Mercer making a plan, waiting for NCAA guidance

At 34 years old, Indiana baseball coach Jeff Mercer isn’t that far removed from his playing days. He was the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2009. That season, he hit .357 with 26 doubles.

So when it comes to the question of what should happen for this year’s set of spring athletes — their seasons cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic — there’s little hesitation from the former Wright State first baseman, now in his second year as the Hoosiers’ head coach.

“My personal opinion, I’d like to see all of the athletes receive an additional year of eligibility,” Mercer said. “I realize the ramifications. That makes it a very difficult process, and there are unintended consequences that carry on four or five years into the future. But … it just wasn’t that long ago I was playing, and to think about one of my years of eligibility taken away on something that was completely out of everyone’s control, obviously. And, undeniably, they made the right decision.

“But to not have that year of eligibility restored, when it could be, would be real difficult to endure. You just only get so many years to play sports and the vast majority of our players are not going to make their living playing professional baseball.”

The coming Monday, the NCAA’s Division I Council Committee will vote on eligibility relief, clearing up one of several unknowns that’s sprung up in these uncertain times. Two weeks removed from a sports shutdown, coaches like Mercer are still in somewhat of a holding pattern, waiting to see what rules they will play under.

If the NCAA grants that extra year, it’s still unknown how scholarship counts and roster limits would be affected.

“We’ll keep being in contact with some of the guys we were recruiting for next year, and then, realistically, just holding our ground until we see what the (rules) of engagement are gonna be,” Mercer said. “We’re not really able to know what to do as far as recruiting goes, until we get the new legislation.

“We’re making sure that we’re taking care of our current players and our committed recruits, touching base with some young players once they start playing again.”

Mercer, a coach who talks a lot about approach and executing a plan, obviously prepares for every possibility. He didn’t even feel caught off guard by the season’s cancelation, because he was keeping tabs on the spread of the virus before it even hit the U.S.

He told his staff in the days leading up to the season’s abrupt end that things weren’t looking good.

IU’s players cleared out a day after the season was canceled, heading right home. Much of their equipment is still at the field. It was a quick and sudden change of plans.

But amid uncertainty, Mercer knows one thing: he has a young, determined group that does’t need its hand held. He saw that ethic in an abbreviated season where IU knocked off multiple ranked opponents and went 9-6. Even at a distance, his players should know what is expected of them.

“This is part of the recruiting process and this is mentioned very early. When I walk in the door every day to my job, it’s not to give them a Knute Rockne speech and fire everybody up,” Mercer said. “My job is to come in and outline the plan. This is what we are going to do to achieve the goal we have for ourselves and for this team. So the expectation is that stays the same.”

Again, Mercer doesn’t yet have complete clarity on how much he can or can’t do remotely as far as “accountable hours.” There are questions about whether he can hold a meeting with hitters via a video chat or if he will have to pre-record a talk to meet NCAA rules. He doesn’t know if he can watch an athlete train live and offer feedback or if guidance will have to be given after the fact.

Mercer said he’s still trying to get his “arms wrapped around” what the NCAA’s ground rules will be, but he expects to be prepared once everything is figured out. He’s creating individualized improvement plans for each player. They have a phone app called DriveLine, which stores workout plans, nutritional plans, hitting and throwing plans, and more.

“Once we find out what’s gonna happen here in the next week or two … we’ll get everybody on a conference call, or I’ll have my wife teach me how to use Zoom or Skype or some kind of technology,” Mercer said. “We’ll talk to the kids and outline the shortened season, what the season was like for them, and where they need to go next and what they need to work on.

“It will be individualized, and it will be kind of on their own pace.”

That level of personalization will extend to the Hoosiers’ eventual summer team destinations, assuming those seasons go on as scheduled. It’s important they end up on squads that will allow them to execute a certain style of play, whether that’s aggressive base-running for a hitter, or pitch selection for an arm trying to develop their off-speed.

“I’m a creature of habit, and most people are, especially kids,” Mercer said. “The sooner that we can help them to get back to the standard operating procedure and to just get back to the normalcy of what they know and can control, the better they’ll be.”

His athletes just have to have the right mindset to approach a very unique offseason.

“If you want an excuse, there’ll be an excuse. It’s just like everything else in life,” Mercer said. “If you want to take the easy way out, if you want to complain and moan about this, it will be easy to do that. … We’ll just make sure those guys understand the expectations and that they have all the necessary tools to continue.”