Did the SoCon mismanage its once-successful baseball tournament? Sure looks like it.

In 2004, the SoCon baseball tournament was a happening. A record total of 35,150 fans rumbled through the turnstiles at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park during the event.

It was the fifteenth consecutive year the tournament had been held in Charleston, and the culmination of a six-year stretch (1999-2004) in which the SoCon tourney annually drew more fans than did the ACC Tournament. Yes, you read that right. The Southern Conference tournament had a higher attendance than the ACC’s version for six straight years.

The good times continued in 2005 (attendance of 26,707), 2006 (28,206), and 2007 (31,298). So what did the SoCon’s powers-that-be decide to do in June of 2007?

You guessed it. They announced they were moving the tournament.

This happened, it appears, for two reasons. First, a small minority of school coaches/officials complained about Charleston’s status as the permanent host site, led by Mike Gaski, the longtime UNC-Greensboro coach whose teams had established a pattern of underachieving at the SoCon tournament.

However, it is likely the main impetus for the decision was financial. The league thought it could make even more money than it already was (and yes, it was doing quite well in Charleston) if it shopped the tournament to different communities.

After a mildly disappointing 2009 tournament in Greenville (at least in terms of attendance), SoCon commissioner John Iamarino insisted that the net guarantee to the league from that tournament was “141 percent greater” than the net revenue in the previous year’s event (2008), which suggested that Greenville had ponied up a lot of money to swipe the tournament from Charleston.

You could say the league cashed in that year. It is doubtful, however, that you can say that these days.

The last two years, the tournament has been held in Greenville (2013) and Charleston (2014). Combined total attendance from those two tourneys: 15,471. Combined.

Those are the two lowest years for attendance (regardless of venue) since at least 1997, which was when Riley Park first opened. They are almost certainly the two lowest years for attendance since the tournament was first moved to Charleston in 1990 (attendance figures prior to 1997 are hard to come by, as the league doesn’t list them).

I doubt anyone thinks it’s a good thing that the combined attendance from the last two league tournaments was lower than the attendance from the 1994 event (15,486), which was held at College Park. Twenty years later, and the conference is going backwards in terms of tournament interest.

The sad thing is that it was all too predictable. The league could have looked at the aforementioned ACC tournament, which struggled mightily after being moved from Greenville, where it had enjoyed a lot of success over a nine-year period. Rotating sites did that league no good, and attendance suffered until a multi-year stay in Jacksonville got the event back on track.

In 2009, Mike DeMaine from the Greenville Drive (which co-hosted the event) said that “Maybe if you are in one place a long time, it gets stale for everyone.” I guess he would have favored rotating the Rose Bowl between Pasadena and Fresno.

What a permanent host site does is establish consistency. It makes it easier for fans, coaches, and administrators to plan ahead, knowing from past years what to expect. It helps in developing relationships within the community that lead to increased sponsorships and other promotional opportunities.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Take John Iamarino’s comments, for example:

There are advantages to going back to a city: It helps with sponsors; it helps with awareness of the event.

Of course, he wasn’t talking about Charleston. He was talking about Asheville, which will now host the SoCon men’s and women’s basketball tournaments through 2017.

For some reason, the league is anxious to find a permanent home for its basketball tourneys but would rather rotate the baseball tournament, despite evidence suggesting that leaving it in one place is the way to go.

That place should be Charleston, which previously demonstrated an ability to “grow” the event in a way that Greenville simply has not been able to match.

Don’t count on it happening, though. Next year the tournament will return to Charleston, but in 2016 and 2017 it will probably move back to Greenville (which has an option to host in those years). After that, who knows.

While moving the tournament around has been a problem, the actual format of the event has also drawn attention, and in a very negative way.

The Southern Conference bracket is set up so that two teams will meet in a winner-take-all final, whether or not one of the teams is undefeated (it is conceivable both could be undefeated). Thus, even though most of the tournament is a double-elimination setup, it is possible for a team to lose only one game in the tournament and still not win the championship.

In fact, that has happened the last two seasons. In both cases, the previously undefeated team lost in the title game (and by one run) to a team that had already lost earlier in the tournament.

The SoCon isn’t the only league to have a single-elimination final, but that’s no excuse for using a format that is clearly unfair.

In a conference like the SEC (which has a single-elimination final and semifinals), the automatic berth in the NCAAs that goes to the tourney champion is not as important as it is to a league like the SoCon. That’s because at least half of the teams in the SEC are getting regional bids anyway (this year, 10 of 14 squads in that league are headed to the NCAA tournament).

Meanwhile, most years the SoCon is a one- or two-bid conference, never more than three. Winning the tournament championship is critical. That auto-bid means something. Devaluing it by using a made-for-TV tournament format is borderline unconscionable.

What’s worse, though, is that the final is not on television anyway. It’s on ESPN3. That is not the same thing as ESPN or ESPN2 or ESPNU or ESPN The Ocho or any other ESPN channel you can name. What’s the point of using a bracket designed for a one-shot television window when you aren’t even on TV?

There is no reason not to hold a standard double-elimination tournament. That’s the fair thing to do, the right thing to do, and the sensible thing to do.

Don’t count on that happening, either.

The Citadel begins its search for a new AD

On Tuesday, Larry Leckonby resigned as director of athletics at The Citadel to take a similar job at Catawba College, a Division II school in North Carolina.

In doing so, he became the first “modern” AD at The Citadel to take another full-time position. The previous three directors of athletics at the school (Eddie Teague, Walt Nadzak, and Les Robinson) all retired after their respective tenures at the military college.

The move was not unexpected. Indeed, last month a Clemson-oriented website breathlessly reported that “Clemson Associate Athletic Director Bill D’Andrea is the leading candidate to become the new athletic director at The Citadel”, which was news to just about everyone, since at the time the position was occupied (more on that later in this post).

At the time, Leckonby told The Post and Courier‘s Jeff Hartsell “Not that I know of,” in response to a question as to whether or not he was leaving. However, rumors persisted through the end of April and into May.

There is a whiff of “jump or be pushed” in assessing the reasons for Leckonby’s departure.

In six years, he developed a reputation as being good at balancing a budget. Some observers occasionally maligned him as a “bean counter”, which was probably unfair.

For one thing, bean counters are necessary. Leckonby had work to do on that front when he first arrived in Charleston. From all accounts, he handled it well.

However, Leckonby’s time at the school was marked by generally unsuccessful performances by The Citadel’s varsity teams. While he was AD, the department only won one SoCon team title (2010 baseball).

The rifle team did capture the SEARC championship in 2011 (the SoCon doesn’t sponsor rifle). It is also only fair to note that the wrestling team had some truly outstanding individual accomplishments in the last few years.

The Citadel’s highest-profile sports, though, were a sore spot. In the last four decades, the military college has only had five school years during which the football, basketball, and baseball teams all had losing records. However, three of those years have come in the last four campaigns.

Leckonby’s hiring of Chuck Driesell as head basketball coach has yet to produce on-court success, to say the least. The football program has continued a 15-year rut (and counting) of mostly sub-.500 seasons, and even the Diamond Dogs have scuffled as of late.

All of The Citadel’s varsity sports are important to the college, but the “big three” have a special place in the hearts of the school’s alums/supporters. It hurts the department as a whole when none of them are doing well.

Leckonby was perceived in some quarters as being largely indifferent to a variety of issues of varying importance. Just to name a few: the corps of cadets’ seating during football gamesthe overall ambiance at Johnson Hagood Stadium; the disposition of the cheerleading squad; the mascot program; and the much-criticized video streaming service.

I’m not going to throw him under the bus for all of that, largely because it’s hard for me to determine how much of that was him being difficult (or shortsighted) and how much was Leckonby simply following orders. You can’t blame him for everything.

In accepting the position at Catawba, Leckonby stated that he wanted to focus on “one-on-one engagement with Catawba’s coaching staff, its student-athletes and with all of those who support the athletics program.” That’s an admirable desire. I wish him well at Catawba. I’m sure everyone else who supports The Citadel does, too. 

I think the newly open position will be an attractive one. It isn’t an easy job by any means (and may get more difficult as the years go by).

However, there is a lot to be said for running the department of athletics at an outstanding school, located in Charleston, with a loyal fan base, and that has a history of being patient with administrators and coaches (the person hired for the job will become only the fifth AD at The Citadel since 1957). It’s a good gig.

Already, a number of people have been mentioned as candidates. The first name that popped up, as mentioned above, was Bill D’Andrea, a longtime Clemson administrator who is retiring from that school. D’Andrea has not been particularly shy about his interest (confirming as much late Tuesday morning in an email to WCSC-TV sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau).

I am more than a little dubious about the “sources” referenced by Clemson Insider‘s William Qualkinbush, who suggested in April that D’Andrea was “the leading candidate” for the position. His article also initially stated that The Citadel was a private institution; if a media member doesn’t know enough about the school to know that it is public, then I’m not really confident in any tips he is getting about the inner workings of the Board of Visitors.

Clemson Insider remains confident in its reporting. Fair enough.

D’Andrea has a fine reputation and is very popular in key Clemson circles. However, he is just one of many qualified people who will be in the mix. Other names that will be (or have been) mentioned for the job: Jerry Baker, John Hartwell, Fred Jordan, Geoff Von Dollen, Robby Robinson, Harvey Schiller, and Kelly Simpson. Some of them may not actually be interested. Many will be.

The search for a new AD should be a wide-ranging one that leaves no stone unturned. Gene Sapakoff of The Post and Courier wrote in his Wednesday column that there is “no need to search from sea to shining sea and bring in 11 candidates for first-round interviews.” I completely disagree.

I have no idea where he came up with the number eleven, but if it is in the school’s best interests to bring in that specific number of people for initial interviews, then the search committee should do so. And yes, I think a “search from sea to shining sea” is more than appropriate. It’s necessary.

This is an important hire. It has be made with due process and careful consideration.

Obviously, the new AD has to be able to grasp what The Citadel is all about sooner rather than later. That is just one of many attributes the new director of athletics must have. Two others are perhaps of the utmost importance.

1) He or she must be a great fundraiser. Not a good fundraiser, but a great one — both from a personal perspective, and in terms of organizational ability.

If a candidate tells the search committee, “I can raise $20 million per year,” the first question a committee member asks should be, “What about $40 million?”

2) The new AD has to have a long-term vision for varsity athletics, one that matches the needs of the institution.

There are some supporters of The Citadel (including me) who believe the school should have a more expansive sports portfolio. Not everyone is on board with that line of thinking, of course. However, I think most alums/supporters would agree with the idea that an educational institution should be treated as an investment, rather than a series of journal entries in a general accounting ledger.

I want the next director of athletics to be an imaginative thinker and a creative force of nature. I want him or her to have big plans, and possess the wherewithal to make those plans come to life.

The next few weeks are going to be fascinating. I hope they will also be productive.

I’ll be watching, and listening, and maybe pontificating from time to time.

Won’t we all…