December 18, 2018

Opinion: Monte Lee right man, Clemson will be back in Omaha

In 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Elvis was inducted into the army, a B-47 accidentally dropped an atom bomb on Mars Bluff, South Carolina and Bill Wilhelm coached his first baseball game at Clemson.

Thirty-six years, 1,161 wins, 17 ACC titles and 6 College World Series (CWS) appearances later Wilhelm handed the keys to Jack Leggett, who remained in the position for the next 22 seasons and racked up 955 wins and 5 CWS appearances of his own.

When the first pitch is thrown on February 19th the Clemson Tigers will open the college baseball season with a different head coach for only the third time in 59 seasons and 2,897 games.

This is not a program that takes change lightly.

Yet, a change was needed.

Since reaching the brink of a College World Series final in 2010, Clemson began a slow backslide that saw the Tigers fail to get out of a regional 5 consecutive seasons, culminating in being eliminated in 2 games in both 2014 and 2015.

There’s an old saying that goes, “You never stay the same, you’re either getting better or getting worse.”  It’s clear the Tigers weren’t getting better.

More than numbers though, a malaise seemed to surround the program and fan base.  Fans that once expected occasional trips to Omaha and certainly Super Regional births, slowly, but surely settled for hosting a Regional and then just making the tournament.

Fans that once expected to win, now just hoped to win.

As we’ve seen in many programs and in many sports, it would have been easy to retain the Hall of Fame coach that made the playoffs (or March Madness or Bowl Game, etc.).  It’s more difficult and uncomfortable to make a change  when the program is listing, but not yet at the bottom of the sea.

An old joke about change may fit here. “I’m all for change as long as it doesn’t affect me.”  That applies to a lot of Clemson baseball fans, too.

Making a change, recognizing that not everyone is going to be happy with that change and being willing to put your name and reputation on the line when it would be easier to remain with the status quo takes leadership and vision.

By all accounts Monte Lee is the man to lead Clemson baseball into the future.  Young, but experienced. A players coach whose former players rave about and recruits flock to, aggressive, enthusiastic and focused.

Lee seems to check all the boxes and has the pieces that need to be fit together to make the the Tigers relevant again. He has support from the administration up to the president, new and improved facilities, top notch assistants and most of all, he has Clemson University.

There will be hurdles, both on the field and in the heart of some fans.  The first comment heard after the Tigers were picked 5th in their division was, “Did that ever happen under Jack?”  As if being picked 5th before he’s ever coached a game was somehow Lee’s fault.  There will be doubters, those that don’t like change or had an “in” with the previous staff.

Make no mistake, it won’t be easy and this team will be a work in progress.  What you see in 2016 is not what you’ll see in 2017 and beyond.  While the team has some bats, it appears the pitching will be young and inexperienced and even Lee is not sure what to expect in the field.

Yet, there’s a different feel around the program, something in the air.  Optimism and hope.  Anticipation and excitement and perhaps a little curiosity.  After all, a new coach for Clemson baseball happens only slightly more frequently than Halley’s Comet appears, or so it seems.

In a few days the season will begin with a lot of unknowns and open ended questions that may take a while to answer and it may not end with a Regional.

On the other hand, if Clemson fans show patience, give Lee time and support through the growing pains ahead the Tigers will return to Omaha sooner rather than later.   

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