This season was always going to be an important one for Clemson’s baseball program.
Graham Neff acknowledged as much shortly after taking over as the Tigers’ athletic director back in December, even if it was stating the obvious. Clemson missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year after posting its first losing season since 1957.
The Tigers had appeared in 11 consecutive regionals before that. As for the last time Clemson has failed to make the tournament in back-to-back years, you have to go all the way back to the Bill Wilheim era in the mid-1980s.
Yet that’s a real possibility for the current version of the Tigers in Monte Lee’s seventh season at the helm, one in which Clemson started 14-0 and yet was in danger of not even qualifying for the ACC Tournament before winning seven of its last nine conference games to clinch the 12th and final seed. For comparison’s sake, the Tigers were the 11th seed last year.
That run at least put Clemson back in the at-large conversation heading to Charlotte, where the Tigers began the week with a respectable RPI ranking of 30. But with just 13 conference wins, Lee and his team knew there was work to do in the league tournament in order to give their postseason resume a much-needed boost.
“We all know what we’re facing, and the guys will be ready to go,” Lee said before this week’s trip to Charlotte.
Yet the Queen City may have written the obituary on Clemson’s season. The Tigers went 0-2 against a couple of regional-bound teams in North Carolina and Virginia Tech and weren’t all that competitive, losing those games by a combined score of 27-8. The results dropped the Tigers’ RPI to 32 and their record against ACC competition for the season to five games below .500.
It all makes Clemson a longshot for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament and brings questions about the future of the program back to the forefront.
“It’ll be more of just a feel and seeing where the program and Monte is at,” Neff told The Clemson Insider. “There’s no, ‘Hey, if you make it to regionals or super regionals or Omaha.’ There’s not that specificity of the achievement but just the evaluation of the season in total.”
That was the public answer when Neff was asked last month about his personal expectations for the program. But multiple sources familiar with the situation indicated to TCI the program is prepared to make a change in leadership if the Tigers fail to make a regional again.
If that move were to be made, Lee would be owed a buyout of $500,000, according to a copy of his contract term sheet obtained by TCI, though that amounted would be prorated if termination occurs after the first day of the contract year. Lee, who’s making $500,000 in total compensation this year, has two years left on his contract, which runs through June 30, 2024.
Hired as Hall of Famer Jack Leggett’s replacement following the 2015 season, Lee has a 242-136 record as Clemson’s coach, including a 102-86 mark in the ACC during the regular season. Clemson made the NCAA Tournament in each of Lee’s first four seasons at the helm (a tournament wasn’t held in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic) but hasn’t advanced beyond that round during his tenure.
The Tigers won’t have to wait long to learn their fate. The NCAA Tournament’s 64-team field will be unveiled Monday, which could have more than a season riding on it.
“I expect to be back,” Lee said following Thursday’s game, “but ultimately that’s not my decision.”