Putterman: Why Northwestern baseball is about to end a century-long slump


Alex Putterman, Web Editor

For a moment, it seemed Spencer Allen had forgotten where he was.

“We’re not going to talk about Omaha,” Northwestern’s new baseball coach said, referring to the College World Series, which no one would expect a coach of a program coming off 12 straight losing seasons to think or talk about.

“We’re going to set one simple goal every year, which is we want to make the regional tournament,” he continued. “You make the NCAA Tournament — that would be my goal if I was at (defending CWS champion) Virginia. I don’t want to set limitations, but I don’t want to talk about Omaha either. So here’s our goal: We want to make the NCAA Tournament.”

Then a sobering pause.

“To do that you’ve probably got to make the Big Ten Tournament.”

Easier said than done. Since the Big Ten Tournament began in 1981 (initially featuring the conference’s top four teams before expanding to six and then eight), NU has qualified seven times, not one of them since 2010.

Allen is taking over a Wildcats program sitting on a cold streak that has lasted — oh, I don’t know — more than a century. Big Ten baseball began in 1898, and NU helped christen the conference by going 1-8. In the 117 years since, the program has finished above .500 in Big Ten play 16 times and placed first in the conference exactly once, in 1957.

And yet, in spite of 100-plus years of evidence suggesting I’m crazy, I’m bullish on the future of NU baseball.

The first cause for optimism is Allen, who seems like exactly the coach you want running your program: excitable and charismatic but also clear-eyed and realistic, experienced in both instruction and recruiting, knowledgeable of the area and the conference. Chris Webb, founder and editor of B1GBaseball.com, told me this week he was impressed — and even somewhat surprised — NU was able to land the former Illinois assistant.

“There really isn’t a guy that I would have thought would be better than what they got,” Webb said. “You really can’t think of a guy that knows what it takes to win in the Big Ten, what it takes to recruit student athletes to win in the Big Ten and add in a great guy and a first-rate person. It’s quite the hire for Northwestern.”

Allen quickly assembled an impressive coaching staff, reeling in the highly regarded Josh Reynolds from Kansas State to serve as associate coach and locally established Dusty Napoleon from Concordia College, presumably to lead recruiting efforts in the Chicago area.

Of course, a coaching staff alone doesn’t mean much. The previous regime, led by program wins leader Paul Stevens, could only do so much over nearly three decades in Evanston, attaining only moderate on-field success despite profound structural disadvantages. The difference? Allen and company inherit an easier draw.

Because perhaps more important than the new coaching staff are the fresh facilities the Cats will break in next year. Last fall, NU began a 20-years-in-the-making Rocky Miller Park renovation project, installing a new artificial turf surface, which the Cats played on during the 2015 season. Now come the cosmetic improvements: Paul Stevens Plaza at the park’s entrance, a clubhouse along the third-base line and a revamped press box behind home plate. Previously one of the Big Ten’s worst baseball venues, Rocky Miller Park will soon be at least on par with most of the conference’s other home fields.

College sports often come down to which school can best entice 17 year-olds to matriculate, and nothing catches a teenager’s eye like shiny new digs. Allen nearly giggled as he showed me plans for the renovated park, excitedly rambling off various accoutrements. The improved facilities, he said, were one of the primary reasons he took the NU job.

Allen pointed to a correlation between ballpark upgrades and Big Ten success, likely thinking of schools like Indiana and Michigan State which built or upgraded their stadiums and shot up the conference standings.

“When we talk about the facilities, you just have to have it,” the coach said. “You get a different caliber of recruit.”

Webb is skeptical of the causal link between facilities and on-field results, but he acknowledges that prettier infrastructure doesn’t hurt in recruiting. Local kids won’t need to stray out of the area to play in a top-rate environment.

“In the past I can understand if you wanted to look elsewhere. You played at a high school field probably better than this,” Webb said. “Going forward, it just adds another element to: Why not Northwestern?”

The Cats don’t have to start reeling in nationally sought recruits to make headway in the Big Ten. If the combination of a sharp young coach and sparkling new facilities can draw B+ recruits instead of B- ones, NU can rise from the conferences’ cellar into, say, its living room. We’re not asking for the penthouse.

Allen’s ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in program history? That’s a ways away. But the Cats will play in a modern ballpark for the first time since the ’80s and appear to have the right coach in place to lead the program into a new era, one in which Big Ten Tournament berths are routine and maybe we can consider thinking about perhaps talking about Omaha.

NU’s 100-plus-year slump ends right now.

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Twitter: @AlexPutterman