It has been a very eventful year for the Northwestern baseball program. A year which has seen longtime coach Paul Stevens retire, the hiring of Spencer Allen away from Illinois and the completion of the long-awaited renovation of Rocky and Berenice Miller Park.
For a team that hasn’t been to the Big Ten Tournament since 2010 and hasn’t had a winning record since 2000, change was certainly needed, both in the clubhouse and, literally, on the field. Northwestern has desperately needed to update its baseball facilities for awhile, and the first leg of those improvements were completed last April, forcing the Wildcats to play the first two months of their schedule on the road.
But, for this season, the renovations will be complete and the tenure of Spencer Allen, the first African-American head baseball coach in Big Ten history, will start with a clean slate in a new ballpark. Allen, who came to Northwestern after a short but incredibly successful stint as Illinois’ hitting coach, has his own coaching staff in place for the upcoming season and will look to bring the Wildcats back to at least the Big Ten Tournament and, hopefully, the NCAA Tournament.
Obviously, Allen has a long way to go in achieving that goal. Years of relative obscurity in a tough conference and difficult conditions for recruiting made Paul Stevens’ job an extremely tough one but with the hiring of Allen, it’s clear the athletic department is ready for this program to take the next step. The university is now devoting resources to the baseball (and softball) teams and, like with the Lakeside football facility, is expecting results.
The first big step for the program is to do a better job at locking down top in-state recruits instead of letting them go to Allen’s old school, Illinois, or to other Big Ten schools, like Purdue and Indiana. On Northwestern’s current roster, there are 12 players from Illinois while the Fighting Illini boast 24 Illinois natives and happen to have the No. 32 recruiting class in the country (for the Class of 2015).
On that Perfect Game list of the top 100 recruiting classes from last year, eight are Big Ten teams and none are Northwestern. Sure, part of that is Northwestern’s stringent academic requirements, but it underlies just how much this program has to improve until it can be on the same level as, or even compete with, the Penn State’s, Illinois’ and Michigan’s of the conference.
It’ll be interesting to see how Allen’s first recruiting class with Northwestern will look like, as, per the program’s Instagram account, it will be released later today. What is known is that Allen is well-respected throughout college baseball and is the perfect figurehead for a program stuck in a seemingly never-ending rebuilding cycle. He should be able to turn it around, but the question is how long that might take.
Considering his predecessor spent 27 seasons as the head coach of the team, Allen will certainly have time to establish the program as he envisions it and, apparently, will finally be given all the resources he needs. But will he be able to overcome the usual athletic restrictions surrounding Northwestern, combined with over a century of relative non-success? That remains to be seen.