When casual fans think of big-time baseball programs, they tend to forget about the little university located in the northeast corner of Connecticut, but for years, UConn head coach Jim Penders has been transforming athletes into major league prospects who are truly worth people’s attention.
In 2011, 10 Huskies were selected in the MLB draft, including three in the top 85, with Houston Astros All-Star George Springer taken at 11.
“What I think makes UConn impressive is that they can identify the guys that aren’t looked at as elite-level guys coming out of high school and then develop them into top-two round talent (in the MLB draft) while they’re in college,” Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill said. “And I think that culture helps it recruit, because they can point to all these success stories where they helped players get better.“
Penders looks for recruits who played multiple sports in high school and athletes who would fit in with the team’s personality.
“I look for guys who have filthy uniforms but don’t put eye black on in the mirror,” Penders said. “(Who don’t) wear multiple pieces of what I call chrome, like three EvoShields on an elbow, foot and forearm. One of my assistant coaches calls that jackass-identification devices.”
Penders’ track record as the Huskies’ manager speaks for itself. Since 2010, the UConn alum led his team to four NCAA tournaments, a Super Regional appearance in 2011, a Big East and American conference tournament championship. Through his 15 seasons of coaching, he is ranked second all-time among all UConn baseball coaches for most wins.
A big part of his success has come from his ability to recruit quality talent to the university without offering any player a full scholarship. Instead, he allows each player to earn a full scholarship over their time in Storrs. It is a process that Penders said he learned from former Washington State head coach Bobo Brayton. The legendary coach told Penders that recruiting is just like shaving because you have to do it everyday, otherwise you look like a bum. Penders is certainly not a bum.
While Penders has had many major leaguers under his wing at UConn, none have been more successful than reigning World Series MVP George Springer. His coach at Avon Old Farms High School, Rob Dowling, said that Penders’ interest in the character of Springer was unique.
“A lot of college coaches look at just athletic skills and Jim does not,” Dowling said. “Jim is certainly aware of the athletic skills but is really interested in the personality of the people he has in his program, their competitiveness and their approach. George fit that perfectly.”
Dowling said that, during the recruiting process, Penders would ask him how Springer interacted with his teammates, coaches and family. For Penders, he is just shocked that more coaches do not ask those same questions.
“We are spending a lot of time and a lot of days away from home with these guys,” Penders said. “If I don’t want to spend time with them on a bus or airplane or in a dugout, why would I recruit them?”
Penders said that when he was recruiting an All-American who he was extremely high on, he saw the player do something that rubbed him the wrong way. The recruit cussed at his mother while asking her for a Gatorade. It was at that moment Penders knew he would not be a fit in his program. The skipper was just glad he realized it early on in the process.
“They have to know my expectations,” Penders said. “They have to know the standards that the program has. Within minutes of meeting with every recruit and their family, I start talking to them about why I coach and also the four pillars of our program—the things that are non-negotiable. Those are about graduation, championships, making better leaders and giving back.”
By nailing down this process, Penders has created terrific chemistry within the team.
Former Husky and current Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes said that the team’s family-feel was a big reason for coming to UConn.
“To be able to represent the state of Connecticut was a big draw,” the Danbury native said. “Coach Penders always talked about the program being bigger than us and to go out on the field and wear Connecticut across the chest is something I will never forget.”
Ray Turek, who coached Barnes at Bethel High School for baseball and basketball, said that UConn’s coaching staff helped Barnes to reach his full potential by instituting rigorous throwing and weight programs.
Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed said that his time as a Husky helped him grow.
“Attending the University of Connecticut was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Ahmed said. “The blue collar mentality was something that helped me excel not only at the collegiate level but ultimately as I made the climb up to the big leagues. I owe a lot of my success to those three years in Storrs.”
As for how UConn has been able to have success on the diamond, Penders said it is because the team buys into the message.
“If everybody has the same pillars and the same goals in mind, then it is a much easier task,” Penders said. “If we know the destination, our guys are going to go the most direct route.”
Michael Logan is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.