In high school, Gene Burpoe received scholarship offers from a half-dozen college baseball programs. He was courted by schools near his hometown of Arlington, Va., and others farther away in the warmer regions of the country.
But Burpoe chose Temple, in chilly Philadelphia. Four years later, with his college baseball career winding to a close, the outfielder couldn’t be happier with his decision.
“I liked the guys on the team here. That was a selling point,” said Burpoe, an honorable mention All-USA Today selection in high school. “The players in the South were stuck-up and individualized. Here, they were more blue-collar. I liked that. I felt comfortable.”
If Burpoe hadn’t chosen Temple, he would have become just another prospect in a long line of players who headed south for a chance at glory.
Over the past several decades, the dominance of Southern schools and programs in the warmest parts of the country has developed into a trend. They are traditionally the most successful, claiming 38 consecutive national championships. No Northern university has won it all since Ohio State in 1966.
Temple was once competitive with the nation’s elite programs. For various reasons, starting with the Philadelphia climate, the Owls have dropped off the radar screen without a recent blip of success.
TEMPLE’S GLORY DAYS
The 1970s were kind to Temple. It was the decade the Owls reached their peak, winning the conference title seven times and earning six NCAA Tournament berths. They twice advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., reserved for the top eight teams in the country. In 1972, coach Skip Wilson led Temple to its best finish ever – third place in the nation.
So, what went wrong? The evolution of high school basketball talent in Philadelphia, according to Wilson.
“Philadelphia is a basketball town. Baseball is the stepchild,” he said.
Most youths played high school baseball in the 1970s, Wilson said, and over the past few decades those would-be players have transitioned into basketball or football. As it became more difficult to recruit, the desire by some to attend a religiously denominational university lured even more prospective players away.
“The best recruits are from the Catholic League. Naturally, they look at [Saint Joseph’s], La Salle, or Villanova before us,” Wilson said. “Then, after not going to either of those, they overlook Temple and go south. It’s that simple.”
In the 1980s, the Owls made three more NCAA Tournament appearances, but never advanced to Omaha. Those less successful seasons led to cuts to the program’s scholarship budget, limiting who Wilson could attract. Rather than trying to recruit top talent, the program resorted to luring players to fill positional needs, primarily catchers, pitchers, and center fielders.
The program’s low point came in 1994, its fifth-straight losing season. It was then that former athletic director R.C. Johnson decided to cut the baseball program, along with a number of other non-revenue programs, from the budget entirely. Baseball was eventually saved by a final vote of the University’s Board of Trustees. Though officially resolved, the situation became sticky with the coverage it received from local media. Wilson said the program has never recovered.
“I had guys transfer because they didn’t think there would be a team,” he said. “With the new field, recruiting should get better.”
The new field Wilson referred to is Ambler Field, the new baseball complex at Temple’s Ambler campus that is still under construction.
Well before the program was almost scratched, Philadelphia’s better talent was heading south, opting for warmer weather and outdoor winter practices that are impossible in Northeast climates.
Temple was left in the cold.
“The players we used to get went south or west, or to the Midwest,” Wilson said. “Our kids in the ’70s were as good as anyone, but since we’ve lost them, we’ve suffered.”
Weather patterns are just the beginning of a vicious cycle that has trapped Northern programs in college baseball’s cellar for nearly four decades. Because of poor weather, the Owls sometimes practice indoors, and without the financial means to build a baseball-only facility, they sometimes don’t have a place to practice at all.
If a player has a shot at playing professional ball, Wilson said that player should play in the South, which provides a favorable road to the big leagues.
Dean Cademartori is a rare exception to that rule. Cademartori, who was named Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune Player of the Year in 2004, was at the top of many colleges’ wish-lists. A highly-touted outfielder who boasts a strong arm and bat, Cademartori was expected to shuffle through offers from some of the country’s top programs, eventually heading south of the Mason-Dixon Line. However, he finally decided on nearby Southern Illinois.
“Staying close to home meant more to Dean than going to a successful team where it was warm year-round,” said Dan Callahan, Cademartori’s coach at SIU. “He had a great visit with us, so he ended up choosing Southern Illinois. That’s certainly not the case all the time. He was special.”
Southern Illinois was also successful around the time Temple was. Scholarship cutbacks similarly affected the Salukis, but nothing stung more than being snubbed by in-state talent.
Callahan said it’s not uncommon for players indigenous to the North to leave for warmer regions. In fact, it has become the norm. Reasons for this depend on a player’s personal taste, mostly regarding weather. Colder temperatures and late-winter snowfalls confine teams in cooler climates to indoor facilities.
To counteract weather conditions here, Wilson coordinates fall workouts in preparation for October intra-squad games. Sometimes those are played on grass, but usually they are indoors. Following winter break, the Owls hit the field on weather-appropriate days; otherwise, they are reduced to one of five shared indoor facilities, including Pearson Hall or an area high school such as Chestnut Hill Academy.
Over his 46-year career, Wilson said he has petitioned for an indoor facility on several occasions, but has been turned away each time. He said increasing his team’s practice time would help its competitiveness.
“A place indoors would get us ready quicker. Every time I go to [the athletics department] to talk about getting one, they tell me [I’ve] done without one for so long that [I] don’t need one,” Wilson said.
A handful of coaches of top-25 programs from warmer regions offered some solutions to the predicament that has afflicted Temple and other schools. Miami coach Jim Morris said weekend practices in Florida might work.
“A lot of your better programs in the North are a result of flying to Florida for three days,” said Morris, a two-time national coach of the year. “Notre Dame has been known to do that. That’s what separates the good Northern teams from the [rest].”
Weekly flights to Florida, however, are not financially feasible for most schools. That’s why several coaches, including Arizona coach Andy Lopez, agree that changes to NCAA baseball would remedy its escalating push for parity. Lopez, who led Pepperdine to a National Championship in 1992, recommended delaying the season’s start date or cutting teams’ schedules by a few games. In doing so, Lopez said, all teams would get on-field practice and a fair shot at a winning season.
Lopez supports parity. If temporarily postponing the season’s start would provide an increased interest in Northern baseball, Lopez said he is for it. What the Arizona coach opposes, however, is providing Northern schools at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament when they are undeserved. In recent years, teams from warmer regions, like current No. 9 Arizona, have been omitted.
“It’s supposed to be the best of the best. [Good teams getting snubbed] can’t continue,” Lopez said.
Baylor coach Steve Smith agreed with Lopez, saying parity for the sake of parity is wrong. Success, he said, should be earned.
“I’d say to schools in the North: That’s life in the big city,” said Smith, who coaches the No. 11-ranked Bears. “It should be the best 64 [teams] competing in Omaha. You’re not going to find a Texas team winning the hockey championship. Why should [colder-region teams] expect us to suffer?”
While Temple has struggled, some Northern schools have prospered. Nebraska, where the average high temperature in March rarely exceeds 40 degrees, is No. 8 in the national rankings, and the Huskers upset top-ranked Texas earlier this month. Notre Dame, which plays its home games in South Bend, Ind., is a perennial threat to unseat a top seed in the postseason.
“It’s pretty darn cold in Lincoln, Neb., and they have been to Omaha more times than I have,” Smith said. “Teams like Nebraska are committed to winning and that’s tough to compete with.”
In the 56-year history of the College World Series, northern schools have won the national championship a mere eight times. To put that figure in perspective, Arizona schools have claimed the national title as many times, and the 20 titles from California schools are more than twice the North’s total output.
Based on those totals alone, schools in warmer regions are doing something right. Weather doesn’t ultimately draw where the line of success will fall; recruiting is as important.
When asked about his recruiting history, Morris remembered one particular player. The last player Morris said Miami offered a full scholarship was a wiry infielder who had all the skills to play professionally. The player, a Miami native, was Alex Rodriguez, now the starting third baseman for the New York Yankees.
Morris warned against recruiting players with an interest in pro ball, but he said that hasn’t kept him from trying.
Morris acknowledged that the bulk of the nation’s elite high school programs and players are in the South. When Baseball America put together its 2005 Preseason All-America teams (the magazine selected a first, second, and third team), only four of the 48 players honored were from areas north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Temple believed it had a steal in successfully landing Burpoe, a Virginia native who owns a three-year .262 average with 21 career runs batted in. But Burpoe never evolved into the player Wilson and the Owls originally recruited.
Miami may have great weather to its credit, but it has also has a roster chock full of Southern talent. Only three current players on the Hurricane roster came from the North – two are from Illinois, and one is from Missouri. Similarly, just eight of Arizona’s 33 players are from the North.
In other words, the nation’s top high school players from the South are staying close to home.
Miami’s ability to get a player to sign a letter of intent is much different from Temple’s. While the Hurricanes have a shot at a probable major leaguer, Temple is lucky to retain its in-state talent.
The Owls are very rarely in position to sign a potential pro. Their last two – Detroit Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson and former Boston Red Sox catcher John Marzano – were separated by nine years. No player of that caliber has signed here since.
“The difference between [Miami’s] offer and that of the pros is that we offer a full scholarship and say, ‘We love ya.’ They offer money and say, ‘We love ya.’ Who would you expect the kid to sign with?” Morris said.
When signing a letter of intent, Burpoe made comfort, not money or fame, his top priority.
“You have to go where you are going to be the most comfortable, and for me, that place was Temple,” Burpoe said.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.