Bryant University head coach Steve Owens knows the realities of building a mid-major program in the Northeast – the limited resources, the outdoor practices in 35-degree January weather, the early-season road trips.
But he also knows the benefits of the grind, as he has created a national presence on the campus of this Smithfield, Rhode Island, school with 3,500 students.
Owens has spent his 25-year coaching career in New York and Rhode Island, turning Cortland State (NY) into a Division III power before leading Division I Le Moyne College to multiple regional appearances in the 2000s. When the Dolphins reclassified to Division II, Owens left to lead Bryant, which was elevating to Division I after several successful years at the Division II level.
Since 2011, Bryant has become the winningest program in the Northeast. The transition to Division I meant the Bulldogs were ineligible for the postseason for three years, but they made the most of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2013 when they knocked off Arkansas in Manhattan, Kansas. They returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, and they wrapped up their fifth-consecutive Northeast Conference regular season championship in mid-May while hitting the 40-win mark again with one of the nation’s highest winning percentages.
Owens recently spent some time with Inside Pitch discussing his program.
Inside Pitch: What is your coaching philosophy?
Bryant is built primarily on freshmen players every year, guys who will be here for three or four years. Consistency is very important. I’ve never had a losing season in 25 years and I think that how we develop our younger guys is very important to that. I’ve never been at a school where I could just hand-pick any kind of player. Here we have to recruit kids that have good grades and that ultimately may be a little underexposed. We try to recruit very athletic kids and then we work very hard to develop them. I’ve had probably close to 50 pro players and I think only one or two have ever been drafted out of high school.
Between them being in a good culture and being really hard on them and having our kids see successful players in front of them and want to be that guy, we have a nice foundation. When we leave a field, whether we win or lose, I think the greatest compliment we can get is, “Your kids play really hard and they’re fun to watch,” whether that’s from another coach, scouts or fans. That’s something we’re proud of – how we compete.
IP: What are other characteristics of your program?
We try to be smarter with personnel decisions. We don’t have 15 pitchers like a Florida might have. We
have two or three really special pitchers and then a nice staff behind them. We shut those guys down in the fall so they can recover. We try to take care of our investments on the mound and back off so they’re ready to go for the spring season.
We’re very committed to strength training and we’re a big, physical team. I try to recruit athletes who fit that mold and we’ve been successful with it. We try to decide what type of team we’re going to be after evaluating each fall and then build a philosophy to execute that. We embrace individuality, as well. Not everyone is a cookie-cutter player.
IP: What is the attitude toward baseball on the administrative level at Bryant?
Baseball had always been a successful sport, but it was just another sport. As we became more and more successful, we were able to get resourced better. We have boosters that have given very generously to help increase our facilities. The administration, athletic director and president all got behind our program, and we’ve been rewarded for our success. That doesn’t happen at a lot of places. Even though there are limits with where we’re located and what type of conference we’re in, university leaders have done an excellent job continuing to grow our program and that’s important to me.
IP: How far afield do you recruit and how do you sell Bryant?
We have a catcher coming from Florida next year, but other than that, all of our kids are from Northeast
states. That’s so we can see them a lot and make sure we have the right guys. A lot of good players in the Northeast want to play down south, and that’s another hurdle. We recruit kids who absolutely want to be here.
We embrace the fact that we’re doing something special right here in the Northeast and we tell recruits we’d love you to be a part of it. Your parents can watch you play every game. We’re successful. We’re getting players drafted. We have a high RPI. And we’re a high-academic school where if you don’t play pro baseball, you’ll get a job.
IP: What has been the impact of booster support?
When I got here, we had a nice field but no stadium. We have a very nice stadium now thanks to a gift from
(former Bulldog shortstop and retired General Electric executive) Bill Conaty, who’s been great for our program. We’ve enhanced the stadium with fencing, padding and heaters in the dugout. We have chair back seating for about 500 people. This past year we opened a $12 million athletic weight room, which is a beautiful state-of-theart facility. We’ve also opened an indoor field house for all teams in which to practice during bad weather. We’re committed to building the facilities necessary to compete at a high level.
IP: How do you handle your scheduling?
I always schedule really difficult games at the beginning of the season and play our first 18 or 20 games on the road. That’s just what you have to do in the Northeast. This year is the first year that we were able to win early
against these teams (including Kentucky, San Diego State and Maryland). It’s been easier because we’ve had an RPI in the 40s, which is really hard to do when you’re in the Northeast in a small conference. If teams know we’re
going to have a good RPI, those potential opportunities to beat us early in the season are more enticing. Next year, we go to New Mexico State, Arkansas and Maryland. The year after that we open with Arizona and then go to Auburn and Maryland. For 2019, we already have a series set up with LSU. But we can only get so many of those games on our schedule.
IP: Has your approach to coaching evolved over the years?
How I deal with kids has changed a little bit because times have changed. But the nuts and bolts of how I coach my team, what I expect out of them, how tough we are on them and going to work every day really hasn’t changed. We expect a lot out of players and put pressure on them to be good every day. I’m probably a little bit more laid back than when I was 25, but not too much.