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Big West Fights Roadblocks To Live Up To History

The Big West is a conference of dualities. Cal State Fullerton, its standard bearer, has won four national titles and was built by Augie Garrido, widely recognized as the sport’s greatest coach. 

Its former stars are now some of the brightest stars in MLB, like Shane Bieber and Matt Chapman. It has a rich history of College World Series appearances, all-time greats and underdog tales.

It’s also a conference that has long been doing more with less. Garrido twice left Fullerton for a bigger stage and more support. UC Santa Barbara broke through with its first trip to the CWS in 2016. That helped the program get lights on its field—but not until 2019.

Now, the results on the field are starting to slip as well. The conference did not produce an at-large bid in 2018 or 2019, making it a one-bid league in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than 30 years. It has not had a player drafted in the top three rounds in three straight years.

The Big West’s stumble is recent and may just be a hiccup. It did produce a CWS team for four straight years from 2014-17, with UC Irvine (2014), Fullerton (2015, 2017) and UCSB (2016) all advancing to Omaha. But it also might be part of a larger trend in college sports, where postseason success is increasingly being concentrated in college football and basketball’s major conferences.

How did the Big West get here and can it claw its way back? It’s a complicated situation, with the conference positioned precariously between baseball’s biggest players and its mid-majors.

On the most basic level, a big part of why the league has struggled to produce at-large teams is that Big West teams often fall short when it comes to RPI. There is a real debate to be had about whether or not the RPI is a flawed metric that hurts the West Coast, but even if that’s the case, the conference has to deal with reality on reality’s terms. 

Big West clubs have often loaded up with daunting nonconference schedules, but have just as often struggled to win enough of those games to get the result they need. In 2019, for example, the league collectively went 14-60 against the RPI top 50, including a combined 0-6 for its top two teams in RPI, UCSB and UCI. 

The conference deserves credit for continuing to do a good job of putting teams in the College World Series. But on the flip side, it has been a long time since a Big West club made a deep run in Omaha. No team from the league has won more than one game there since 2007, when UCI went 2-2.

It’s also fair to wonder how much we’re really just talking about Fullerton’s success when we talk about the success of the Big West. That’s not to downplay what Long Beach State did in a previous era or what UCI and UCSB have done more recently, but the overall numbers paint a pretty clear picture. 

Since 1985, Fullerton has been in 32 regionals, Long Beach has gotten to 20 and no one else has made more than eight appearances. In that same time frame, the Titans’ 104 postseason wins are more than double Long Beach State’s 50 victories. Fullerton has played in 51 CWS games as a member of the Big West, while the rest of the teams to get to Omaha under the Big West banner have played in just 29 combined. 

Given all of that, it would make sense that Fullerton taking any sort of step back would have an outsized impact on the Big West’s standing nationally. With the Titans missing out on the postseason in 2019 for the first time in 27 years and having to hustle down the stretch to get into the postseason in some years leading up to 2019, perhaps that time has come.

Most likely, the tough times for the Big West have come from the league no longer being able to overcome the things that it has typically succeeded in spite of. 

The divide between the football-playing power conferences and everyone else continues to widen. In baseball (and basketball, for that matter), that’s expressed in the way at-large bids are doled out. But it’s also true when it comes to revenue that filters down to all sponsored sports.

The Big West doesn’t have football, where conference networks and massive rights deals have been a windfall for major conferences. It’s also not a major conference in basketball, which can also drive television dollars and revenue from NCAA Tournament payouts. Feeling a budget crunch isn’t unique to the Big West, but it is profoundly felt in a league used to succeeding nationally in its flagship sport. 

So while there have been some facility improvements completed or announced throughout the Big West, everything from lights being installed at UCSB to a significant renovation of Long Beach’s Blair Field and upgrades at Cal Poly, the conference still lags behind as a whole. 

And a lot of the other factors haven’t changed and will never be in the Big West’s favor. The California high school kids are still being aggressively recruited by college programs outside of the region and the best players from the area are still going straight to pro baseball. 

Those major conference schools recruiting California players are additionally always going to be able to offer an attractive college experience that includes football on campus in the fall, which can also help to draw drafted underclassmen who are on the fence about their next step back to school for another year rather than beginning a pro career.

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“The recruiting has gotten a lot harder, because so many of these kids, their first choice is always going to be a Power Five school,” said Cal State Northridge coach Dave Serrano, who also led UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to Omaha in his career. “In fact, I had a conversation with (a current coach), this is even before I got back in the league, and he made a comment to me that it has gotten a lot harder. I was out of the league for about seven years and he said that recruiting has gotten a lot harder due to the fact that so many kids want to bypass the Big West and go to a Power Five conference.”

There are also new challenges for the Big West, like conference expansion. For the 2021 season, the league will welcome Cal State Bakersfield from the WAC and UC San Diego from Division II. Because both will be stepping up in competition, there will likely be a period of time when those teams will be a drag on the conference’s RPI. 

But even if that’s not the case and those teams have league average or better RPIs right out of the gate, it still might be a hindrance to the conference because two more conference series will be two fewer chances for Big West teams to schedule weekend series with high-RPI nonconference opponents.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult now, because starting next year, in the 2021 season, Bakersfield and UC San Diego come into our conference,” Cal Poly coach Larry Lee said. “So now, instead of 24 conference games, we get 30. Instead of seven nonconference series, we have five. So there you’re taking a Baylor and an Oklahoma out of the equation in a particular year.”

Lee also put a fine point on the sobering reality facing prospective postseason teams from the Big West in the near future. 

“Basically, you’ve got to win the conference,” Lee said. “You saw what Irvine did (in 2019). They won 37 games, they won 13 series, they only played 54 games, they had two legit guys at the top of the rotation on the weekends, they had an older team that could hit and play defense. I don’t know where they landed, but they might not even have been in the last four out (of the NCAA Tournament). So it shows you where our conference is.”

The upcoming few years feel pivotal for the Big West in terms of establishing what’s next for the league. Does it rebound and get right back to putting teams into the College World Series, earning some national respect back along the way, or does it continue down the path of being a one-bid league more often? 

And if it’s going to be the former, what’s the path? 

One obvious path is that Fullerton gets back to being the Fullerton that it has been for much of its history. Considering it made appearances in the College World Series as recently as 2015 and 2017, that’s not an outlandish task for the Titans, and they probably aren’t too far off track. 

Another path, and arguably the better one for the overall health of the league, involves the depth getting so good that all of the boats rise with the high tide and it doesn’t just fall on Fullerton to carry the flag. If you take the optimistic view of where the Big West is now, you can see this taking shape. 

UCSB has achieved a level of consistency that should keep it in the postseason mix most of the time, UCI bounced back in 2019, even if it ended up on the wrong side of the at-large bubble, Long Beach was much improved in 2020, Cal Poly’s young talent is as good as any in the conference and having a coach with Omaha experience like Serrano can only help CSUN get going in the right direction. 

The historic success of Fullerton and the undeniable cultural cache that the Long Beach brand garnered in the 1990s and 2000s perhaps shined a light so bright on the Big West that expectations for the entire conference might have gotten ahead of what was possible for a league that has always, and will continue to, have significant challenges. 

But just as the league weathered a couple of down years, it also appears to be on the upswing in a number of other ways, and perhaps that reset is what’s needed to appreciate the conference for what it is, a scrappy, hard-nosed group of overachievers that, against the odds, can find its way to competing nationally with regularity. 

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