VERNON HILLS, Ill. — Tony Brown’s dream of playing college baseball became a reality when he committed to Furman University in August 2019.
Or so it seemed.
Furman, located in Greenville, South Carolina, was one of two Division I schools that extended baseball offers to Brown. And make no mistake, Brown worked hard for those offers.
An all-area middle infielder and three-year varsity starter at Vernon Hills High School in suburban Chicago, Brown — the son of former Chicago Bears defensive end Alex Brown — made the difficult decision to temporarily withdraw from high school prior to his senior year in 2018-19 and reclassify. It meant, among other things, no high school baseball that spring.
While preparing for his “second” senior year in 2019-20, Brown committed to Furman before the coronavirus pandemic hit and the season was canceled.
For Brown, missing two consecutive years of high school baseball stung. Still, he would be continuing his baseball career at Furman. Or so he thought.
The bottom fell out on May 18, when Furman athletic director Jason Donnelly announced the university would discontinue the men’s baseball and men’s lacrosse programs because of the financial impact of the pandemic.
“We were all on a call and the AD just broke everything down for us,” Alex Brown said. “He broke the news to us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on high school seniors across the country who had their spring sports seasons canceled. But it also has impacted sports at the collegiate level. Athletes such as Tony Brown will start the recruiting process all over again. For his father and mother, it was hard to see their son’s disappointment.
“I’m outside coming back from a run and my wife [Kari] and Tony walk out, and Tony rarely cries, but he has tears in his eyes, and my wife has tears in her eyes, so I know something bad has happened,” Alex Brown said. “It was just heartbreaking.”
Alex played defensive end for the Bears and the New Orleans Saints during a nine-year NFL career. Tony is a gifted student (above 4.0 GPA, 1320 SAT, 27 ACT). Vernon Hills recently named Brown the athlete of the year and also bestowed upon him a schoolwide math award, voted on by the faculty.
“I’m Tony’s baseball coach but I’m also a math teacher, and I had Tony in class,” Vernon Hills varsity baseball coach Jay Czarnecki said. “I’m a precalculus honors teacher. The math award that Tony won goes to the student who brings a different dimension to your class, helps make it a better place and includes all the kids as a leader in the classroom. It’s very rare your school’s athlete of the year also wins the math award. It gives you a picture of the kind of kid that Tony is.”
In elementary school, Brown skipped third grade, which proved the correct move academically but left him perpetually a year younger than his classmates. Nevertheless, by halfway through his freshman season — at the age equivalent to an eighth-grader — Brown was promoted to varsity and went on to star for the Cougars in baseball and basketball over the next three years.
For whatever reasons, however, baseball recruiters weren’t paying much attention.
“We weren’t trying to gain an advantage by taking him out of school; it was just putting him in the grade he would’ve been in,” Alex said. “Had Tony continued on the road he was on, he would have been 16 years old for the first month and a half of his senior year.”
The extra year worked. Matt Plante, the vice president of Top Tier baseball who coached Brown on the program’s top 17U team last summer, said Brown’s performance on the elite travel baseball circuit improved dramatically after the reclassification.
“The kid is a hard worker,” Plante said. “He works his tail off. First year he played with Top Tier , he was a 6.8 or 6.9 60-yard dash runner; when he came back and reclassified, he got down to 6.6. All the measurables — exit velocity, overall strength — they all went up. First couple of tournaments last summer, he was on fire.”
But for Tony, sitting out that first high school season was hard.
“The first couple of months were definitely the toughest because I’d grown up with everyone that was having their senior year and I had to watch them reach all those milestones,” Brown said. “It was hard to see them live out their senior year; but I knew I had to make the most out of this year off because when I come back I’ll be a completely different player. I really needed that year to develop.”
The process culminated in Furman extending Brown an offer to join its baseball program.
“We told him to take a day [to think about the Furman offer] and make sure it’s the right fit,” Kari said. “He woke up at 6 a.m. the next day and said he was ready to go.”
Now Brown has to begin anew.
“We honestly have to go through the recruiting process all over again,” he said. “I know how hard it was to get those offers, and it’s tough — it’s hard to reach out to schools because the roster spots are full and they don’t have any scholarships left. I’m going to have to make some tough decisions as to if I want to walk on or go to a junior college. I honestly don’t know.”
Furman isn’t the only school to eliminate college baseball because of cost-cutting measures related to COVID-19.
Just 6 miles north of Tony’s alma mater, Jay Ward was a star left-handed pitcher at Carmel High School who committed in the summer of 2017 to play baseball at Bowling Green in Ohio. Ward appeared in nine games as a freshman in 2019 and pitched well in five relief outings this season before the NCAA canceled the remainder of the college season because of COVID-19.
“We were on our way to play games in the state of Alabama,” Ward said. “We got to Cincinnati and stopped for food. All of a sudden, the coaches got a call and we turned the bus around and headed straight back. We were sitting in the locker room and the coaches told us the rest of the season had been canceled. You could hear a pin drop in there. No one saw that coming.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“Every week after the season was canceled, we’d have a Zoom call with the team,” Ward said. “We had a Zoom call scheduled with the team at 1:45 p.m. on Friday, May 15, and I couldn’t be on the call because I was taking my last final. Apparently, 15 minutes before that Zoom call was supposed to happen, our coaches were told to be on another Zoom call with the director of athletics and a bunch of other important people in the athletic department at the school, and during that call they told the coaches they were cutting the program.
“The coaches had no idea. They were totally blindsided. … So I’m sitting there taking my final and my phone started blowing up. I’m like, this is not normal. And guys are telling me the program was cut. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke. Then I went on Twitter and read that Bowling Green had cut the program.”
The Bowling Green athletic department announced the university was “undergoing restructuring brought on by the current financial crisis” and athletics had been instructed to reduce its annual budget by $2 million. Eliminating baseball — the school’s release stated — will save the school about $500,000 annually.
“From there, everything spiraled,” Ward said. “I had my classes picked out for next year, I had my schedule, I had a lease for a house … all those plans just got flipped over. It was a total blindside. They didn’t say anything to us, they didn’t say anything to the coaches … they just cut the program. I had to call my parents and tell them what happened. I was just like, ‘No way this just happened, no.'”
Ward moved swiftly, posting his video highlights and statistics on Twitter and tagging several well-known baseball recruiting sites. Since the NCAA will permit players such as Ward to transfer and play immediately for any school next year — scholarship agreements also will be honored for players affected at Bowling Green and Furman if they choose to stay and pursue their studies — the response has been encouraging. Ward has heard from several programs and received one offer.
“Everyone needs left-handed pitching,” Ward said. “I’m blessed in that regard.”
College baseball is not like college football, for which full-ride scholarships are plentiful. NCAA Division I baseball programs are allowed to offer a maximum of 11.7 fully funded scholarships to be spread over rosters that often reach 30 to 40 players. Standout students such as Tony Brown can additionally receive some academic scholarship money to help offset a greater portion of the cost, but the average scholarship amount most college baseball programs will offer players is around 40%.
College baseball’s scholarship distribution system doesn’t sit well with Joe Ferro, Brown’s hitting instructor for the past 11 years and current baseball director of Phenom Wisconsin.
“So many times now, schools are bringing 20 kids in and half of those kids are gone after the first semester,” Ferro said. “I think the NCAA needs to do a better job regulating scholarships and do a better job regulating what’s going on and how much abuse of power can happen from the coaching staff. As a coach, you should also be graded on your transfers, in my opinion. If you’re bringing 20 kids in and you’re making promises to 20 kids and 15 are leaving, that’s not fair. You’re not being genuine to the kids you are recruiting.”
College baseball recruiting is as tricky as ever. Long before former Furman and Bowling Green players began searching for new schools, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to seniors unable to play their final collegiate season due to COVID-19. A good number of roster spots annually earmarked for incoming recruits will instead revert back to the seniors who accept the extra year of eligibility.
Also muddying the waters is MLB’s revenue-related decision to trim the upcoming amateur draft from 40 rounds to five. Prospects not selected in the top five rounds can still sign with MLB teams, but for a maximum of only $20,000. Given the choice of returning to college or signing for that amount, many undrafted players — especially those who otherwise likely would have been selected in Rounds 6 through 10 — will opt for another year of college baseball, which further shrinks the number of available roster spots for guys such as Brown and Ward.
“A lot of the Power 5 conference schools I talk to say we don’t have any room for any kids in the Class of 2020 or 2021,” Plante said. “They’re on to the Class of 2022 and 2023.”
Which makes Brown’s chances of finding a home even more difficult.
“It’s been a long road,” Alex Brown said. “We spent the better half of two years trying to explain to him that if you work your ass off and do everything right that this [the chance to play Division I college baseball] could happen — and then you find what you feel the perfect place is and then it doesn’t happen.”
Tony Brown is undeterred.
“I would still be in bed crying if that had happened to me,” his mother said. “He cried for about 30 minutes and said, ‘Let’s go work out.’ It doesn’t stop. You have to keep grinding.”
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