Baseball success may not be atop the priority list for most Penn State sports fans, but accepting mediocrity shouldn’t be permitted.
As we all know, football reigns supreme in State College, and rightfully so, given the program’s economic impact on both the university and the surrounding community.
But while the university has decided to go full steam ahead with James Franklin, there’s one coach who Sandy Barbour should take a closer look at before retiring: Rob Cooper.
The head coach of the blue and white’s baseball program, sustained excellence has escaped Cooper during his eight years and counting in University Park. Entering the 2022 campaign, his overall record while leading the Diamond Lions is 144-216, with his best year coming in 2016.
The team went 28-27 and finished tied for ninth in the Big Ten back in 2016, the highest mark during Cooper’s reign.
Of course, Penn State has never really been known for its success in between the foul lines. This year is no different, with the Nittany Lions off to a 14-19 start after Saturday’s 7-5 victory over Purdue.
However, that doesn’t mean prior history should serve as the sole guiding presence for evaluating this program.
After all, previous failures didn’t keep Indiana’s baseball program down. A state known better for its revered basketball history, Indiana baseball finished 10th in the Big Ten four years in a row from 2004-2007.
But over the last 15 years, that same Hoosiers squad has rediscovered itself and qualified for the NCAA Tournament numerous times and even made a College World Series in 2013.
As recently as 2019, another Big Ten program in Michigan made it as far as the College World Series best-of-three championship, where the Wolverines ultimately lost to Vanderbilt.
Now, Indiana has previously developed a consistent program (which has fallen on hard times while recording a 13-20 mark during the 2022 campaign), while Michigan’s athletic department has the resources and national-brand recognition that Penn State lacks.
But that doesn’t mean Penn State can’t find itself in the mix from time to time in a manner that hasn’t been the case with Cooper guiding the ship.
For starters, Penn State has called a minor league-level facility in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park its home for the last 15 years. Few schools across the country, let alone in the Big Ten, can lay claim to a facility such as the 5,570 seat baseball complex that features a panoramic view of Mount Nittany.
Yet this facility and the athletic tradition of Penn State’s sports teams haven’t been enough to attract top talent to central Pennsylvania. As most baseball fans know, some of the best states for young baseball talent are California, Florida and Texas.
On the Nittany Lions’ 2022 roster, just two players hail from the Golden State and none from the Lone Star or Sunshine State. Meanwhile, rival Michigan has five players from California alone and others from southern states such as Georgia.
The recipe for success under Cooper, which has been predicated on recruiting players from Pennsylvania, has obviously not worked thus far. But under Barbour’s leadership, Cooper’s prior eight years of mediocre baseball have been deemed to be satisfactory.
As somebody from the outside looking in of Penn State’s athletic department, I can’t say one way or another if Cooper truly is on the hot seat. But in my mind, settling for this caliber of play is unacceptable.
Nittany Lion athletics are naturally led by its football team, as are most schools across the country. But while other sports teams like wrestling, women’s volleyball are among the nation’s best year in and year out, baseball has lagged behind in a manner that makes both the men’s and women’s basketball teams appear to be perennial national championship contenders.
Nobody’s expectation for the Diamond Lions is they should be superior to marquee baseball programs like UCLA, Vanderbilt, Texas or Florida.
However, to consistently finish below other schools that hail from states hardly known for their baseball like Indiana is inexcusable in my mind.
So as Rob Cooper continues with Year 9 in State College, the question Penn state baseball fans should ask themselves is this:
Are we satisfied with consistent mediocrity, or can the Nittany Lions develop a program capable of just a little bit more without Cooper at the helm?