Big Ten softball coaches rally round the Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS — Big Ten softball coaches are a tight-knit group.
Illinois coach Tyra Perry has received many well-wishes from the conference's other coaches leading into the Illini's NCAA tournament opener against Marshall on Friday.
Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle, knowing her team wouldn't be playing in the postseason, watched the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday night for only one reason.
"To try to decide if I was going to drive to Minneapolis the first weekend (for regionals) or the second weekend (for Super Regionals) to watch (the Gophers)," Revelle said.
Imagine her surprise to find out Minnesota, now the No. 1-ranked team in the country in the coaches' poll, wasn't hosting any regional this season. Instead, the Gophers are in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where they open regional play against Louisiana Tech on Friday.
"We were shocked," Perry said. "They are a great program and have done great things, and we definitely thought they would be treated differently."
The Gophers' tournament snub lit a fire on social media, with many calling out a perceived bias against Northern and Midwest teams. After Minnesota's lack of a top-16 national seed, at least a few Big Ten coaches feel it, too.
"I can't say that I've had a sense of that (before)," Perry said. "I believe I have a bit of it now."
Revelle has felt it since Nebraska switched from the Big 12 conference to the Big Ten in 2011.
"It's nothing that I can totally put my finger on, but I felt like there was more implied natural respect being a team that comes out of the Big 12 versus a team that comes out of the Big Ten," Revelle said. "So much so that I remember when I first went into my first meeting with all the head coaches in the Big Ten I voiced that and I said ... 'Let's make that our mission to change that.' "
Have they? Maybe to some degree. The Big Ten did get six teams into last year's NCAA tournament and has five participants this year, third most in the nation behind the Pac 12 and the SEC — the country's two perennial powers.
ESPN softball writer Graham Hays said the Big Ten is annually jockeying with the ACC and Big 12 to be that third-best conference, though this was "a down year for the Big Ten."
The conference's "down year" hurt the Gophers' standing with the committee. It certainly hurt Minnesota's strength-of-schedule rating. The Gophers' nation-best 54-3 record and 25-game winning streak were essentially written off to inferior competition.
Any time the regular season and tournament champion from a conference such as the Big Ten isn't seeded in the top 16 in NCAAs, it says something about a conference's perception.
Meanwhile, the SEC got all 13 of its teams into the NCAA tournament, and eight will be hosting regionals this weekend, a sign that southern softball reigns supreme.
"It makes me bow up a little bit," Revelle said when seeing that. "Because I've often said if you take the exact teams that we all have right now and you just put them in different geographical places, you would still get the same results. So my point is I think there is a lot of parity in the country, but I don't think we always get the same natural respect for that parity on the front end. It's like the cold-weather schools have to go earn the respect, and it's like the warm-weather schools just seem to have the respect."
Perry grew up in the South and played college softball at LSU, yet she doesn't see any difference in the quality regardless of which geographic region of the country you're in. The primary difference, she said, is the travel. With their home fields out of commission early in the season, Big Ten schools have to travel to play road games for each of the first five of six weekends of the year.
Minnesota played 16 home games this year, Florida played 26. And those SEC teams will continue to rack up home games this postseason. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said "you have to wonder" if there wasn't some incentive for the selection committee to keep the SEC teams — the most prominent programs in the country — at home for regionals, which will all be televised on ESPN platforms.
Hutchins said now is the time when the conference needs Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany to step up. But when reached this week for comment about the Gophers' seeding, a conference spokesman referred to the NCAA's statement about Minnesota and said, "We don't believe there is anything more to add."
The reality is the prevailing thought in the country is that Southern teams are better. Hays said the Big Ten is considered by many to be Michigan and then everyone else. Former Gophers pitcher Sara Moulton said Minnesota has "always been a little bit overlooked."
The Gophers and the rest of the Big Ten can put a dent in that theory by winning games and making deep runs over the next three weeks. Perry said she thinks the Big Ten is a conference "on the rise." Now is the time to prove it.
"We have a responsibility to show that we are a great conference," Perry said. "I've even talked to my team about it, just representing the Big Ten in the best way possible, showing that we are strong."
Minnesota will leave a lasting impression either way. That's the team on everyone's radar. If the Gophers can make a deep run, they will prove the committee wrong, vindicating the Big Ten in the process. If they fall early, doubters of the North will have no reason to change their mind-set.
"I hope that every softball player in the Upper Midwest says, 'We are going to prove them wrong and I'm going to come to Minnesota to do that,' " Gophers coach Jessica Allister said this week.
Hays said if a program like Minnesota can get to the World Series or advance to back-to-back Super Regionals, "that certainly would change and improve the overall perception."
That's a cause every Big Ten coach can get behind.
"Go Gophers," Revelle said.