such needs-based aid. And, in doing research for this piece, I found that Texas A&M offers full tuition to in-state students that families make $60,000 a year or less. And that is not a cheap degree.
According to Kendall Rogers of D1 Baseball (link above), the biggest beneficiaries of the regulation will be private schools (like Vanderbilt, Miami and Tulane) and the massively-funded state schools and public Ivies. Because with their large endowment, the Michigans and Texas A&Ms and Stanfords and Virginias and Vanderbilts of the world can give a player a full ride without dipping into their 11.7 limit.
So, even when an allegedly-friendly initiative is passed, the Crimson Tide is once again left out in the cold trying to keep up with the Joneses in the ultra-competitive SEC. The other 13 teams now have yet another way to attract elite prospects that Alabama can not offer.
Of course, so many of these structural inequalities can be wiped away with the stroke of a pen. The Administration need only have the political will to do so.
While folks in Rose have little sway in the lottery, they can and should waive out-of-state tuition for its student athletes — even if only to the extent of baseball’s partial scholarship players. They can and should offer needs-based aid for their student athletes, such that Alabama can compete with literally every other program in the conference who does so.
Bohannon and his staff are fantastic recruiters and have received verbal commitments from several players over the next three to four years. You have to hope they can hold on to them, while fighting not only the MLB draft, but now their opponents’ ability to offer the players far more aid and flexibility in affording a very expensive higher education.
All-in-all, this great day for some in college baseball turned into a terrible day for the Crimson Tide.
Roll Tide Roll
Alabama Baseball Fever, Catch it