When Tim O'Shea unexpectedly resigned as head coach at Ohio in spring 2008 to accept the same job at little-known Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., many of his colleagues told him he was out of his mind.
The school he was leaving played in a 13,000-seat arena, boasted an ample budget and won 20 or more games each of his last four seasons. The school he was going to played in a sparsely filled 2,700-seat gym, payed him a fraction of his former salary and wouldn't be eligible for the postseason until it completed the transition from Division II to Division I in the fifth year of his tenure.
O'Shea accepted the low-profile gig because he had a yearning to move back to New England, where he'd be able to move into his Rhode Island summer home, be closer to his aging parents and send his daughter to better schools. Nonetheless, doubt occasionally crept into his mind once he realized the Division II-caliber roster he inherited at Bryant was more overmatched in Division I than he expected.
The starting point guard O'Shea's first two seasons enrolled only after being cut by Rhode Island as a freshman. Another starter O'Shea's second season was a walk-on plucked from the intramural courts by a keen-eyed assistant coach. And most of the big men on those teams were either raw, undersized or both.
"When I took the job, I don't know if I really knew what I was getting into," O'Shea said. "They were really good kids and they played hard, but I quickly found out the talent gap between Division II and Division I was enormous. Every night was like the JV versus the varsity."
The futility O'Shea endured early in his tenure at Bryant only makes this year's unlikely 13-4 start all the more satisfying.
In O'Shea's first four woebegone seasons, the Bulldogs averaged almost 25 losses per year and amassed a 1-29 record in year two and a 2-28 mark in year four. They've gone from Northeast Conference punchline to powerhouse in year five, however, reeling off six straight wins to start conference play thanks to an influx of new talent, the maturation of returning players and some long-overdue good fortune.
"We feel extreme gratitude things have turned and we're enjoying some success now," O'Shea said. "This was a big year because you only have so much credibility as a coach. Even though I had a good record at Ohio and a good reputation, you can only sustain so much losing. I use the analogy of a gas tank. I'm not sure I was on empty but I feel like I was running on fumes."
How did Bryant beat New England flagship program Boston College and Patriot League power Lehigh in non-league play? Why are the Bulldogs two or more games ahead of every NEC rival one-third of the way through the conference season?
Maybe it's because O'Shea had enough faith in himself not to deviate from his five-year plan even when all signs suggested it was destined to fail.
Since the 2012-13 season is Bryant's first in which it is NCAA tournament-eligible, O'Shea made it clear from his job interview on that his goal was to have the Bulldogs in contention by then.
He recruited with the idea of having a talented, experienced roster in place this season. He scheduled an exhibition tour of Italy for last August to provide the team the springboard it needed to build confidence and chemistry entering the pivotal season. And he insisted the team make its preseason goal an NEC title even though Bryant was coming off a 28-loss season in which it finished 340th out of 344 teams in the RPI.
Despite his fiercely optimistic public stance, there were times O'Shea privately feared he'd never meet his own time-table.
Recruiting was challenging since O'Shea had to overcome a double whammy: Few prospects knew where Bryant was or that it was now Division I and those who did were typically reticent to play for a school ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Even O'Shea's own nephew showed little interest in playing for his uncle out of high school, only transferring to Bryant last year when he didn't receive the minutes he expected at Holy Cross.
"He wouldn't give us the time of day or any consideration because we weren't eligible for the postseason," O'Shea said with a chuckle. "Recruiting was very difficult in the early years."
Well aware that enticing New England's most coveted prospects to come to Bryant would be difficult, O'Shea focused his recruiting strategy on transfers, foreign players and the occasional overlooked high school standout.
The first hint of progress came one year into O'Shea's tenure when he persuaded Frankie Dobbs to transfer to Bryant. Dobbs, O'Shea's final recruit at Ohio, couldn't beat out D.J. Cooper for a starting spot with the Bobcats, but he has become a three-year mainstay at point guard for the Bulldogs.
"I had confidence in Coach O'Shea," Dobbs said. "I've had that since he recruited me at Ohio. I knew it would be hard at first, but I felt like this was a place that was up and coming. Coach O'Shea was familiar with my game and I knew he'd be a good fit for me."
Subsequent recruiting coups came sporadically for O'Shea and his staff the next few years.
They plucked 2011 NEC freshman of the year Alex Francis from a New Hampshire prep school, sweating it out during the final weeks of the 6-foot-6 forward's recruitment in hopes a more high-profile program wouldn't swoop in and steal him. They landed versatile guard Corey Maynard from Australia in the same class. And they nabbed this year's leading scorer, Dyami, Starks, a year later, wooing the sweet-shooting former Mr. Minnesota basketball finalist after he left Columbia following his freshman season because of playing time issues.
Although Dobbs, Francis and a partial season from Maynard couldn't spark a turnaround last year, O'Shea felt cautiously optimistic the addition of Sparks and a handful of other newcomers would provide the depth Bryant previously lacked. The faith of O'Shea and his players was tested immediately, however, as the Bulldogs dropped their opening two games of the 2012-13 season at Indiana and Providence by a combined 76 points.
"There was a lot of discouragement after the Providence game," Dobbs said. "It was like, 'Here we go again. We've been through this before.' But we kept our head, we worked hard and we recovered."
The turnaround started with back-to-back wins over New Hampshire and Brown, but what really got the Bulldogs to believe in themselves was a 56-54 victory at Boston College on Nov. 25. From there Bryant has played with unusual confidence for a program unaccustomed to success, toppling Lehigh last month despite 34 points from C.J. McCollum and earning victories over league contenders Robert Morris and Wagner so far in NEC play.
An unselfish team that has dished out more assists than anyone else in its league, Bryant wins not with size or athleticism but chemistry and basketball IQ. The trio of Starks, Francis and Dobbs combines for 48.2 points per game and the rest of the rotation has accepted complementary roles.
As O'Shea looks back on the challenges of turning Bryant into a winner, a rush of thoughts enter his mind.
He is grateful Francis didn't transfer when well-known schools would have gladly taken him after his standout freshman season. He's thankful Dobbs and Starks shared in his vision for a program that wasn't yet competitive at the time they agreed to come on board. And most of all, he's elated that five years ago he came to Bryant, taking a gamble that few others in his position would have considered.
"I knew it was a high-risk proposition," O'Shea said. "I thought I had at best a 50-50 shot to turn the corner."
For four years, it still looked iffy. Now it's finally on the verge of happening.
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