Port and Jordan

In the last four baseball seasons, The Citadel’s conference record by year is as follows:  14-16, 15-12, 12-15, 12-15.  That is not exactly what Bulldog fans have come to expect from the baseball program, which has historically been the school’s strongest varsity sport.  On the other hand, what should be expected?  I decided to check some numbers in an attempt to answer that question.  I concentrated on the team’s play since 1965, Chal Port’s first year as head coach.

One thing I want to make clear is that this discussion has nothing to do with the current Bulldog squad, which as of this writing is 9-9 overall, 5-4 in the Southern Conference.  This is more about the program’s history, and the current edition of the baseball Bulldogs is just beginning to make its own mark in the historical record.

One of the difficult things in trying to compare and contrast baseball teams of the past is that there have been a lot of variables over the years — in the scheduling, in the makeup of the Southern Conference, in how the conference determines its champion, even in the equipment used.  I made some decisions on how best to make comparisons.  The biggest decision I made was to concentrate solely on league play.

Nowadays the Bulldogs play a lot more games than they did 30 years ago.  In 1975, for example, Chal Port won his second conference title with an 11-3 league record.  His overall record that season was 21-9.  Twenty years later, in 1995, Fred Jordan won his first regular season SoCon title with a conference mark of 19-5, 39-21 overall.  The Bulldogs played exactly twice as many games in 1995 as they did in 1975, and almost twice as many league contests.

Comparing by league record is hard enough, what with more games and more/different schools in the league, but it’s almost impossible to make observations based on the non-conference slate, not only because of the number of games but because of the level of the competition.  Since 1994 The Citadel has played only three games against non-Division I opponents — a game against North Florida in 1995 (in a tournament hosted by UNF), and two games against Presbyterian in 1998 (scheduled after The Citadel won the league tournament in order to prevent an 18-day layoff prior to regional play).

The lack of non-Division I games is due to a SoCon edict handed out following the 1993 season.  For the 1994 season, the conference found itself in a situation in which it didn’t want to be, namely as a “play-in” conference.  The NCAA tournament was a 48-team affair at the time, and in 1994 there were 30 automatic bids.  However, the NCAA mandated that 24 berths for the tournament were to be at-large, which meant there were 6 auto bids too many.  As a result, the 12 lowest-rated conferences from the 1993 season each had to qualify for a regional by winning a best-of-three series against one of the other low-rated leagues.

If that sounds like the NCAA basketball tournament’s “play-in” game, it’s because that’s exactly what it was, times six.  The Southern Conference was one of the 12 leagues that had to play an extra round just to get in the main tournament, and the champion was drawn to face the winner of the Ohio Valley Conference.  The Citadel won the league tournament that year and beat Middle Tennessee State, 2 games to 1, in Charleston to advance to the regional held at Clemson.

To prevent this from happening again, the league determined that its schools should play a Division I-only schedule to improve the league’s power rating.  This was a marginally risky short-term strategy (what if the league had lost an overwhelming number of those extra D-1 games?)  but proved a benefit to the conference in the long run.  However, it meant that the days of The Citadel playing the likes of Hiram or Gannon were over.

As mentioned earlier, comparing eras by conference play is no picnic either.  In 1965, league schools included West Virginia, George Washington, William & Mary, Richmond, VMI, and Virginia Tech.  None of those schools are still in the SoCon.  You also have schools like East Carolina, East Tennessee State, and Marshall, which have come and gone, Davidson (which left and then came back), and schools making their debuts in the league in the 1970s (Western Carolina and Appalachian State), 1990s (Georgia Southern, UNC-Greensboro, and the College of Charleston), and 2000s (Elon and Samford, the latter beginning conference play this season).  UT-Chattanooga competed in the sport for six league seasons before the school dropped baseball following the 1982 campaign.  The conference has had as few as seven and as many as eleven baseball schools over the past 45 years.

Let’s look at Chal Port’s career SoCon record.   Port coached for 27 years and finished with an overall league mark of 253-156-1 (.618).  Port won seven conference titles and one tournament title (it should be noted that the conference did not have a tournament until 1984; five of Port’s league titles came prior to that season).  Port had a stretch of 10 consecutive winning conference records, with that run preceded by three winning records and a 7-7 season, so he actually had 14 straight non-losing seasons in SoCon action.  Overall, Chal Port had 18 winning SoCon seasons, 7 losing seasons, and 2 at .500 in the league.  Port had a winning record in conference play in exactly two-thirds of his seasons as head coach.

Incidentally, Port’s record in the conference after his first seventeen seasons was 143-98-1 (.593), with 12 winning seasons, four losing seasons, and one at .500 in SoCon play, with three league championships.  I mention this because Fred Jordan completed his seventeenth season as head coach last year.  Jordan entered this season with a record of 285-166 (.632)  in league play, with 13 winning seasons and four losing campaigns, and with four regular season titles and six tournament championships.

Jordan, like Port, also had a stretch of 10 consecutive winning seasons in conference play (from 1995 through 2004).  The problem, from the perspective of the program’s current status, is that since 2005, he has had just one winning league season, in 2006 (when the team was 15-12).  In the last four years Jordan’s conference record is only 53-58 (48%).  Did Chal Port ever have a stretch like that?

Well, yes.  After Port’s earlier-mentioned 10-year run of success, which lasted from 1975 through 1984, he had five conference seasons that went like this:  8-10, 9-9, 6-12, 12-6, 8-9.  Overall record during that five-year period:  43-47 (48%).  You may see a pattern developing.  You would be right…

Both Port and Jordan won four regular season titles during their respective 10-year winning streaks.  During those runs, Port won 73% of his league games.  Jordan won 72% of his.

The similarities in the two coaches’ records are striking.  Of course, it’s not that simple.  After those five relatively mediocre seasons noted above, Port finished his career with a run of 29 wins in 32 league games, with two regular season titles, a tournament crown, and a completely unfathomable trip to Omaha.  It’s that finish that people understandably tend to remember, even more so than the terrific teams he fielded during a good chunk of the 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s difficult for Jordan to compete with those memories, particularly since the conference has in recent years seen an influx of schools that take their baseball seriously (Georgia Southern, College of Charleston, UNC-Greensboro, and Elon).  The competition within the league is arguably tougher than it was two decades ago.

That’s not to take away anything from Port’s record, which is lauded with good reason, and in fact is probably even more impressive than a lot of people realize.  Port had to make numerous on-field adjustments during his tenure, including the change from wooden to aluminum bats, and the conference moving to divisional play (and then dropping the divisions), among other things.  Then there were the off-field adjustments, which included integration, and the fact that going to a military school wasn’t exactly the cool thing to do in the early-to-mid-1970s (not that it’s ever been the really cool thing to do).   Consider what the baseball program accomplished, especially when compared to The Citadel’s football and hoops programs of that decade:

From 1971-1979, the football team was coached by Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker.  Ross in particular is known as having been an outstanding coach, with major success at multiple levels of the sport.  The football team had four winning seasons overall in those nine years, with no league titles and a conference mark of 26-29 (47.2%).  SoCon finishes:  3rd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 5th, 3rd.

Tangent alert:  Ross was really good at putting together a coaching staff.  For example, his 1973 coaching staff included Frank Beamer, Ralph Friedgen, Jimmye Laycock, Cal McCombs, Charlie Rizzo, and Rusty Hamilton, along with none other than Chal Port (who doubled as an assistant football coach during his first decade at The Citadel; Port had been a fine football and baseball player for North Carolina in the early 1950s).  The team itself also had some future coaches, like David Sollazzo and Ellis Johnson.  Despite all that coaching talent, in 1973 The Citadel was 3-8 overall, 1-6 in the conference.

The basketball team was coached from 1971-79 by Dick Campbell, George Hill, and Les Robinson.  Robinson would later prove his worth as a coach with an oustanding rebuilding job at East Tennessee State, but during this period the hoops program had just two winning seasons, bookends on seven straight losing campaigns, and had an overall conference record of 43-69 (38.4%).  Conference finishes:  4th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 3rd.

Meanwhile, from 1971-1979 Port went 85-43 (66.4%) in conference play, with three championships, nine winning seasons overall, and eight winning seasons in the league (and the other was a .500 season).  His SoCon finishes during that time:  1st, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.  He finished in the upper half of the league all nine years.

He wasn’t done yet, either.  He had his best teams up to that time in 1982 and 1983, with the ’82 squad finishing 40-8.  At that point another power arose in the Southern Conference, as Western Carolina hired Jack Leggett to upgrade its already promising program.  The Catamounts would win five straight league titles, a stretch dovetailing almost exactly with a gradual decline in The Citadel’s fortunes on the diamond.

Port outlasted WCU’s run and (even more impressively) Hurricane Hugo, however, and orchestrated a season that won’t soon be forgotten, plus a very nice coda (the ’91 campaign).  That’s quite a legacy, one augmented by Port’s well-deserved reputation as a jokemeister and storyteller.

Jordan should be credited with maintaining the high standard of the program throughout much of his time as head coach, as the numbers rather clearly demonstrate that he has done so.  What he needs now is a “second wind”.  Port got his after a real-life gust of wind, Hurricane Hugo, blew through Charleston.  Then, rather amusingly (and appropriately), he capped a season for the ages by beating a team called the Hurricanes to reach the College World Series, giving a then up-and-coming Miami sportswriter named Dan Le Batard enough material for several columns in the process.

Jordan doesn’t need another hurricane (let’s hope not, anyway) to re-establish momentum.  He doesn’t even need to start making appearances on Le Batard’s radio show.  He just needs better pitching and defense (don’t sleep on the need for better defense).  He’s had championship-caliber pitching and defense in the past, and I see no reason to believe he can’t get the program to that championship level again.

I certainly hope so, anyway.  I would like to make another regional trip, preferably sooner rather than later…

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