While the world waited for the white smoke to finally come wafting out the top of the Alex Box Stadium scoreboard Tuesday, signifying that LSU had indeed officially added Tulane assistant Eddie Smith as its new volunteer/hitting coach, a natural question arose. One with implications for college baseball at large:
How can a volunteer coaching position be worth anyone leaving a full-time assistant coaching position at a school the caliber of a Tulane?
Tulane does not have to reveal coaches’ salaries given the fact that it is a private school. That said you have to believe that Smith, who just completed his second season with the Green Wave, was making a livable five-figure income plus benefits, the latter being something a volunteer assistant would not have access to at LSU.
That negative aside, the term “volunteer assistant” is certainly a misnomer. It isn’t exactly pro bono work on the part of Smith, or his predecessor Sean Ochinko, or anyone else.
I’m told that at a school like LSU, a volunteer assistant can pull in a low six-figure income, mostly through working the school’s lucrative summer youth camp program. That’s a big part of the reason Will Davis was able to afford to spend several seasons on the LSU staff before heading off to Lamar where he is now head coach. A payoff like that can trump the full-time assistant coaches’ salaries of many less well-heeled baseball programs across the country.
Back in April, the NCAA Division I Council voted down a Southeastern Conference-sponsored proposal to allow schools to add a third paid assistant for baseball and softball at their discretion. The Big 12 and Big Ten led the lobbying effort against the proposal, bordering on ironic since Michigan made it all the way to the College World Series finals before losing to Vanderbilt and Oklahoma made it to the Women’s College World Series finals before losing to UCLA.
Adding yet another paid assistant coach — or two when you include softball — is a legitimate financial concern for some schools. It shouldn’t be if you are in a Power Five conference like the Big 12 (really 10) or the Big Ten (really 14). But just like the 11.7 scholarship limit, it shows what little regard college administrators in general have for baseball in particular.
Power Five schools like LSU, Michigan, Vandy, UCLA and Oklahoma have wrangled more autonomy from their less affluent Division I brethren in recent years after veiled threats to break away and form their own version of an NCAA-like governing body. While voting down the third paid assistant makes no sense, in a sense schools like the ones mentioned above have autonomy to do essentially have a paid third assistant by finding ways to compensate a volunteer coach.
While it smacks of under-the-table dealings, cracks open the door for potential rules violations and just adds a lot of hurdles to jump over that should be reserved for track and field programs, it is a way for the big schools to get what they want anyway if they care enough about baseball. The biggest issue to me is this is not what the volunteer coach position was intended to be. It was primarily to try to give the recently graduated player an inroad into the college coaching biz. When you look at the résumé of an Eddie Smith — he has been a junior college head coach and assistant at three other programs before Tulane — that is not what the position has evolved into. Coaches see a need for a bigger staff and are trying to fill that need the best way they can.
In other words, austerity be damned. If schools won’t be allowed to cut a check for a third full-time assistant — the proposal, by the way, can’t come up for consideration again until 2021 — then mom and dad will write the checks when they send their little Alex Bregman and Aaron Nola wannabes to camp.
Money always finds a way.