By Will Vandervort / Photos courtesy ClemsonTigers.com.
The day before his team was to play rival South Carolina in the Semifinal Round of the College World Series Jack Leggett was notified by a Clemson administrator that his notification of financial aid for his 2011 baseball roster was due immediately.
There were others who had to look over it and it still had to be approved by compliance and by the university’s financial aid office. It was already June 24 and the mandatory date of approved scholarships for student athletes for the next school year was July 1.
So why was Jack Leggett, less than 24 hours from coaching in the biggest game of his career, having to worry about administrative issues?
It’s common for baseball to be one of the last programs to complete the notification because of the MLB Draft, which selects both third-year and incoming freshmen. In almost all cases, college baseball coaches, like Leggett, have to gage the situation and, for lack of a better word, “guess” on who they think will and will not sign a professional contract.
However, what is uncommon is for a head coach to care as a much as Leggett to make sure it gets done.
“One thing about Coach Leggett that he understands is that only a handful of guys get the opportunity to go play professionally,” said former Clemson pitcher Casey Harman. “Obviously, that is the goal, but at the same time his goal as a coach and as a man is to develop kids and make them ready for whatever happens once they leave Clemson.
“I think that is something he has done a really good job of. He holds everyone accountable. We went to class, we made our studies our focus and we learned how to work hard. That is what defines him.”
So following a grueling practice in the hot son of Omaha, Leggett went back to his hotel room and locked himself in it until the next morning. Twelve or so hours later, he came out but not before messaging the parents of every player who was not graduating or possibly turning pro. This was the morning of the Tigers’ first game against South Carolina. A win and they’re off to the national championship series. A loss and the two have to play for a second time the following night.
Leggett asked each of the parents that were in town to meet him in his room that morning. What it came down to was this – he wanted to see which of the returning players’ parents could afford for their son to take a scholarship reduction.
Leggett was hoping it would give him enough flexibility to send scholarship money towards players like Harman, whose family did not have the means to support the cost of tuition.
Heading into his junior year, one of Harmon’s teammates left the program. They were on a high-percentage scholarship so Leggett gave Harman the scholarship money to add to what they were already giving him. However, it was only a one-year deal. Harman was expected to fall back to his original scholarship the following fall, depending on whom else was coming back and what scholarship money was made available.
In the 2009-’10 school year, Division I baseball dropped to 11.7 scholarships. Of a 35-man roster, athletes receiving a scholarship must be limited to 27 players. Some schools choose not to use all of the 11.7. Some of that money will go back to the school and will help with the program’s overall budget for things like transportation, while other schools use it, but also have other means such as academics to get around the rule and provide more funding to help with the cost of tuition.
But Clemson does not have many of those means, in fact very few. So each year Leggett sits down with a calculator and pinches pennies to make sure his players have what they need to help pay for their tuition.
The evening after he met with the players’ parents, the Tigers fell to South Carolina, 5-1, sitting up a winner-take all matchup the very next day with their most bitter rival. At this point, most coaches would put everything they have into figuring a way to beat the Gamecocks, but Leggett does not have the luxury to be most coaches. Because he has to pinch every penny in his scholarship limits, and he doesn’t have the luxury of some of his competitors—including South Carolina—when it comes to grant-and-aids, Leggett met with his coaches for a few hours to discuss the South Carolina game and then he was back in his room the remainder of the evening trying to figure out which of his returning players would get what.
Three of the parents Leggett had met with early in the morning volunteered to reduce their son’s scholarship in hopes it might encourage Harman, who was drafted in the 29th round by Chicago, to return to school.
“He is open about everything. He does not hide anything that he is really thinking or doing. He will lay it out there for you,” Harman said. “He will be as honest as possible and to the point. He will let you know what is going on. That’s something I respect a lot about him.”
Harman came to Clemson from the same high school in Vermont as Leggett, whose best friend, Mike O’Day, was Harman’s high school athletic director.
“He is a celebrity up there,” Harman said. “His best friend was my athletic director. I was pitching up there and was one of the better pitchers and Mike O’Day got in contact with Leggett and told him he should look at me.
“The first time I met Coach Leggett was up in Vermont. I actually threw bullpen for him and he offered me on the spot a small scholarship and an opportunity to play at Clemson. It all started there. He gave me the opportunity and believed in me when it could have looked bad for him to do that because I was from his hometown.
“It was a leap of faith that he did that. It could have backed fired on him, but it turned out I had a decent career at Clemson, got drafted and went on to play at the next level.”
Harman became an All-ACC pitcher at Clemson and was the Tigers’ ace in 2010. Clemson was hoping to get him back in 2011, but with his family situation, and the fact he did not have much scholarship money, the outlook was bleak at best.
But leaving Clemson was not an easy one for Harman. Leggett was there for him the year before when his mother passed away. He gave him advice on how to handle it and how to handle his emotions.
“He was there for me on the personal side and not just the baseball side,” said Harman, who runs the Carolina Sports Factory in Lyman, S.C. with former teammate John Nester. “He always had an open door for me. We have had many conversations about life, about family, about relationships and all that. He has done a lot for me in that sense and I see him way more than a baseball coach in my mind. He has been a mentor, a great leader and has given me really, really great guidance. He was kind of like a father figure than a baseball coach.
“Now when it is time to play baseball, he is going to get on you and he is going to be that baseball coach, but he has been a very positive mentor and influence in my life.”
Harman’s last start in his Clemson career came against the Gamecocks the next night, but despite the lefty going deep into the seventh inning, the Tigers fell, 4-3. It was a tough loss and definitely a tough pill to swallow for Leggett who had been eliminated by the Gamecocks the same way eight years before.
But the 2010 season was now in the past. Leggett, who has been known to say he “mourns” the end of a season, could not afford to even do that because he had to figure out how Clemson was going to fund a competitive baseball team, again, in 2011. So, again, he barricaded himself in his room and went to work. The next day, on the flight back to Clemson, he and other administrators finished up the notification of aid.
The next week, thanks to the sacrifice three parents took in their financial packages, Leggett met with Harman, Nester, who was drafted by the A’s in the 39th round, and Justin Sarratt. Nester decided he wanted to try a shot at pro baseball, while Sarratt came back to be a part of Clemson’s 43-20 squad in 2011.
As for Harman, it was not that easy of a decision. He wanted to come back to Clemson and play one more year for Leggett. He knew Leggett was working hard for him.
The Clemson coach upped Harman’s aid from what it was supposed to be, but it was still a far cry from where Harman and his family needed it to be.
In what was an emotional moment, Harman told Leggett, the man he looks up to and who’s coaching style he emulates, that he was not returning to Clemson for his senior year.
“It was a very, very tough decision,” Harman said. “It came down to me not being a standout type player. I always had a decent amount of success, but I’m not a guy that throws 95. I’m not projectable. There weren’t people saying, ‘This guy is draftable.’
“So in my mind if I was to come back and, God forbid, I don’t have a great season, am I going to have the opportunity to play pro baseball? My thought process on the whole thing was this opportunity might not come next year so I’m going to take it while it is front of me. I wanted to comeback. It was one of the toughest decisions that I have ever made.”
And Jack Leggett’s love for his players is what makes it so hard.