Building a program

Bulldog mentality

Move to Division 1 has come with lumps, but O’Shea has Bryant in fighting shape

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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One in an occasional series

SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Ron Machtley was sitting in the stands last winter watching the Bryant University men’s basketball team endure another loss in what would end up a woeful 1-29 season. Machtley was there as a fan and as a supportive arm for a program, like all varsity sports at Bryant, making the transition from Division 2 to Division 1 — a quantum leap in college athletics.

Sitting next to Machtley, Bryant’s president, was Beth O’Shea, the wife of basketball coach Tim O’Shea.

“We’re going to go to dinner after this,’’ Machtley told her. Knowing her husband’s mood as well as anyone, Beth O’Shea told Machtley that her husband would not be in a “dinner mode.’’

And when Machtley approached Tim O’Shea after the game, he received an initial rejection, the coach saying he needed to break down some film.

“Tim,’’ said Machtley with a smile. “I’ve seen the movie. I know the ending. We’re going to dinner.’’

Tom orrow afternoon at Conte Forum, Bryant will take on Boston College. The expected result is the Bulldogs’ ninth loss in 10 games this season. But for O’Shea, who played at BC and served as an assistant under former BC coach Al Skinner, the journey is more comfortable now. Progress is being made in small steps, including a Nov. 14 victory over Iona, regarded as an upper-tier team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And though O’Shea might see the same conclusion each game, there is increasingly less certainty of the outcome.

With a minute left against Harvard Nov. 24, Bryant held a 4-point lead. It lost by 3.

“A year ago, we were down by 29 in the first half [against Harvard],’’ said O’Shea, who came to Bryant from Ohio University three years ago. “So you can tell the difference. We’re making progress. It might not show in W’s and L’s, but we are.’’

O’Shea, who grew up in Wayland, did not come to Bryant for the money. In fact, he took a pay cut. He came for the challenge and for the quality of life. He also came knowing it will take time to become an even respectable program, which is why he asked for, and was given, an eight-year contract.

Machtley had to do that across the board four years ago when decision was made to move upward. Although Bryant thrived at the Division 2 level in almost all sports, the landscape of the Northeast-10 Conference was changing.

“There were a lot of issues swirling around,’’ said Machtley. “It looked like we might not have some of our traditional rivals such as Bentley, Stonehill, and Saint Michael’s. We explored dropping down to Division 3 or going to Division 1.’’

But in the spring of 2007, the NCAA was about to impose a four-year moratorium on switching divisions. Machtley, who became Bryant’s president in 1996, acted quickly, asking the NCAA if Bryant could get back the $15,000 fee for making the change if the school could not find a suitable conference.

The Northeast Conference said yes, agreeing to take Bryant and New Jersey Institute of Technology (starting 2012).

“I met with all of our coaches and said this was going to be a huge climb,’’ said Machtley. “I don’t want to do this unless you say you are ready. They all said sure, they were ready.’’

O’Shea was also ready to come back to New England after seven years at Ohio in the Mid-American Conference. He worked on Skinner’s staffs at BC and Rhode Island.

“This is like starting from scratch,’’ said O’Shea. “But I’m convinced we have a chance. I’m convinced by Year 4 or 5 and beyond we will be one of the teams competing for the conference tournament championship.’’

As a three-year transitional program, Bryant is not even eligible to win the NEC title yet. Starting next season it can compete in postseason play except for the NCAA Tournament, and in the winter of 2012-13 it will have full postseason eligibility.

O’Shea chose not to bring in a group of transfers who might provide quick victories, although he did entice one of his Ohio recruits, guard Frankie Dobbs, to join him in Smithfield.

“When I came here, I met President Machtley and I fell in love with the place,’’ said Dobbs, a redshirt sophomore. “But every day we are getting better, and by the time I’m a senior, I think we can have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, which is something that every kid that plays wants to do.’’

“Frankie is indicative of the kids we are getting,’’ said O’Shea. “I think he lost a total of four or five games when he was in high school, but when he came here he has had nothing but a great attitude, which is one of the fun parts of this job.

“As bad as last year was record-wise, we never had a kid quit, never had a kid late for practice, never had any problems. These kids were put in an unbelievable spot, but we just didn’t have enough talent. Now we are getting closer, step by step.’’

O’Shea has expanded his recruiting, finding prospects in places such as Senegal, Australia, and Israel.

“We’re not going to get the super blue-chip kids,’’ said O’Shea. “I’m just targeting kids who have the ability to play at this level. In the evaluation process you have to go out and find diamonds in the rough.’’

O’Shea talks about Michael Chroney, a 6-foot-2 inch walk-on from Nashua who was discovered while playing a pickup game against one of O’Shea’s assistants.

“I was just out playing one afternoon and after I was finished, this guy came up to me — he looked younger than some of the players — and said you should come out for the team,’’ said Chroney. “I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ ’’

A year later, Chroney was Bryant’s leading scorer in a 48-point loss at Indiana. “Just an experience I will never forget,’’ said Chroney.

Such games are part of the transition. So are missed opportunities, such as the 3-point loss to Harvard in which Bryant didn’t attempt a free throw.

“Not taking a foul shot in a home game? In the 27 years I have been a coach in the NCAA, that’s never happened in a game I’ve coached,’’ said O’Shea. “But we did have that game won.’’

O’Shea knows there are tougher times ahead — after their visit to Chestnut Hill, the Bulldogs head to Michigan. “But after that, we’re going to win some games,’’ said O’Shea. “I know we are 1-8, but it’s a different 1-8 than it was a year ago.

“I know we can make this work.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at