OXFORD, Miss. — Last week, the NCAA voted to allow schools to provide spring-sport student-athletes an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members also adjusted financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for incoming recruits and student-athletes who had been in their last year of eligibility who decide to stay.
The NCAA’s decision has major implications not only on collegiate baseball, but also on the 2020 MLB Draft in June, which could be as short as five rounds. Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco held a conference call last week with local media to discuss the effects of both the pandemic and the NCAA ruling on his baseball program.
Question: Tell us your thoughts on the eligibility ruling and what type of benefits you think it provides? What type of challenges?
Bianco: For the last couple of weeks there’s been so much written out on social media about what would come about on Monday. All over the spectrum, from not giving any relief to the players to, ultimately, where it ended up and everywhere in between. ‘They may just give relief to seniors.’ Obviously, I think, for people that are outside intercollegiate athletics, the easy answer is to allow everybody to have that year back.
People forget the financial piece. And then, of course, people in our bubble, where it’s just baseball, there’s lots of spring sports that were affected, and how does this affect all those non-Power 5 schools? Would they be able to afford this? Certainly it’s a financial deal as well for Ole Miss, but it’s not as big as some of the athletic departments with less of an athletics budget. I think that was the thing that all athletics directors and presidents had to juggle.
I don’t know if it could have gone any better for baseball. There will still be some hoops to jump through and some different things, but the biggest thing that the athletics directors wanted was you could get these kids a year back. I speak specifically for baseball, but get these kids a year back that they didn’t have. When they came on, that was the expectation, and not just seniors but everybody involved. Your heart goes out to the seniors because that’s their last year, but there’s also a lot of different other effects, like the juniors and the Major League Draft. Even if the draft was a normal 40 rounds, but now that it looks like it’s not likely to even be close to that, you look at that bargaining piece of where a junior could say, ‘Hey, listen, I’m not going to sign unless I get ‘X’ amount of money. I’m going to go back to school.’ They would have lost that piece. I have two sophomores in my household. When you get to this point, your days of playing baseball are finite. When you lose one of those last few years, I think it hurts everybody.
In the long run, it was terrific for all the baseball players. Some of the obstacles this year for our program, and everybody’s a little different in baseball, but for our program, having four seniors and not many juniors, it’ll be a little bit of a struggle managing the roster, but not as much as some other programs. Where the juggle may be for our program is in the years to come. At the end of the day, and what the SEC coaches talked about two weeks ago, was the relief after this. You’ll have five classes basically on campus with a scholarship limitation that wasn’t even enough for four classes at 11.7. Roster size, 35 men. Even though we’re getting some relief this year, you can look at next year or two years from now where it’s basically two sophomore classes at the same time.
Question: Have you been able to talk to any of the upperclassmen who might be affected by the ruling? And if so, what are their thoughts?
Bianco: We recently had our first real team meeting. Since this first happened, we’ve kind of been waiting on the NCAA. It’s hard to have these conversations. It’s hard to have these discussions with the team or the kids individually when you really don’t know what the future is. We sat as a staff several times and talked about different things, but there were too many scenarios. It’s almost like you’re chasing your tail. You keep going back and forth. With each day, nationally, reading and watching what’s going on, you figured this was a time for us to kind of slow down and be regular citizens and not necessarily baseball coaches. Take care of your family, take care of your immediate needs. As we find the answers, I think it will be almost a domino effect. You’ll be able to have those conversations.
Later this week, I’m going to start meeting with the upperclassmen individually via phone or FaceTime and have some conversations with them. We never had exit meetings with anybody; we usually have exit meetings at the end of the year. We’ll have to schedule those in the coming weeks, but part of that was because of how different this was for us. We had to say goodbye to the guys almost immediately and send them on their way with a lot of unknowns. A lot of questions and not many answers. We got some clarity on Monday, but there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, from transfers to one-time transfer legislation to junior college transfers and redshirts and a lot of different things that they don’t really have the answers to yet. They’re kind of grabbing all the questions at one time and trying to figure that out. I’ve paused on having those conversations because I don’t have the answers. But those conversations will be happening in the coming weeks.
Question: What have you heard from the incoming recruiting class? If the draft is shorter, what have you heard about how big that class could be and how big the team could be?
Bianco: Again, we’re OK as far as numbers compared to some other people. This would have been a lot different deal for us last year. When you look at the amount of kids that were drafted and the amount of kids that were drafted after the fifth round, and you look at the incoming class, there was 20-plus new guys. That would have been a difficult thing. Some other programs, it will be a little more difficult this next year. I don’t think it’ll be as difficult for us because of how the numbers fell. Our difficulty will come in years to come.
Question: How would a roster larger than the typical 35 impact the 2021 class?
Bianco: It’s all speculation now. It’s a good question, but I don’t have that answer, and I don’t think it’s fair to guess or forecast things that I don’t really know yet. We’ve got to get one class in here, and that’s how it is, really, everywhere. You could ask that question without this pandemic. So many guys get drafted, so many guys showing up. We’re always forecasting in today’s world of recruiting where you’re recruiting several classes out. Every sport’s doing that. That’s the one you hear about a lot like football and basketball, but every sport is doing that, from golf to tennis and so on. But the obstacle that makes ours even more fluid than other sports is the Major League Draft. You’re losing current players and recruits to that, and even signees to junior college. That’s why ours is so fluid and that answer is so difficult.
Question: From the competitive side, if the draft is only 5-10 rounds, how good could college baseball look if there’s not that much talent leaving for the pros?
Bianco: Remember, it is the top five rounds and not the bottom five rounds, right? The best will leave, the best will sign. The best won’t get to college. It’s all new terrain for us and we’ll have to figure it out, even with our few juniors.
Question: Are you able to talk to your players about a date on the calendar when facilities at Ole Miss might re-open and when they might be able to expect to come back?
Bianco: No. We talked a little bit briefly about what summer school may look like. Right now, Ole Miss is going to do online courses. This past week they were registering for summer and fall classes. The summer classes and the May and August intercessions are all online with no in-person, traditional classes. But even with that, as soon as they can get back here, as soon as they’re allowed by our school and the SEC, we’ll get ‘em back here.
Question: Is there any expectation that summer ball will be cancelled also, or will you be sending out assignments in case it still happens?
Bianco: Actually, there’s probably more kids signed up for summer. Coach (Carl) Lafferty is in charge of that for us. He’s worked hard. I don’t have the list in front of me, but you’ve probably seen that Gunnar (Hoglund) and Doug (Nikhazy), who weren’t previously signed up at the beginning of the year because of work load and the number of innings they were going to throw during the year, just thought it wasn’t right to do that to them, they’re signed up to go the Cape (Cod League). More kids are signed up, and Carl’s been working diligently. And it’s not just pitchers; hitters have to get at-bats. Our assumption is it will happen. I told my guys in the meeting yesterday I feel, probably, more confident that it will happen than not happen. That’s not to say it won’t be some abbreviated season. Some of those summer leagues start the last week in May. Will that happen? I don’t know that. I think pushing it a little bit, listening to all the experts and what they’re saying about this pandemic, but I feel pretty good there will be some type of summer season. That’s our hope.