On the night of Tuesday, June 28, 2011, Mike Slive settled into a set on the top row of the TD Ameritrade Park press box in downtown Omaha. Below him the South Carolina Gamecocks and Florida Gators were locked in a scoreless tie as Game 2 of the best-of-three College World Series title series entered the third inning.
"This is pure fun," the Southeastern Conference commissioner admitted with a smile. "I don't have to root for anyone tonight. I'm just a fan hoping to see a great game."
So is life for the people at the helm of the SEC, in both January and June. The league's BCS football dominance -- six straight crystal footballs -- steals the headlines. But when looked at top to bottom, the SEC's hardball numbers might even be a little better.
The SEC has won three consecutive College World Series titles -- LSU in '09 and South Carolina's current two-year streak. In '08, Georgia came within a handful of innings of its own championship before succumbing to Fresno State's improbable Cinderella run.
Not only were there two SEC schools in last year's title bout, three of the final four were from not just the same conference but the same divisions -- the SEC East. (Florida knocked Vandy out of the de facto semis.) It marked the fourth straight year that the SEC has taken up at least two spots in the eight-team Omaha field, with 10 teams reaching the CWS in the past five years.
At least one SEC school has made it to Omaha for 19 straight seasons. During that streak, the conference has been represented by 38 different teams, including 10 of the conference's current 12 members.
This weekend the NCAA baseball tournament starts with eight SEC schools in the 64-team field. That's the ninth time that's happened since 2001. Three of those times -- '04, '05 and '08 -- nine SEC schools received invites. The conference has had no fewer than seven teams invited in each of the past five years. Even with all those different teams and all those games played, no SEC school has gone two-and-'cue since 2004.
Three of this year's teams -- South Carolina, Florida and LSU -- are among the top eight national seeds, and this weekend they will each host three of the tourney's 16 regionals. (Texas A&M, which will join the conference this summer, also will host a regional.)
"It's kind of crazy when you start sifting through numbers like that," says Ray Tanner, in his 16th year as South Carolina head coach. He hopes to lead the Gamecocks back to Omaha for the sixth time since moving to Columbia from NC State in 1997. "I guess these things go in cycles, and right now I'm glad we're on this side of the cycle."
If South Carolina wins a third consecutive CWS title, it will join the other USC -- Southern Cal -- as the only other team to win three or more. The Trojans won five straight from 1970 to '74, part of their historic run of six national titles in seven seasons. That run was part of another, larger power cycle: an astonishing 25-year stretch when 19 CWS championships were won by schools from either Arizona or California.
"That was an era when there weren't a lot of schools making a real commitment to college baseball," says Texas head coach Augie Garrido, who played in the '59 College World Series as a Fresno State outfielder, built a title-winning program at Cal State Fullerton and took the reins of the legendary Texas Longhorns team. His last two titles came at the SEC's expense, defeating South Carolina in '02 and Florida in '05. In '09, Garrido's Longhorns lost to LSU. "It's no different than football or basketball or any other sport. If a school makes a real commitment, and I'm talking about building good facilities, hiring a good coaching staff, making a financial commitment to recruiting and marketing, then it creates a situation where it can win. Not so long ago, you could get a lot better a lot faster because there wasn't as much parity out there. Now you have to really grow it. Build it right. We're seeing a lot of schools build it right."
It was the University of Miami that shifted college baseball's center of gravity toward the Southeast. Mad genius head coach Ron Fraser persuaded booster Mark Light to build The U a new ballpark in 1971. Two years later he persuaded his bosses to start offering baseball scholarships. Better facilities and a little scholarship money finally allowed Miami to compete with MLB scouts when it came to signing South Florida talent.
The following season the Canes made it all the way to Omaha, losing to USC in the championship.
"We were all hooked once we got a taste of that atmosphere, how good it could be," Fraser recalled in 2008 in an interview for the book "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes, and History at the College World Series." "Once the university got a taste of it, that's what drove us all, just to get back."
In 1981 it was Fraser's persistent pestering that persuaded ESPN to carry its first live College World Series telecasts. The next June, Miami finally won its first CWS title, the first championship earned by a school east of the Mississippi River since 1966.
No, Miami isn't an SEC school. But it provided both the springboard and road map that gave the conference baseball fever.
"Ron showed us the way, and it was up to rest of us to go out and convince other schools to follow," says Skip Bertman. He was an assistant on that '82 Miami team and left the following year to take over the long-struggling program at LSU. Following Fraser's blueprint, he too transformed a "non-revenue" sport into a money-maker thanks to the transformation of Alex Box Stadium, zany promotions and aggressive recruiting. By '85 the Tigers were in the NCAA tournament. In '86 they were in Omaha. Since then they've been back 14 times and won six championships.
Bertman turned LSU into the premier Southern program. Meanwhile, one of Coach Skip's old Miami Dade South JC benchmates, Ron Polk, simultaneously built a powerhouse at Mississippi State. MSU reached the College World Series six times. In '01 he led another pack of SEC Bulldogs, Georgia, to Omaha.
Now those two coaches have their disciples scattered throughout the conference, including LSU head coach Paul Mainieri, whom Bertman has known since he was a kid and later lured to Baton Rouge, and Georgia's Dave Perno, who coached under Polk in Athens.
"Tracing back to where a college baseball coach comes from is like doing a genealogy study," Mainieri said earlier this season. "Out West it seems like everyone is connected to [former USC head coach] Rod Dedeaux or Coach Garrido some way or another. Here in the South, it goes back to Coach Fraser, Coach Bertman, Polk, all of those great names."
Then, ever the salesman, Mainieri added, "But that's only one part of it. You take that and you combine it with a committed department and a deeply talented and very loyal region where you can recruit, and it's awfully hard to beat."
But couldn't the same be said about programs within other conferences? Like the perennially loaded ACC, which always packs in NCAA tourney teams (this year it has seven) but inexplicably hasn't celebrated in Omaha since Wake Forest in 1955?
"The program can only put you in the right position, but you still have to win the ballgames when you get there," said Tanner, whose Gamecocks teams have specialized in late-game heroics. "It's about being at the top of that cycle and taking advantage of it when you are there. We're fortunate to be there right now as a conference. And I'm going to fight like crazy to stay up there to make it last as long as it can."