By David Coulson
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Several years ago, I remember a conversation with an athletic director from an Football Championship Subdivision school on his role as a member of the NCAA Division I Baseball committee.
This AD, who was a veteran of the NCAA Division I Football committee at an earlier stage of his career, told me of how much pressure that committee from the larger conferences put on the rest of the committee when one of these Bowl Championship Series teams was under consideration.
The committee members were under a full-court press to include as many of the BCS conference teams as possible in the NCAA tournament field.
It didn’t matter that they were not talking about football, the money influence carried by leagues like the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 had as big an impact on baseball decisions as it did that most marquee of sports.
I thought of that conversation this week when I read the comments of Fresno State softball coach Margie Wright, who saw her sparkling career come to an inglorious end when her Lady Bulldogs were snubbed from the NCAA Division I Softball Tournament for the first time in its 31-year history.
As a point of full disclosure, this writer has a sheepskin on his desk from Fresno State and has covered a few Lady Bulldog softball games and written about several of the team’s players over the years.
But there is little bias to the fact that Fresno State — the only program to play in every one of the previous 30 NCAA tournaments — got snubbed.
Wright had announced before last week’s Western Athletic Conference tournament at New Mexico State that she would be retiring after 33 years, four College Softball World Series championship game appearances, one national title, Olympic gold medals and more wins than any other Division I college softball coach.
When the Hall of Fame coach’s Lady Bulldogs battled back from a first-game tournament loss to reach the WAC championship game against Brigham Young — rallying from a 6-0 deficit against No. 11-ranked Hawaii to hand the Rainbow Wahine only their seventh loss of the season in the semifinals of the double-elimination tourney — Wright was sure she would extend her coaching career in this weekend’s softball regionals.
But despite a 36-23 record and a third-place finish behind Hawaii and BYU in the WAC, Wright’s squad wasn’t given one of those precious 34 at-large bids to the 64-team tournament.
“It’s really a sad day,” Wright said on Sunday night, when the field was announced. “I felt like we played a difficult enough schedule, even though we didn’t win every game, and I felt like we made a run at the end. Unfortunately, there must have been factors that kept us from getting in.”
Factors like NCAA/conference politics.
Now it is true that the remarkable Wright, who started her career with six years at Illinois State, can be about a friendly as a cactus at times, but she deserved to be somewhat bristly over how her career came to a sudden end.
“I didn’t really want to go out this way,” Wright, who has coached at Fresno State for 27 years, told the Fresno Bee this week. “And I do feel that our team, we did everything we possibly could.”
Wright finished her career with a 1,457-543-3 (.727) overall record in 33 years as a Division I head coach and a 1,294-450-1 (.742) mark in 27 seasons at Fresno State. The Bulldogs averaged a glossy 48 wins per year in Wright’s tenure, including 14 seasons with 50 or more wins.
Instead of giving the Pat Summit of softball a proper sendoff, the NCAA Division I Softball committee decided that it needed to include Arkansas of the SEC with its 27-26 record and Northwestern of the Big Ten with its glowing 27-27 ledger.
Only five of those precious at-large bids went to teams not belonging to BCS-level conferences.
Arkansas was a particularly egregious selection. The Razorbacks finished in last place in the SEC’s West Division and didn’t even qualify for the league’s eight-team tournament.
Arkansas showed its tournament-worthiness by dropping 24 of its past 45 games. Talking about finishing a season strong to get the committee’s attention.
“As a coach, it’s very difficult to justify a team getting in that lost 24 of their last 45 games when we’ve done everything we could,” the 59-year-old coach said in her postseason conference. “It’s not fair.”
Now Northwestern has been a legitimate softball power of the years, with a number of trips to the College Softball World Series, but I don’t think anyone would have cried about the Wildcats missing out on the NCAA tournament with a .500 record this season.
And don’t give us the strength-of-schedule argument. Strength of schedule doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t win some games. To put it in perspective, Arkansas had an RPI of 47, one spot ahead of Georgia Southern (42-18), which had to win the Southern Conference championship game against a 37-23 College of Charleston just to make the tournament field.
I’m sorry, but with those facts, I take Georgia Southern, even with a loss in the SoCon title game, over Arkansas — a team you could argue didn’t play a significant, pressure-filled game all season.
Northwestern’s RPI was 51, eight spots higher than Fresno State, but much of that RPI was built by losing games in the Big Ten.
Fresno State annual proves itself against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and showed it belonged with wins over powerhouses like UCLA and Hawaii.
It is also ironic that the Lady Bulldogs made the field a year ago as an at-large team with fewer wins.
“I don’t know if snubbing is a proper term, but maybe [we were] overlooked based on the fact that we’re not a BCS team,” said Wright. “We certainly had opportunities to not have some bad losses that we had early on. And that might have changed the outcome.”
It has become harder and harder for programs like Fresno State’s to stay on top in recent years as BCS schools have pumped more football money into their Title IX sports.
Non-BCS teams have reached the College Softball World Series just seven times since 2000 and Fresno State has struggled to get back to that level since winning its national title in 1998. Cal State Fullerton is the only other “mid-major” softball team to win a national crown, the Lady Titans taking the title in 1986.
Whatever the excuse the committee comes up with for leaving Wright and Fresno State on the sidelines, one thing is reasonably certain. She would still be coaching if her school was from one of those BCS football factories.
“It’s disappointing, especially disappointing for the young women on our team, but I think a 30-year run is pretty good,” Wright said. “As of this point, we still have gone to more NCAA Tournaments than any other Division I institution. I’m proud of my players and I just wish they could have experienced an exciting postseason.”