Image credit: Rutgers' Steve Owens (Courtesy of Rutgers)
Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Over the next several weeks, we’ll post the results of that survey.
With 301 teams in Division I, it’s easy for some coaches to go under the radar despite producing successful teams. No one knows this better than the head coaches themselves. So, who do they think doesn’t get enough attention?
We asked our panel of coaches who is the most underrated head coach. Respondents were allowed to list up to three coaches.
|San Diego St.
Rutgers coach Steve Owens received the most votes in the survey and was named on nine coaches’ ballots. Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett was second with seven votes, just one vote ahead of Connecticut’s Jim Penders. Sacramento State’s Reggie Christiansen and Northeastern’s Mike Glavine tied with five votes to round out the top five.
The coaches cast a wide net in voting—89 coaches received at least one vote and 28 were named on multiple ballots. Coaches with multiple votes came from a diverse pool, from power conferences like the ACC and Big 12 to smaller conferences like the Big South and the Southland and everywhere in between.
Ultimately, it was Owens who came out on top. The 54-year-old is in his first year at Rutgers but is a longtime coaching veteran. He has been a head coach since 1992 and has compiled a 920-492-3 record over 29 seasons. He has won everywhere he’s gone, starting at Cortland State (N.Y.), which he led to the Division III College World Series four times in eight seasons. He moved on to Le Moyne in 2000 and turned the Dolphins into one of the powers of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In 2011, he took over Bryant as the Bulldogs began their transition from Division II to Division I and made them into the dominant force in the Northeast Conference, winning the regular-season title eight straight times.
“He’s done it at every level Cortland State to Le Moyne,” one coach said. “He turned Le Moyne into powerhouse, went to Bryant and turned it into powerhouse. Now, he’s getting his Power Five opportunity. It’s only a matter of time there.
“He’s extremely competitive. He pulls out all the stops to create winners.”
While Owens has had spectacular success, he’s also stayed a bit under the radar. Bryant’s biggest breakthrough came in 2016, when it went 47-12 and earned a No. 2 seed at the Charlottesville Regional. But it went 0-2 there and the Bulldogs haven’t been back to regionals since. Despite their dominance in regular-season NEC play, they’ve stumbled in the conference tournament and in a one-bid league, that’s all it takes to miss out on the NCAA Tournament.
But Owens’ success at small, Northeastern schools without much baseball tradition hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers.
“He’s the kind of guy that can find players with a couple tools and the right mindset and get them to achieve, develop and get better,” another coach said. “If you look at all three jobs for him—Bryant has made theirs a nice facility since he got there—but he took over places that didn’t have a great commitment to baseball and won.”
Owens has won big over the years. Until the 2020 season, cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, his teams never finished with a losing record. But even at 6-9, this year’s Scarlet Knights were improved from last season. In 2019, Rutgers didn’t win its sixth game until March 26 and started 6-15.
Like Owens, Jarrett is also in his first year as a coach of a power conference program. After seven seasons as head coach at UNC Greensboro, where he, in successive seasons, led the Spartans to their first NCAA Tournament appearance and regular-season conference title in 20 years.
In the early going this spring, it looked like Jarrett was helping the Fighting Irish become one of the season’s best surprises. They were off to an 11-2 start and the weekend before play was halted, they swept North Carolina on the road to open ACC play.
He’s well-regarded for his offensive acumen and had successful stints as an assistant coach at Florida State, Mercer, Auburn and East Carolina before beginning his head coaching career.
“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s made a major impact,” one coach said. “When he was at UNCG, just watching them develop and what he did, especially from an offensive side, he makes guys better.
“He has a good demeanor with the players and is very knowledgeable from an offensive side.”
Notably, three of the top five vote getters coach in the Northeast. Not only are those schools on TV less often, they also face significant obstacles due to the weather and where the baseball recruiting hotbeds are located. But their peers are clearly taking note.
It’s also significant that only about a third of the 28 coaches who received multiple votes have taken a team to super regionals. Having that kind of season largely seems to lift a coach out of the underrated territory. But for some coaches, like Penders, even that isn’t enough.
The coaches on this list might be underrated today, but there’s no doubt they have the respect of their peers.