Anthony Marks is a 5-foot-7, bearded ball of fire.
Coming out of high school in western Pennsylvania, he was a 150-pound outfielder without a Division I (or D-II) scholarship offer. But his summer baseball coach knew Coastal Carolina’s coach, who invited Marks to walk on.
First time Marks took batting practice with the Chanticleers, he wore jean shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. He had a long ways to go.
Marks’ mother works the front desk at a hospital. His dad is a disabled veteran. And after his sophomore season, he returned to Pittsburgh and had long talks with his mom about his future. Could he afford to chase his Division I dream anymore? One more shot, they decided.
“I kinda knew, this is it,” Marks said. “We took the chance. Don’t let it go to waste. Play with everything I had.”
He worked his way to first-team All-Big South and the dean’s list. The final month of his college career, he started the ninth-inning rally in a do-or-die regional game at North Carolina State. He scored the winning run in the super regional at LSU. He hit .387 in the College World Series. That’s all before he made the play that saved Coastal Carolina’s national championship.
Doesn’t get any better, right? Put Anthony Marks on a college baseball billboard.
But there’s something about the Chanticleer hero they don’t know back in Conway, South Carolina, something that didn’t make ESPN or Baseball America, something you won’t see in NCAA commercials.
Marks owes about $150,000 in student loans, he said, and he’s still one semester shy of his communications degree.
He’s a poster child for college baseball’s money problem. Major-conference athletic departments, flush with cash from football TV deals, are spending on luxurious facilities, coaching salaries and new support staff. But little (if any) has trickled down to the dugouts. Tuition continues to rise, but the Division I scholarship limit of 11.7 doesn’t budge.
“We all see where college baseball has come and where we are now,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “You flip on the College World Series and the place is packed. I’m sitting in my office now and overlooking our stadium. It seats over 5,000 people. This is serious stuff, and it’s totally underfunded.”
College baseball players aren’t alone in the struggle. Wrestlers and golfers and soccer players are requesting financial aid, too. But their championships aren’t producing $13.5 million in revenue for the NCAA (in 2013), far above the women’s basketball tournament ($4.4 million) and all other tournaments aside from men’s basketball.
Their games aren’t stuffing ESPN2 and ESPNU the whole month of June, another revenue stream for the NCAA. They’re not being asked to turn down six-figure signing bonuses from professional baseball teams.
“The financial part of this is ridiculous,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore says. “Moms and dads are spending almost $100,000 in four years, whereas football and basketball and a lot of women’s sports have tons of full scholarships. I’m asking guys that turned into professional minor leaguers to take 25 percent (of a scholarship). It’s just not fair.”
Nor is it likely to change.
* * *
Mike Morrison knew he’d thrown his last pitch.
Coastal Carolina’s pitching coach popped out of the dugout in the bottom of the seventh inning — Game 2 of the CWS championship series — to pull his starter from a 2-2 game. Morrison, a senior, immediately recognized the significance.
“It kinda hit me that I was done being a Chant the rest of my life,” Morrison said. “I was out there crying on the mound.”
As he walked to the dugout, Morrison received a standing ovation from the Chanticleer fans. He’d come to Coastal Carolina as a walk-on from Gilbert, South Carolina (population 586).
“I come from barely nothing,” he says.
But Morrison did get good grades, enabling him to access academic scholarships. And his South Carolina residency provided a tuition discount. When Coach Gilmore offered him a partial scholarship before his senior year, Morrison turned it down. It made more sense to help an out-of-state teammate.
Morrison is $40,000 in debt, but he’s been around long enough to know that’s nothing in college baseball. Student-loan bills are only scratching the surface of college baseball’s scholarship problem.
He’s witnessed recruiting battles turn into bidding wars. One school offers a 25-percent scholarship, a rival offers 30, then the kid goes back and asks for more. Pretty soon a 17-year-old kid feels like a negotiator.
“As a teenager, it’s the most stressful thing in the world,” Morrison says. “There’s so many numbers and little promises. Like, ‘Hey, we can’t give you money this year, but we’ll give it to you next year. By the time you’re this good, we’ll give you this. If you produce this much, we’ll give you this.’
“It’s like the fricking NFL. It really is.”
He’s witnessed big schools bring 50 players to fall practice, half of whom are walk-ons. The fall season basically acts as a tryout for scholarship money. When an out-of-state player loses his roster spot (and scholarship check), his only option is to transfer back home.
He’s witnessed 18-year-old prospects who don’t have the maturity for 120 games per season sign a contract anyway because a $50,000 signing bonus beats a $20,000 tuition bill. Two years later, they’re out of baseball entirely.
He’s heard of teams being torn apart by scholarship distribution. The subject is taboo in most clubhouses, but what happens when starters on a 25-percent scholarship find out the freshman backup is making 50 percent?
As an upperclassman, Morrison told Coastal Carolina’s incoming freshmen it doesn’t matter if you’re on scholarship or not — “that check won’t help you in the cage or in the field.” But he understands the reality facing a head coach.
“If you have $40,000 invested in a guy who isn’t very good, but you have a walk-on guy who’s good, you gotta play the guy you’ve giving $40,000 and try to get something out of him or you’re wasting tons of money.”
What makes it harder to stomach, Morrison says, is seeing full-scholarship athletes on campus. Football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics and women’s tennis are head-count sports in Division I. Any scholarship is a full scholarship.
Baseball doesn’t make big money like football and basketball, but 85 scholarships in football vs. 11.7 in baseball doesn’t make sense to him.
“The No. 3 right guard is going to school for free!” Morrison says. “And we’re buying fricking chicken breasts every night and trying to survive. I didn’t even get a damn meal plan because it’s $2,000.”
* * *
In 2014, the average baseball coach at an FBS school earned $241,000, which buys a whole lot of chicken breasts. They have their own problems.
Half the headache is distributing 11.7 scholarships among 35 roster spots, one of the worst ratios in college sports.
The other half is the MLB draft. Because incoming recruits and upcoming seniors are often selected in June, coaches spend July piecing together next season’s roster and distributing dollars.
Six Arizona recruits were drafted. Jay Johnson spent the week after the CWS trying to determine who will show up in the fall and who won’t. He has walk-ons he wants to reward with scholarships, but he’s over the “cap.”
“Honestly, being a college baseball coach is the greatest training you could ever have to be a GM of a big-league club,” Coastal Carolina’s Gilmore said. “You’re moving shells and pieces. It’s insane.”
Said Virginia coach O’Connor: “I’ve got Excel spreadsheets on my computer, seriously, for the next four years forecasting scholarship dollars. It’s impossible.”
Arizona’s Johnson says it’s a “really delicate balance” between assembling the best possible team and being fair to your players.
You need good students who can supplement their baseball money with academic aid. You need in-state kids who can afford to accept small scholarships. You need your big-money investments (usually pitchers) to perform. You need to find good values.
“Any time you get good players on lower scholarships, it helps you extend your payroll, so to speak,” Johnson says. “That’s usually when you have your best teams.”
Only 27 of the 35 roster spots are eligible for scholarship assistance. Each player on scholarship must receive at least 25 percent. Do the math, and you’ll find that most players are in the 25- to 50-percent range.
Offering a full ride is high-risk, but coaches occasionally take the chance on a stud pitcher (or a star bat like Kris Bryant) who turns down the draft. If the kid buckles under the burden, the program is in a hole.
Gilmore once opposed full-tuition scholarships. But the longer he coaches, the more he believes it’s the only way to level the playing field. A coach shouldn’t have to nickel-and-dime teenagers. Let him sell his school, not the fattest check.
“It’s almost like a used car salesman’s approach,” Gilmore says. “If we’re recruiting against one another, and you’re giving the guy this much money and I’m giving him this much money, we have to try to talk him into it.
“It’d be nice knowing that you’re offering the same thing as the guy down the street.”
* * *
So why hasn’t it happened? Because even though the College World Series produces big profits for the NCAA, very few schools are making money on baseball.
In 2014, according to an NCAA report, the average FBS college baseball program lost $764,000. Only ice hockey ($1.06 million) is harder on the budget. Baseball produces revenue at some successful schools, but most places it’s deep in the red.
“Imagine the uproar if the NCAA suddenly said we’re gonna take baseball from 11.7 to 15,” O’Connor said. “How many other sports are gonna be standing in line to do that?”
Moreover, because of Title IX, any additions in men’s scholarships must be matched on the women’s side.
Then there’s the parity hurdle.
Most Division I baseball programs aren’t investing fully in baseball now — they’re at eight or nine scholarships, for example. What happens if LSU and Florida suddenly have 15 or 20 scholarships? Would they stockpile talent, robbing the sport of Cinderellas? Would underdogs, especially in the North, pull their money out of baseball altogether?
“One of the reasons we have a great story like Coastal Carolina,” says Ron Prettyman, NCAA director of college baseball, “is that the 11.7 does allow for a really high level of parity across the board in college baseball. It spreads out the talent.”
But how long should the “haves” work in the best interest of the “have-nots”?
The debate, O’Connor says, reflects the cost-of-attendance movement that passed through the NCAA in 2015. Power Five conferences were permitted to distribute stipends to their athletes — usually $2,000 to $5,000 — while many poorer conferences declined.
As college football attracts more and more TV money — the Big Ten recently secured $2.64 billion over six years for its media rights — Power Five schools like Virginia have a choice: They can pump money into infrastructure and salaries, or they can help student-athletes with rising tuition costs. Which makes more sense?
Either way, there’s a cost.
“If this thing goes to 18 scholarships, is Cal Santa Barbara in?” O’Connor says. “Shoot, they can’t even build a field that has lights. They can’t even host a regional. Last year, we played them in Lake Elsinore, two hours away. This isn’t a knock on Cal Santa Barbara, but if we say, ‘Let’s amp up,’ are they in? I don’t know.”
O’Connor thinks Division I baseball could eventually fracture. He envisions a scenario where the top 75 programs — the power-conference teams plus a few committed mid-majors — create their own division with increased scholarships and a TV deal. Maybe that’s the best long-term solution, he says.
Here’s the irony: The 2016 national champion might not have the resources to go all-in.
“Honestly, I don’t know what my school would do,” Coastal Carolina’s Gilmore said. “I have to hope we would do it, but I can’t promise that we would.”
* * *
You don’t win a national championship playing scared. So when the ball left the bat and the runner took off from first base, Jay Johnson had no doubt.
The Arizona head coach, positioned in the third-base coaching box, watched the ball land six inches inside the line in the left-field corner. The crowd roared. Here comes the tying run rounding second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of the College World Series finale.
Everyone in TD Ameritrade Park prepared for the ultimate climax: a play at the plate.
Then the craziest thing happened. Just as the Arizona runner arrived at third base, the Coastal Carolina shortstop received the cut-off throw from left field. Johnson, who takes pride in his team’s aggressive base running, had no choice.
The next Arizona batter struck out, stranding the tying run at third and winning run at second. Johnson staggered to the dugout and watched Coastal Carolina’s dogpile.
One week later, the coach still can’t shake Anthony Marks from his mind.
“It’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake up,” Johnson says. “I just can’t believe he got the ball in as quick as he did. ... That was the play of the year in college baseball.”
After Marks sprinted from left field and joined the dogpile, he found his mother and aunt, who pitched in to send him to Coastal Carolina four years ago. They stood on the field. They took a picture with the national championship trophy. “We did it,” they said, over and over. “We did it.”
That night, the Chanticleers boarded a plane and returned to Conway. The next day, they starred in a downtown parade. In all the euphoria, Gilmore told Marks that the San Francisco Giants called.
After a week of celebration, he’s off to Arizona for another baseball adventure, leaving behind his final semester of school and a six-figure debt.
His buddy and fellow walk-on, Mike Morrison, has his eyes on coaching. He’s witnessed the cutthroat business of college baseball. But when it all works out, when five or six walk-ons develop into starters and eight or nine in-state players take leadership roles and all the labels are forgotten, there’s nothing like it.
“I always tell those guys I’ll pay debt the rest of my life to play college baseball,” Morrison says. “It’s a crappy mindset, but that’s the mindset you gotta have.”
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