Vanderbilt’s Pat DeMarco (18) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run against Michigan during the seventh inning of Game 3 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) (Photo: The Associated Press)
BATON ROUGE – The best can now only get better in Southeastern Conference baseball.
Vanderbilt, which won the last national championship at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in June of 2019 (its second in five years), may be able to add to that more easily because of a new NCAA rule regarding scholarship aid expected to be approved on Monday by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.
The NCAA Division I Council of 32 conference representatives and approximately 18 other various conference and NCAA officials voted in the new rule on July 15. It allows sports with small scholarship limits such as baseball, softball, and track to include need- and merit-based scholarship money with its athletic scholarship money without the extra funds counting toward the scholarship total.
Baseball’s scholarship total for a year is 11.7.
In the past, most need- and merit-based scholarship money counted along with the athletic scholarship money in baseball, shrinking that 11.7 total. Virtually only federally funded Pell grant money and money from standardized state programs such as TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) in Louisiana or HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) in Georgia could be given to baseball players without it counting toward the 11.7 total.
Now, other scholarship and financial aid money can be given to baseball players for school even if it is combined with their athletic scholarship money, thereby allowing coaches to spread out the money among more players to equal 11.7.
“Could we use it to our advantage in some regard? Yeah,” said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, who does not have scholarship help from state programs like TOPS or HOPE or Bright Futures in Florida. “I understand why it’s a good thing for some players. There will be more aid available to them.”
But many of the 13 public SEC schools do not have the financial aid empire that Vanderbilt has perfected as it is the league’s only private school and has long been developing aid strategies for prospective students. Without aid, tuition and fees are more than $70,000 a year at the Nashville campus. That is more than twice the price of each of the other 13 SEC schools for in-state students.
“We don’t really have a lot of need-based aid at Ole Miss to speak of,” Bianco said. “Most public schools don’t. Some do. But a lot of private schools do. The truth of the matter is it’s a bigger advantage for most of the private schools.”
In the spring of 2009, Vanderbilt started “Opportunity Vanderbilt,” a financial aid program that promised to replace student loans with dramatically expanded scholarships and grants,” according to the university’s website. “The goal was to make Vanderbilt’s undergraduate education available to every qualified student, regardless of their financial circumstances.”
“Opportunity Vanderbilt” provided $1.2 billion in financial aid as of March of this year, according to the website. It has worked for all Vanderbilt students, and for its baseball recruiting. Vanderbilt had seven African-American players on its 2019 national championship team — easily the most racially diverse roster in the SEC. Some of the seven were from poorer families. Others were not.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin was winning long before “Opportunity Vanderbilt” knocked. After his only losing season overall in his first year in 2003 at 27-28, he reached a NCAA Super Regional in just his second season and finished 45-19. Vanderbilt had not reached the NCAA postseason since 1980.
Four straight NCAA Regionals followed from 2006 through 2009 and Vanderbilt’s first SEC regular season championship since 1980 in 2007. As the aid initiative started to kick in, Corbin took the Commodores to another Super Regional in 2010. Another SEC regular season title followed in 2011 along with Vanderbilt’s first trip to Omaha. After another NCAA Regional in 2012, another SEC regular season crown, and a Super Regional in 2013, Vanderbilt won it all in 2014.
“Certainly had visions of this some day,” Corbin said in Omaha in 2014. “But they were so far distant at certain times. And in time, we gained resources. We started winning a little bit, had a little bit of success, and now here we are in this environment.”
Vanderbilt nearly won back-to-back national championships in 2015, but lost the best-of-3 championship series, two games to one. In 2019, Corbin became the first SEC baseball coach to win multiple titles since Ray Tanner in 2010 and ’11 at South Carolina.
Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin won national championships in 2014 and 2019 and SEC regular season championships in 2007, ’11, ’13 and ’19. (Photo: Mark Humphrey / AP Photo)
Corbin was reached for this story, but chose not to comment.
“With all due respect to the public schools in the SEC, Vanderbilt made itself a niche school because of the reputation academically and the financial packages they have been able to put together for students,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
And now those packages are enhanced with the new rule.
“Now those private schools like Vanderbilt and Stanford are really going to benefit because they go out and they raise money and have been doing it for years,” Mainieri said.
“I think you will see the private schools that have smaller enrollments and larger endowments benefit the most from this type of aid,” said Georgia coach Scott Stricklin, who was a Vanderbilt assistant before Corbin came on.
Vanderbilt has the second-largest endowment in the SEC at $6.2 billion and the smallest undergraduate enrollment at 6,886 with Texas A&M leading the way with a $13.5 billion endowment and the league’s largest enrollment at 54,476.
“It won’t change many programs immediately because of the lack of need-based scholarships that exist currently,” Stricklin said.
Except at Vanderbilt.
“It’s a largely private versus public funding concern,” SEC assistant commissioner for compliance Matt Boyer said. “There is a difference between private and public when it comes to financial aid available. The privates can offer more of those types of awards. They can offer a full scholarship, but only use 25 percent of it toward the 11.7. They can deflate their athletic aid, whereas their public neighbor down the street might not have that much of the non-athletic aid. So, that’s where it can get unfair competitively.”
Unfair maybe, but within the rules, which just got stretched.
Former head coach Ron Polk speaks at the Ring Of Honor Inductee Ceremony. Mississippi State played Youngstown State on Saturday, February 16, 2019. Photo by Keith Warren (Photo: Keith Warren, Keith Warren)
“Vanderbilt is doing it perfectly legally,” former Mississippi State and Georgia coach Ron Polk said. “They’re recruiting kids of high academic standards (for aid scholarships), then they use the 11.7 on kids who don’t meet those standards. But if I’m playing a private school, I’d feel like I’ve got the payroll of the Tampa Bay Rays playing the New York Yankees. They’ve got 30 scholarships. I had 11.7. These private schools have it made with their baseball programs.”
It was precisely this competitive advantage for private schools that delayed this new aid rule, Boyer said. But COVID-19 changed that and pushed up the rule, which had been discussed for years.
“The idea here was the need to provide more access to award- and need-based scholarship money for greater assistance to the student-athlete in these financially uncertain times and be less concerned with the competitive consequences that they may carry,” Boyer said. “The competitive concerns were had ultimately been the reason why it wasn’t adopted. That’s where the consternation had always been.”
The rule has been one of the few enacted after many other pieces of legislation were tabled when the virus became a pandemic last spring.
“That signals the importance of it,” Boyer said. “The effective date was also adjusted from August 1, 2021, to August 1, 2020 — all in the interest of trying to provide some financial relief to students now. We needed to do this from a student-athlete welfare standpoint. So, that’s where we are.”
Vanderbilt followed that 2019 national championship and Corbin’s fourth SEC regular season title with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation entering the 2020 season, according to the Collegiate Baseball publication, and a No. 1 preseason ranking. So it may not need the extra help. The Commodores were 13-5 and No. 8 in the nation when COVID-19 ended the 2020 college baseball season in March.
Vanderbilt also had the No. 1 ranked recruiting class before the 2018 season and before the 2013 season — four years after “Opportunity Vanderbilt.”
Perhaps, though, Corbin is best at getting the best out of his players. Other SEC schools have continued to recruit top classes despite any advantages Vanderbilt may have or disadvantages they may have. Florida’s recruiting class was No. 2 entering the 2020 season, followed by South Carolina at No. 3, Ole Miss at No. 4, LSU at No. 6, Alabama at No. 7, and Auburn at No. 9 in Collegiate Baseball.
And Ole Miss, Alabama and Auburn do not have the statewide standard scholarship programs available in their states to expand the 11.7 as does LSU, Florida, Georgia, and others.
LSU had the No. 1 class before the 2019 season, the 2014 season, the 2010 season, and the 2007 season. But it returned to the national championship series only in 2017 after winning its last national title in 2009 under Mainieri.
Florida had the No. 1 class entering the 2014 season and won the 2017 national championship.
“The reality is that each institution — some more than others — has varying levels of these types of scholarship awards at their disposal,” Boyer said. “They make it work in different ways.”
Boyer does not see the rule changing competition dramatically.
“I saw people saying this was a momentous day for baseball,” he said. “I don’t know that it is that extensive. I view it more on the margins. You still have the competitive issues that have always been there. It’s just a different way.”
Paul Mainieri takes the field as The LSU Tigers take on Southern Miss in the 2019 NCAA Regional Tournament in Baton Rouge, LA. Sunday, June 2, 2019. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
Mainieri, meanwhile, is considering a new strategy for his recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain.
“Did we purposefully target kids who could qualify for TOPS in the past? To some degree, yes, because then the athletic scholarship aid can be stretched out more,” Mainieri said. “So does Nolan start to target families that he thinks may qualify for financial aid that we previously couldn’t combine with the athletic scholarship to make your 11.7 expand? Yes.”
One such scholarship need-based plan in Louisiana is Pelican Promise that Mainieri could not combine with athletic scholarship money until now. Pelican Promise helps low-income students. There could be other aid packages that Mainieri and his staff have never considered because they could not be combined with the athletic scholarship.
“We’re going to have to look into seeing how much need-based aid is available to our general student population,” he said. “And if it is, it’s going to behoove us to have most of our players fill out the financial aid forms, because now it can help. Before it didn’t, so we didn’t even look at it.”
With 11.7 athletic scholarships for 27 players at a 25 percent minimum of scholarship before COVID-19, college baseball coaches have always been crunching the numbers. Now they have a few more math opportunities.
“Baseball coaches have always had to be creative as they try to put things together,” Mainieri said.
“I always felt like a used car salesman, trying to make deals all the time,” said Polk, who recruited hard in the 1980s and ’90s against former LSU coach Skip Bertman, who is the only SEC coach to win more than two national titles with five from 1991-2000.
“If I gave a player 67 percent scholarship money and my good friend at LSU, Skip, gave him 69 percent, I’d up it to 71 percent. And Skip would come back with 73,” Polk said. “And I’d go to 75. No other sport has this problem because we’re the most underfunded sport in the history of the NCAA.”
But they just got some more cash.
LSU Tigers head coach Paul Mainieri talks with former baseball head coach and athletic director Skip Bertman during the Baton Rouge regional of the 2013 NCAA baseball tournament at Alex Box Stadium. (Photo: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports )
“It’s not going to do much, but it will help some. And it really will help Vanderbilt,” Bertman said.
“This gives us more options to put things together,” Mainieri said. “But you still have to find the right kids.”
USA TODAY Network writers Nick Suss, Tyler Horka, and Mark Weiszer contributed to this story.