Southern Miss and Rice have been the two powerhouses in Conference USA. Out of the last 12 years, 10 of the Conference USA tournament titles have gone between Southern Miss and Rice.
The one difference this season is that for the first time in 29 years, Rice will no longer have legendary head coach Wayne Graham leading the program. In June 2018, Rice decided to part ways with its coach and hired Matt Bragga from Tennessee Tech.
In Graham’s tenure, he turned Rice into a college baseball powerhouse, guiding the team to 27 NCAA regional appearances, 11 super regionals, seven College World Series trips and one national championship, just to name a few of his remarkable accolades. For Bragga or any coach for that matter, Graham’s is a giant shadow to be stepping into.
However, Graham and Bragga share some similarities. Bragga recently guided Tennessee Tech to a 52-10 record and the NCAA Austin Super Regional in 2018, where his Golden Eagles were one win away from a trip to the College World Series before being knocked out by Texas. Like Graham, Bragga built and turned Tennessee Tech into a respectable baseball program for 15 seasons. He took the school to its first-ever NCAA regional and brought the school to its first ever 40-plus-win season, where he had four in total. The team’s super regional appearance last season was also the first ever for the Ohio Valley Conference.
For the context of his program’s turn around, in his first season with the program, the team won just 15 games and then 13 the next year. Unlike most coaches today, Bragga took the more traditional route of moving up, compared to most coaches and players who typically leave in two or three years. An example would be Texas, where coach David Pierce used Tulane as the quick stepping stone for two seasons before he landed his job at Texas.
But without question, Bragga’s ability to turn a small and historically unsuccessful program into a winning program is a remarkable feat. Just last season, Bragga had eight of his Tennessee Tech players drafted with two more signing as undrafted free agents.
The key to Bragga’s success is his ability as a motivator. Bragga developed a culture that had always expected to win as described by former third baseman Trevor Putzig.
“The mental part of the game was pretty awesome,” Putzig, who was drafted in the 17th round by the Baltimore Orioles, said. “I don’t think anybody has a real important understanding, especially at a school like Tennessee Tech, you have to have the approach that you aren’t scared to play anybody. It’s what he ingrained in us and pushed through us. He was a really good motivator. We showed up to every game, and we expected to win.”
That mentality eventually proved to be critical for Putzig and Tennessee Tech in the Oxford Regional. Putzig was dealing with a hamstring injury and after going 0-for-2 and then 2-for-5 in the first two games of the regional. In the upcoming doubleheader against Ole Miss, Putzig worried if trying to play through his injury would cause more harm to his team than him not playing.
“The first time against Ole Miss in the regional, we lost 9-8, and if I wasn’t hurt, we would’ve won because I couldn’t run around the bases,” Putzig said. “Long story short, I wouldn’t have been able to gain an extra base and score and stuff like that. The next day, I talked to Coach and said, ‘Coach I don’t know if I should be playing. I don’t want to hurt the team.’ He said, ‘I could care less if you have a broken leg. If you can play, you’ll be playing. That’s how much I trust you and believe in you. Take your head up. We’re going to win two games today.’”
Putzig hit a pair of RBIs in Tennessee Tech’s 15-5 rout against Ole Miss, and in the second game, Putzig hit the game-tying two-run home run that staged the Golden Eagles’ 3-2 comeback win.
Another similar instance occurred with pitcher Travis Moths, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but like Putzig, the team’s culture of competitiveness and mental toughness showed.
“If you threw a bullpen, you are always up against somebody. There was always a winner and loser,” Moths said. “Every day he built that mentality into you that you wanted to win. He established the importance of getting better every day.”
Moths had been the Friday starter for the team and started the first game of the regional against Missouri State, where he threw 5.2 innings and struck out eight batters. However, the team’s culture glared in him.
“I started that first game against Missouri State,” Moths said. “I came back after a day’s rest and threw in both games against Ole Miss in relief. I told him I wanted to pitch and that I wanted the ball.”
In his two situational appearances, he threw a strikeout in the first game and came in another situation, where he threw two more strikeouts that got Tennessee Tech out of critical situations.
Despite bringing that energy to Rice, Bragga and Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry faced off against each other in 2009.
“I think the last time we played one of his teams was in 2009, which was the last regular season series of the year we went to Omaha,” Berry said. “It was our bye week, and he was at Tennessee Tech at the time, and they came down and played us.”
In that series, Southern Miss took two of those three games against Tennessee Tech, winning 10-2 on Friday and 7-2 on Sunday but losing the Saturday game 7-1.
“He’ll bring a new energy to Rice no doubt. I think those guys will be responding to his energy and his staff, so look for Rice to really move back up,” Berry said. “You know for years and years, they’ve been very consistent the last couple years they kind of dropped off. Matt’s going to bring a whole new energy to that program.”
Overall, Bragga’s ability to motivate and place a large amount of trust in his players is what drove his players to want to play for him.
“The best thing I can say about Bragga is he is one of those coaches you would run through a brick wall for because know he always will have your back and be there for you when you need him,” Moths said.