By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Hoover, Ala. -- You are watching history.
For the first time in the 34-year era of the Southeastern Baseball Tournament, 10 conference teams will compete for the coveted championship this year at Regions Park. The decision to add teams, finalized in December 2011, adds a new wrinkle to one of the most popular events in college baseball.
The SEC Baseball Tournament as we know it began in 1977, with teams competing in Oxford, Miss., for the right to be called champion. During the past three decades, the SEC’s baseball gathering has morphed into a signature event, becoming one of the most attended athletic competitions in all of college sports.
A look at its history shows a multitude of format changes and host locations. The first gathering, held at Oxford’s Swayze Field, featured just four teams, a double-elimination bracket that saw Ole Miss win a title on its home field. The event’s home rotated around the SEC, with Baton Rouge, La.; Starkville, Miss.; and Gainesville, Fla., all taking turns hosting. Even the famed New Orleans Superdome has served as headquarters for SEC baseball, as 1992 saw the league’s best play in one of the nation’s most recognized sports venues.
As the SEC’s strength in baseball grew, so did the tournament. The numbers of teams invited went from four to six, and then from six to the previous format of eight in 1992. A few years later, the SEC Tournament found a home, moving operations to Hoover, Ala. Fifteen years later, the city of Hoover has become synonymous with SEC baseball.
The relationship between Hoover and the SEC has proved fruitful, with attendance numbers remaining at all-time highs. All 12 of the tournament’s average, single-game and session attendance records have been set in Hoover, with more than 100,000 fans walking through the turnstiles on six different occasions.
But, starting this year, it will be different. A special convergence of events led to a change that will reshape both the event itself and the teams that participate in it.
Chuck Dunlap, the SEC’s baseball contact and media director for the tournament, was a part of the discussions as the league’s coaches convened for their annual meeting this past November.
“It was a perfect storm,” Dunlap said. “It was a combination of expansion, adding two more teams (to the SEC) and then a reaction to national talk and NCAA Tournament selections. I don’t think this would have happened without both of those factors.”
The SEC’s expansion is well known, as the SEC will add new members Missouri and Texas A&M on July 1, 2012. This moves the SEC’s total school number to 14, prompting an evaluation from league coaches and administrators on event formats.
In addition to new programs joining the league, discussion also centered on criteria for making the NCAA Tournament. League officials and coaches studied past NCAA bracket choices, coming to the conclusion that more teams in the SEC Tournament meant an opportunity to have more teams picked by the selection committee.
When asked whether not making the SEC Tournament has negatively affected teams’ chances for an NCAA berth in the past, South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said thinks it has.
“It appears, even if it is not necessarily etched in stone,” Tanner said. “If you go back and look at last year, you look at the RPI and success, and final 15 games, LSU was 12-3. Yet LSU didn’t make the conference tournament. You ask me if they should have been in the NCAA Tournament. In my opinion, absolutely.”
Georgia head coach Dave Perno said more teams in the conference tournament means more chances for an at-large bid. “The conference tournament winner gets an automatic bid so that may open up a spot for another team in the league to get in,” Perno said. “Also, you have a chance at picking up some big wins to get a better seed for the NCAA tournament.”
Perno knows this first hand, as his Bulldog team captured key wins in the 2011 SEC Tournament that made the Bulldogs a more attractive candidate to the NCAA Selection Committee.
But it was a balancing act, as the coaches weighed past tournament success, wanting to preserve the impact and tradition for both teams and fans.
“The way the SEC Tournament has run has made the regular season so important and meaningful,” Dunlap said. “It makes winning a conference game in March just as important as winning one in May. There was a feeling that we didn’t want to get away from that. Coming to Hoover had become a big deal.”
After a thorough vetting process, the group emerged with a 10-team proposal to be put into effect for 2012.
As Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin opined, this choice was one of adding quantity to an already strong lineup. “I have always liked the thought of engaging more teams in the SEC tournament, particularly since our league will grow to 14,” Corbin said. “The SEC tournament is about enhancing the student-athlete’s experience as well as protecting our conference’s interest in potential postseason play for as many clubs as possible. I like it.”
In the span of a month, the SEC Baseball Tournament not only added two teams, but made changes to the existing bracket and procedures.
An extra day of play — Tuesday — was created, and more lodging was needed for the additional teams coming to Hoover. For an event that has run in nearly the same capacity for 15 years, the window for explaining the new look and putting it into effect was small.
Not only was preparation needed for on-the-field activities, but for everything that takes place in the stands and at Regions Park itself. Corporate sponsors, event planners, field workers and league fans were all brought up to speed; a process that was undertaken just days after the final decision was made.
The announcement was met with widespread approval, as the nation’s top baseball writers viewed the addition of two teams as a positive for the SEC Tournament.
Kendall Rogers, a writer for PerfectGame.org, said as much in an earlier interview with the SEC Digital Network.
“If the NCAA’s reasoning the past few seasons of not allowing certain SEC teams into the field because they quote ‘didn’t make their own conference tournament’ holds water and is the truth, there’s no doubt it will help someone this season, granted they put together a solid non-conference resume.”
The league’s coaches are also pleased with the new-look SEC Tournament. As Auburn head coach John Pawlowski commented, it takes one of the best events in college baseball and gives it an even grander feel.
“I think it is a great move and it allows more teams, student-athletes and fans to experience one of the best postseason tournaments in the country,” Pawlowski said.
Is this a full-time solution? Maybe, maybe not. The conference office has committed to this plan for a year, as league officials and school athletic directors will meet after the tournament’s conclusion in Destin, Fla., to discuss the future.
This makes the 2012 tournament all the more historic. This year’s week-long gathering serves as a roadmap for the future, with one of the league’s most popular events evolving in front of everyone’s eyes.
While no one knows what lies ahead in Hoover, the past shows that no matter who gets to play, fans are going to see the best talent college baseball has to offer.