The Sideline: After all these years, Paul Stevens is still scrapping

May 13, 2014


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern coach Paul Stevens is nothing if not intense, but former players say he has mellowed over the years. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not right,” he said.

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

For once, Paul Stevens doesn’t quite know what to say.

Usually brash and decisive, Northwestern’s baseball coach stumbles for a response to a damning allegation from former players: They think he has mellowed.

Mellowed? Stevens? The guy who’s spent 27 years yelling at players until his throat hurts? The guy everyone describes as “passionate,” “intense” and “fiery?” The guy whose bellowing voice echoes into the next county?

“I don’t know,” Stevens said after a pause. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not right. I may tend to agree with them a little bit, but at the end of the day, maybe things change a little bit, and you have to change with things.”

If Stevens’ win-or-die attitude has softened over the years, it’s hard to blame him. It’s possible the monotony of nearly three decades at one job has taken its toll.

He recruits and fundraises, analyzes scouting reports and monitors player grades, throws batting practice and coaches the bases. Day after day, year after year.

How much longer can he do it?

“I don’t think about that,” Stevens said. “It’s like a baseball game. You’ve got to take one pitch, one hitter, one inning, one game at a time. Right now I’m concentrating on today, and then I’ll worry about the weekend. When there’s a plan for me to do something else, I’ll do that.”

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In many ways, Stevens personifies the baseball-coach cliche.

He struts about in sneakers and athletic shorts, a windbreaker over his portly frame and a ball cap, of course, concealing a thinning head of hair.

With that booming voice and ship captain’s bravado, he leaves no question who’s the boss.

“He’s got the loudest voice I think I’ve ever heard,” former Wildcats pitcher Brad Niedermaier said. “And his voice just commands attention. He can be on the other side of the field, and you would hear it and just know that’s the guy in charge.”

Stevens is fond of axioms about grit and hard work and loves a good, sometimes mixed, metaphor. The pitcher rubs his lamp to make magic. The changeup hits a wall and drops off the table. The season is a flowing river building momentum down a mountain.

As far as wit goes, Stevens is Casey Stengel on a good day, Yogi Berra on a bad one.

Everyone is Stevens’ favorite player, and they all deserve superlatives. Even when forced to acknowledge a hitter’s slump, Stevens qualifies that the guy plays great defense, works extremely hard and “competes” every day.

More often than not, to hear Stevens tell it, it’s not a pitcher’s curveball that gets batters out so much as his “intestinal fortitude.”

Former players say Stevens’ message is consistent: That they played well was important, but that they played their hardest was paramount. It’s a familiar sentiment of coachspeak but one Stevens believes with six decades’ worth of scrappy fervor.

After graduating Luther South High School in 1972, the Chicago native committed to the University of South Alabama to play for former Major League all-star Eddie Stanky. But two years into Stevens’ college career, his father grew sick, and he transferred to Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, to be closer to home.

At Lewis, Stevens was coached by the legendary Gordie Gillespie, who until seven weeks ago held the record for most wins in college baseball history. Gillespie’s impact on Stevens was indelible.

“Gordie Gillespie was one of the greatest men I’ve ever been around,” he said. “And what a tremendous coach. His winning percentage was ridiculous, and what he taught us about doing things the right way is still something that I resort back to. He was a special man, and I was very, very blessed for him to allow me to go to Lewis University.”

After graduating college, Stevens was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 16th round of the 1976 Major League Baseball draft. In many ways, he embodied the average minor leaguer, suitcase always packed, spending five seasons in two organizations, playing for eight teams in six leagues across five levels.

For his career, Stevens hit .259 and stole 79 bases while playing solid defense wherever he was needed, most often in the middle infield.

By all accounts, including his own, the switch hitter lacked exceptional natural talent. Generously listed at 5-foot-11, Stevens hit only six home runs in more than 1,500 minor-league plate appearances, and 237 of his 304 career hits were singles.

To make up for physical deficiencies, he worked as hard he could off the field and played as hard as he could on it.

“He was the player that on the other team you would hate and on your team you would love,” said longtime NU assistant coach Tim Stoddard, who grew up near Stevens and played against him in college summer leagues. “He played the game extremely hard, not dirty in any sense, but he played as hard as you could. He was what you would call a gamer.”

More than anything, Stevens found success by focusing on one skill outside the purview of traditional baseball talents: drawing walks.

Stevens reached base at a rate that would make Barry Bonds proud, posting a .424 career on-base percentage, impressive at any level. His best year was 1978, when he averaged more than a walk a game at low-A Grays Harbor, finishing with a remarkable .517 on-base percentage.

He figured getting on base by any possible means — using that innate scrappiness to his advantage — would help his team and advance his career. In another time, he would’ve been right.

But in the ‘70s, on-base percentage wasn’t quite mainstream, and most talent evaluators looked first to batting average. Stevens said he was often told, “You can’t walk to the big leagues.”

As it was, Stevens topped out with eight games at the AAA level. He admitted that had he been born 25 years later and played in the post-“Moneyball” era, in which walks are widely appreciated and rewarded, his career could have been different.

Decades removed, Stevens’ feelings toward his near-miss playing days and ahead-of-his-time skill set remain complicated. On one hand, he’s bothered to have fallen short of his Major League goal. On the other, he’s a big believer that everything happens for a reason.

“There’s always a reason why,” he said. “Maybe if I didn’t get to those scenarios, I wouldn’t have ever gotten the opportunity to come (to NU) and experience the things I’ve been able to experience, to be as fortunate as I believe I am.”

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Stevens was hired as an assistant coach at NU before the 1985 season and promoted to head coach in October 1987, just before his 34th birthday. Only a few years removed from professional ball, he remained as good a player as any on his early teams — and at least as intense a competitor.

One practice in 1993, Cats ace Chad Schroeder was pitching to Stevens as part of a drill in which the coach would pepper balls to the defense and punish hypothetical runs with pole-to-pole sprints. With the bases loaded and a full count, Stevens reached his bat back and slapped the catcher’s glove for a run-scoring catcher’s interference.

“That was a microcosm of who he was,” Schroeder said. “We were geared up ready for the play, and he just went and did that. And we’re like, it’s unbelievable. The lesson that he probably taught us was there’s more than one way to get on base, but the real lesson is that he’s just a scrapper.”

In those days, former players say, Stevens was as “fiery” and “intense” as they come.

Mark Loretta — who played four years at NU in the early 1990s before enjoying a 15-year Major League career — says Stevens was a “pretty strict disciplinarian,” citing the coach’s disgust after one particular road trip.

“We get off the bus in the middle of the night, and he goes, ‘We’re having practice right now,’” Loretta recalls. “It was like 2 o’clock in the morning. And (afterward) he goes, ‘Be back here at 8 o’clock.’ We proceeded to have four practices in one day the next day.”

Today, Stevens emphasizes the importance of graduating players, turning them into men and preparing them for life after baseball and other talking points all college coaches trumpet but only some follow through on.

Last week, the baseball team was one of 12 NU programs to earn a Public Recognition Award for its Academic Progress Rate. Stevens’ teams have earned the distinction — given to programs with APR scores in the top 10 percent of their sport nationally — in six of the 10 years the measure has existed.

But Loretta says when Stevens began at NU, his mindset was different.

“When he first was coaching, he was probably more shortsighted in terms of learning about baseball and wins and losses,” Loretta said. “He learned over the time that he could really have a big impact on the lives of kids at that age. I think at first he didn’t realize that as much, but now he realizes that’s a formative time of life for these guys, and he can make a real positive impact on them.”

Senior pitcher Jack Quigley hears the murmurs of Stevens’ gradual mellowing but isn’t fully convinced.

“Sometimes that’s hard to believe,” Quigley said. “There’s no doubt there are times he can be as intense as anybody I’ve ever met. If they say it’s true, maybe it is, but while we’re sitting in the dugout it certainly feels like he’s as intense as it gets.”

Quigley offers an anecdote to prove his coach’s spirit hasn’t gone extinct:

“My freshman year, I was pitching here, and I wasn’t throwing strikes,” he recalls. “And coach Stevens ran out to the mound — I don’t even think he called ‘time’ — and he got in my face and yelled at me so loudly to trust myself and throw strikes that I think everybody in the entire stadium heard every word he was saying.”

When Stevens gets on his players, it’s not just about baseball, it’s about their post-baseball futures. With pride, he lists program graduates who have become bankers, lawyers, businessmen, even Marines, not taking credit for their successes but drawing a connection between his hardline discipline and what they’ve gone on to.

Stevens admits he doesn’t get along with every player to come through, in part because he hates to see someone fail to live up to his potential for lack of effort.

“He expects a lot out of you when you come in, and he’s hard on you. But he expects you to do things because he believes in you as a player,” said Jon Mikrut, who played for Stevens from 2002-05 and is now an NU assistant coach. “He cares about the players 100 percent on and off the field. He wants you to be successful baseball-wise, but more importantly he wants you to come out of here graduating with a degree. And he’ll do anything for our guys to make sure they’ve done that.”

Former first baseman Patrick Thompson remembers a time in the late 1990s when Stevens gave everyone on the team a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” with personalized notes penned inside. Through rhyme, the book suggests readers embrace their future, uncertainty and all, while mindful that success is, at best, “98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.”

“Now I have kids, and we read that book to our kids. And the book that he gave us had such foresight in terms of life,” Thompson said. “It goes to him caring about us, having a big picture view of life beyond Northwestern baseball and trying to help instill in us a drive to do great things but send us off with a realistic view that life will never be easy. There’s going to be bumps along the way, but the places that we can go because of the foundation that we have in place and the opportunity that we had to play ball at Northwestern.”

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When it comes to Stevens’ heart, every former player has a story, an uncanny number of them regarding the death of fathers.

When infielder Chris Beacom’s dad Terry, a former NU coach, died several years after Chris had graduated, Stevens was one of the first to visit the family’s home.

When outfielder Jason Anderson’s dad died, Stevens escorted the player home to Rockford, Illinois, two hours away.

When just-graduated infielder Chris Pedersen’s dad died around Thanksgiving in 1998, Stevens drove to Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend the funeral.

Perhaps Stevens reacts so supportively to players’ paternal tragedies because of his own experience with father-son relationships.

When Stevens transferred back home midway through college, his father — also named Paul — wasn’t happy. The elder Stevens feared his son was sacrificing a promising baseball career on his account. Forty years later, the younger Stevens can hardly hold himself together recounting the situation.

“That brings back some pretty hard conversations,” he said, eyes welling. “You can just see how a father’s love for you surpasses anything else that’s out there. My parents were pretty special. But a lot of people’s are.”

Today, Stevens and his wife, Kenan, have three children, Kara, Cody and Trevor, the latter two of whom joined their father in NU’s baseball program. Trevor graduated in 2013 after starting for four seasons and now plays in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system. Cody is a junior and the team’s starting shortstop.

Stevens says coaching his sons has been as rewarding as it has difficult, but he’s glad to have provided Cody and Trevor the chance to attend NU and reap its benefits. And, more selfishly, he appreciates all the time spent with them, on and off the diamond.

“There are a lot of (coaches) who don’t get to watch their sons play,” Stevens said. “I’m very fortunate they’ve been along for the ride.”

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On the field, Stevens’ tenure as Cats head coach has been relatively successful, but not unequivocally so.

He has been Big Ten Coach of the Year three times — in 1991, 1995 and 2006 — each time after leading NU to the top echelon, but not the pinnacle, of the Big Ten. In Stevens’ 27 years, his teams have finished in the top three of the conference four times but never won the regular season or tournament titles.

Stevens has coached and won far more games than anyone else in program history but compiled only a lukewarm .450 winning percentage.

NU’s financial and structural disadvantages relative to their Big Ten counterparts surely contribute to the program’s muted success. With about 600 seats, Evanston’s Rocky Miller Park is by far the smallest stadium in the conference, and the Cats’ practice facilities don’t measure up to powerhouses like Nebraska or Indiana.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s weather makes recruiting and preparation difficult when competing with more mild-wintered conference rivals and impossible when up against southern schools.

For these reasons and more, NU has finished in first place just once — in 1957 — in more than a century of Big Ten baseball.

But other NU athletic programs have overcome similar disadvantages to become at least consistent conference contenders. That the baseball team hasn’t gotten there eats at Stevens. Until the Cats win a Big Ten title, Stevens’ tenure will — like his playing career — include an element of near-miss.

“We bust our tails with what we have to deal with,” he said. “The only thing I can keep moving forward on is, we’ll keep trying. One of these years, we won’t get hit with this, that and the other, and we’ll find a way to do it. At the end of the day, you always want to do that.”

2014 has been a particularly tough season for NU.

The Cats lost five of their best players in 2013 to graduation, then saw their returning star, Kyle Ruchim, forced to undergo season-ending arm surgery. The team started the year losing 22 of its first 26 and currently stands 17-32, with a 5-15 conference record that has it near the bottom of the conference standings.

After wins, Stevens bounds around the field, smiling and cracking jokes. After losses, he camps in the dugout to quietly gather his thoughts. At first, he seems solemn, even pained. But inevitably, that disappointment bleeds into optimism.

Forget about today. The win streak starts tomorrow.

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Twenty-seven years is an awfully long time to hold any job, especially in sports. At NU, only fencing coach Laurie Schiller has manned his position longer, and among baseball coaches, Stevens is second in the Big Ten and tied for 11th in Division I in longevity.

Few show up to their first day of work imagining repeating the routine for three decades.

And yet Stevens considers himself lucky to have stuck in Evanston so long. Growing up on the South Side, he said, the school had a special air about it, and he hasn’t stopped admiring what he thinks the University stands for.

“I felt special being asked to come here as an assistant,” he said, lowering his voice to a forceful whisper. “And that really hasn’t changed much because what I have seen this University create for the people that go through their athletic program, the academic programs. Whether you’re in one area of this University or another, this University creates an atmosphere for all of (the students) to be successful, for all of them to do something extraordinary.”

Still, Stevens is 60 years old and for 27 years has handled administrative minutiae all morning so he could stand in a dirty dugout all afternoon.

The question is valid: Will he call it quits any time soon?

Then again, he works a dream job at a place he loves, where he mentors young men he considers sons. Plus, scrappers don’t quit. They persist until they can’t anymore, until someone drags them away.

Hours have passed since Stevens’ non-committal response about his future, and in that time the coach has gained some clarity. Now, standing along the first-base line at Rocky Miller Park after a Cats victory, he points to the ground and smiles.

“They’ll bury me here,” he said.

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