Canzano: Oregon State bets on Trent Bray
Behind-the-scenes story of the hire.
An elected official in the state of Washington reached out to me early in the college football season with a tip.
“You should do a column about Trent Bray growing up in Pullman,” Mike Baumgartner, the Spokane County treasurer, wrote.
Bray will be introduced as the head football coach at Oregon State in a news conference on Wednesday at 2 p.m. The Beavers hired a search firm on Sunday and performed a ‘speed-dating’ interview process on Monday, rifling through seven candidates via Zoom before handing the keys to Bray.
That Bray ended up with the job was not a shock. Athletic director Scott Barnes was boxed into a corner by donors, alumni, current players and unfortunate circumstances. Oregon State has no conference affiliation beyond next July, no television contract, it remains jammed up in a lawsuit against the Pac-12, and hasn’t released a 2024 football schedule.
There’s a tsunami of uncertainty in Corvallis. Given mounting pressure with the transfer portal (Dec. 4) opening, the risk of alienating donors and losing players wasn’t a risk Barnes was willing to take.
As one source told me on Monday: “It’s Bray — Barnes really has no choice.”
Bray must have looked like a lifeboat amid the choppy seas.
Barnes climbed aboard.
I’ve been thinking about that tip from Baumgartner. Prior to becoming treasurer, he worked as a Washington state senator who served as a State Department Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the Iraq surge.
His focus was counterinsurgency.
Baumgartner also happened to be very close friends with the late Mike Leach. I can imagine those two had some interesting conversations. Leach, who had a law degree, loved to talk about anything but football. In fact, in the spring of 2022 at Mississippi State, Baumgartner and Leach co-taught a class on insurgent warfare and football strategy. It was billed as a discussion about “the similarities between good football and warfare.”
Baumgartner told me months ago that I needed to pay closer attention to Bray. OSU’s defensive coordinator had grown up in Pullman alongside Baumgartner’s little brother. The lawmaker told me that Bray was “exceptionally tough, but had almost no athletic ability.”
That surprised me. I watched Bray on the field as a player under Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley. He started 33 consecutive games at OSU, was named team co-captain and made first-team All-Pac-10 one season. He made lots of plays.
“Normally Division-I linebackers are phenomenal athletes,” Baumgartner explained, “but Trent might be the best football player relative to athletic ability in the game’s history. He could barely touch the rim.”
I talked about hitting with Hall of Fame player Tony Gwynn years ago. He was blessed with tremendous vision and outstanding hand-eye coordination. But Gwynn was also a maniacal student of the game. He knew what his batting averages were in certain pitch counts, what pitches he hit best, and what zone he wanted the ball in. He was in a constant struggle against his limitations, even if his ceiling was sky-high compared to the average human with a wood bat in his hands.
Because of that, Gwynn could teach hitting to others.
Some other gifted MLB hitters I’ve spoken with — Bill Madlock comes to mind — have told me that they weren’t even thinking at the plate. Madlock, a career .305 hitter, wasn’t sitting on a curve ball or a fastball. He wasn’t plotting to put the pitcher in an unfavorable count. Madlock just stepped into the batter’s box in a gentle trance, swung at anything he liked, and won four batting titles.
You can’t teach that.
Bray can really teach the game, ex-Oregon State players tell me. Maybe because he had to know it well to be successful as a player himself. Or maybe because his father, Craig, was a very good college coach himself.
Craig Bray coached at Miami, Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State, among other places. I asked Trent Bray last spring about his father’s influence. He said that observing his dad’s football practices shaped him.
“I knew from high school that I wanted to coach,” Trent told me.
The family didn’t draw up formations on the backs of napkins during dinner. But they did talk football a lot. And Trent said of his own high school playing days: “The Monday after every game I’d bring home the video tape, the VHS tape, and we’d watch it. He’d tell me everything I did wrong. I learned a bunch from that.”
Jonathan Smith left Oregon State in a predicament. He got spooked by the uncertainty and ran into the arms of Michigan State on Saturday morning. OSU paid Smith $4.85 million this season. The Spartans upped that considerably to $7.25 million in his first year at MSU.
Barnes told me on Monday that he put a contract extension in front of Smith five weeks ago. The AD didn’t disclose the terms. But as Barnes said “Jonathan didn’t bite.”
Saturday was a gut punch for Oregon State fans. Smith was the guy who was going to lead the Beavers out of this mess. He was going to punch back. OSU and its fan base were going to laugh last, and try to make the College Football Playoff against the odds. They were going to show the world, together. And then, Smith ditched and ran off to the safety and security of the Big Ten.
Decide for yourself if you blame him.
“It’s hard. You lose a partner and a friend that you’ve been in the trenches with for six years,” Barnes told me on Monday. “The guy is a Beaver. We did everything. We wanted him to stay. It’s sad.”
Oregon State spun out of the sadness by hiring Glenn Sugiyama, managing partner of DHR International search firm. Sugiyama was hired six years ago in the search that, coincidentally, brought Smith back to Corvallis. This search, Sugiyama confessed to confidants as he headed to Oregon on Sunday evening, was unlike anything he’d ever seen in 18 years.
The Beavers had Bray right under their nose. They liked him. They needed to act quickly and line up a pool of candidates they could compare him against. That’s where Sugiyama comes in.
Oregon State got an early inquiry from Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin coach who is now at Texas as an analyst. Bronco Mendenhall, out of football for two seasons after he left Virginia, wanted in on the search, too. And San Jose State coach Brent Brennan was a no-brainer to include given that he knows how to build a winner amid difficult circumstances.
Barnes also wanted to interview Matt Wells, an offensive analyst at Oklahoma. Wells had worked under Barnes at Utah State. In fact, when Gary Andersen left the Aggies for Wisconsin in 2012, Barnes promoted Wells from offensive coordinator to head coach. It was a winning move. One that foreshadowed this week’s internal-promotion move at OSU.
Sugiyama vetted the candidates. He added Air Force coach Trent Calhoun and Maryland offensive coordinator Josh Gattis into the mix. Calhoun has Oregon roots, but runs the triple-option offense. Gattis was an interesting addition. Both interviewed on Monday via Zoom.
Gattis won the Broyles Award in 2021 as the nation’s top assistant. He previously called plays at Miami, Michigan and Alabama. But he lacked a deep connection to the Pacific Northwest. If the Beavers were going to take a flyer on a first-time head coach, they wanted to go with one they knew well.
It was Bray’s job to lose, wasn’t it?
I’m going to take a step back here. At some schools, the job of head football coach is turn key. Insert a bozo at USC and you win seven or eight games a year. Oregon’s resources make it an easier job, too. But at a place like Oregon State in 2023 and beyond, it’s going to take a unique fit.
As impressive as the scrambled pool of candidates was, there were only two coaches involved in the search who I thought had a chance to be successful. One is Bray. The other is Brennan, who went 7-1 at San Jose State a couple of seasons ago. I wish the Beavers could have hired them both. The challenges are going to be so great in 2024 and 2025 that it’s basically an ‘all-hands’ situation.
Bray got the OSU job.
Brennan goes back to San Jose State, where he’ll make a bowl game again next season.
An insider at Oregon State told me there could be a “surprise or two” when it comes to the offensive and defensive coordinator hires. Keep an eye there. Because while Barnes declined on Tuesday night to provide salary information for Bray, I have to think the AD is sitting on at least $1.5 million in savings on the head coaching salary. It’s possible the Beavers are going to arm Bray with some real help.
Bray will be on the sideline next season. Right where he’s been for the last few years at OSU. He told me a couple of springs ago that he prefers being on the sideline vs. the coaching box during games. He’d weighed the perspective gained from being an ‘eye-in-the-sky’ defensive coordinator vs. being near players and decided to stay on the field.
“Defensive football is such an emotionally tense part of the game,” he told me. “Being around the players, being able to look them in the eyes, outweighs what I’d be able to see in the box.”
Dennis Erickson told me on Wednesday that Bray was a fair athlete as a player. Not great. Not terrible. But he steered the conversation back to Bray’s father, and the football intelligence that Trent as a kid gained through osmosis.
“His football IQ was above anybody I’d ever been around,” Erickson said. “He got to the ball. He understood the game. He wasn’t the greatest athlete, but he made a lot of plays.”
That brings me to a story. I took a risk a couple of springs ago and left the newspaper industry. I launched this independent writing endeavor. I bet on myself. It’s been an exhilarating ride. I’ve never felt more connected with my readers or had more fun. But one of the interesting byproducts involves Bray.
I am more involved now with the photographers. I have a terrific trio of shooters who work games in Oregon. Another lives in Pullman. And a handful of others work and live in places such as California, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.
During the 2023 football season, I asked the photographers if they could get more photos of Jonathan Smith, Oregon State’s head football coach. I figured I might need them this offseason. The photographers who worked in the Pacific Northwest sent a stream of photos of Smith throughout the season. But the ones who worked in Colorado, Arizona and Utah did something else.
It was peculiar.
I’d asked them to photograph OSU’s head coach.
A couple of them sent photos of Trent Bray.
They didn’t know what Smith looked like. They showed up to games, observed Bray’s demeanor on the sideline, his pacing during games, his stern expression, and the way players responded to him. More than one of them mistakenly believed Bray — not Smith — was the OSU head coach.
I now find that interesting.
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