Chris Olean may have the toughest coaching job in NCAA Division III baseball this year.
Tough, that is, in terms of living up to expectations, and in rather short order. He was named the St. Thomas coach in early January, with the opening day of practice just three weeks off, and those practices were held at two other schools because of construction on the St. Thomas campus.
“Pressure?” Olean asked one afternoon as he watched the Tommies work out in the football field “bubble” at Concordia University. “Let’s see. We won a national title last year, I’m succeeding a legend and we’re rated pre-season No. 1 in the country. What pressure?”
He laughed. It’s good that Olean has a sense of humor. It’s also good that he is a baseball veteran: A St. Thomas Hall of Fame pitcher who played two years in the minor leagues, coached the Tommie pitchers the last nine seasons and coached a state champion amateur team.
In other words, he has experience. So when Dennis Denning surprised the baseball world in December and announced his retirement after 15 years as coach and two national titles, Olean knew he wanted the job as interim coach for this season. He quit his regular job even though there was no guarantee he would be hired as the permanent coach for 2011.
“When the chance came up, I had to take it or move on,” he said. “It was that simple.”
Olean has made a strong impression two months into the job. The Tommies have roared to an 11-1 record and are d3baseball.com’s unanimous choice as the No. 1 team in the country. That one loss – 5-4 to the Minnesota Gophers in 12 innings – still grates on Olean.
“We had that game won,” he said one Saturday morning in his office as he waited for a high school recruit to stop by for a visit. “I went home that night and never went to bed. I just kept playing the game over and over in my head. We should have won!”
The comment reflected what teammates, coaches and players have long known about Olean. He’s incredibly competitive and he doesn’t like to lose.
He grew up in Minneapolis and played baseball and hockey at Washburn High School, where he led the state in homeruns his senior year. He recalls the Twin Cities title game, when he hit a three-run homer and closed the win for his Millers over undefeated Cretin-Derham Hall. He believes that was the first time that Denning, in his first year at St. Thomas, saw him play.
Olean was prepared to go to the University of Minnesota, but a scholarship offer was pulled and he was told he’d have to take his chances as a walk-on player. That didn’t sit well with him, and after talking to Denning at a summer all-star tournament, he decided to enroll at St. Thomas.
He had a 24-8 record and a school-record 246 strikeouts during his career and won All-American honors as a senior, when he had a 0.60 ERA and lost the national title game 1-0. Teammate Jake Mauer '01, now manager of the Minnesota Twins' minor league team in Fort Myers, Fla., remembers Olean as "mentally tough and a quiet leader. When he was out there with the ball, his confidence permeated through the entire team."
The Brewers drafted Olean in the 17th round and he spent the summer playing rookie league baseball in Ogden, Utah, and Helena, Mont. He worked both as a starter and reliever and finished the season with a 6-1 record and five saves. He played Class A baseball the following year with Beloit and counted a one-hitter among his wins. But he wasn’t happy alternating as a starter and a closer, he told the Brewers so at the All-Star break. When they couldn’t promise him a definitive role, he quit and came home.
“I loved the competition and the games,” he said, “but I didn’t like the lifestyle and the politics. I just didn’t want to be part of it anymore.”
Olean worked in sales and marketing for a sports apparel company, and the following winter he joined Denning’s staff as a part-time pitching coach. The Tommies won the Division III championship that year, and Olean remained in the position for eight more seasons, including the 2009 national title. He held down full-time jobs and spent summers playing for amateur teams that won or finished second in several state tournaments.
He pitched for the Miesville Mudhens in 2005, became their manager the following year and won the state Class B title in 2007. It was an invaluable period.
“I wanted to gain that head coaching experience,” he said, “and I did everything else, too: fund-raising, concessions, field management, scheduling, the works. It was great experience managing people and communicating with volunteers.”
Thus, Olean felt he was ready when the St. Thomas job came open even though he faced a significant personal challenge. His wife Shannon, a St. Thomas alumna and a probation officer for Dakota County, had surgery for thyroid cancer last year, subsequently underwent radiation therapy and would need to undergo surgery again in February.
“There was a lot of heavy stuff going on – quitting my job, cancer, a career change,” he said. “We talked about it and thought, ‘What do we have to lose?’ She told me, ‘This is what you want, so do it.’ She was 100 percent behind it. … And she told me that if I didn’t take the job she wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of months.”
Olean’s first move was to hire his coaching staff. He brought in new assistant coaches Matt Vanderbosch, a Miesville teammate and former Minor League Player of the Year for the Boston Red Sox, and 1999 Tommie teammates Matt Faulken and Ray Noble.
“I needed good character guys who would be positive influences on the kids,” Olean said. “Their experience was important – it gave them instant credibility with the players. Matt and Ray being alumni is important, too. They have a passion for St. Thomas baseball.”
Olean wondered if it would be hard to win over the returning veterans, but he discovered early that “they’re responding well – to what we’re teaching them and to me.” He knew how much they liked Denning, and he respected that because of what Denning had done for him.
“I learned a ton from being around Dennis,” Olean said. “He was always coaching and always teaching. He let me do my own thing with the pitchers; he let me have the freedom. He might have been a little nervous doing that at the beginning, but he let me go.
“He was the best in-game tactician I’ve seen. I’d look up and think, ‘Why the hell is he doing that?’ But it worked – over and over again.”
Olean is making things work, too. Baseball observers knew the Tommies would be good this year, thanks to 19 returning players, but the 11-1 (almost 12-0!) start has turned a few heads. He likes the top spot. And he likes winning.
“The first thing I told the players was, ‘The day after you won the national championship, you no longer were national champs.’ You’re a new team and you have to do it all over again. You have to earn that No. 1 national ranking every time you go out there.”
So far, they have done just exactly that, and the man who may have the toughest coaching job in Division III baseball is proud of them.