Meet Matt Bowen, Bemidji’s Boldest Coach

Bemidji State men’s basketball coach Matt Bowen is the perfect coach for Bemidji and reflects what I see in the hard-working professionals around town.

Accountability, no excuses, honesty, humble, an occasional outburst and a relentless pursuit of success: those are the words I would use to describe Bowen’s personality.

Only Matt Bowen could take Bemidji State into Madison and expect the Beavers to beat Wisconsin. The Badgers. He didn’t come out and directly say that, but after working with the coach for three years, I know he and the Beavers are not just ‘happy to be there.’

No expectations breed failure, so I understand where Bowen’s coming from in trying to energize his team. This exhibition game is more than an exhibition to the Beavers.

I talked with Bowen Tuesday night and here’s a line of questions:

Stromgren: “What do you want to see out of your team against Wisconsin?”

Bowen: “…We have a lot of players returning and they’ve played on a big stage before and it’s time for them to act and produce like juniors and seniors. We want to take that next step now.”

Stromgren: “Do you plan to play everyone in the game?” (Really, it was a soft way of asking if he was just happy to be playing a Big 10 team in exhibition play- you know, give everyone playing D-II ball a chance to play at the big time.)

Bowen: “That’s not necessarily going to be the case this time. We’ve got players with experience on the big stage. We need to get guys significant minutes and see what we have early in the season. The point of having players get equal minutes … well, we’re past that. We need to see who this team is.”

Stromgren: “What can we expect from your team this year?”

Bowen: “We want to start turning the corner this year from a competitive team to a winning team,” Bowen said. “We have the vast majority of our team back. For a team to go from God awful to competitive is a huge step and to turn from a competitive team to a winning team is still a substantial gap.”

Only Bowen would unapologetically call his past teams “God awful.” Other coaches I’ve worked with would not be that blunt in an assessment.

That type of comment and style is what made former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight such a recognizable figure (Bowen was a student manager under Knight at Indiana).

Bowen is not as tempermental as the classic chair-throwing Knight, but he is vocal and a commanding presence who demands nothing less than a full effort on the court and in the classroom.

Bowen has publicly challenged the NSIC in terms of supporting playoff expansion in basketball and expanding the regular season conference schedule. The regular season conference schedule was expanded in the summer meetings.

My favorite Bowen quotes

After losing to NAIA school Jamestown in the home opener last season:
“All in all I thought we played hard for about 25 minutes. We were very passive on offense and we just shot the ball horrible.”

After losing to Division III Wisconsin-River Falls 82-77 before the winter break last season:
“We didn’t deserve to win tonight. It was our last game before break and some of the guys had their bags packed and their minds elsewhere.”

Those top two comments reflect Bowen’s honesty and, believe it or not, most other coaches in any other sport would sugar-coat losses like that (see Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress).

Now here’s Bowen’s more guarded, positive side:

After playing Indiana tough in a 72-54 loss in the exhibition opener at Assembly Hall last year:
“We can be happy about our performance tonight because we’re a million miles from where we were in that game two years ago at Minnesota when we were not competitive at all. Here we were tonight – four minutes into the second half – and we were in the game, one point away and causing problems.”

Prior to the last week of the 2008-9 regular season:
“We’ve got some signature wins this season by beating some ranked teams and we’ve also lost some games we probably should have won. All in all, we have competed this year and teams can’t come into Bemidji and laugh at us like they used to. That is not proven yet because we have five games left against three teams that are below us in the standings. We want to have 10-11 wins.”
(BSU went on to lose the final three games: a 19-point loss No. 23 Winona State on the road, a four-overtime loss to Duluth in a classic and an overtime loss to Wayne State.)

I see Bowen’s honesty and responsible personality reflected in the assistant coaches Jeremy Tiers and Ryan Montgomery down to the players.

When one of the Bemidji State players play a bad game, he won’t hide from critical self-assessment or deflect blame. That is another trait not often seen in today’s sports personalities. 

Turning attitude into results

Unfortunately for BSU, that honorable type of attitude has not translated to winning … at least not yet.

Bowen is entering his fourth year as Beavers head coach with a combined record of 19-63.

The first two years were 20-loss seasons with numerous 20-point losses. It was enough to wear down the most staunch optimist.

Even through last year’s 8-19 season, Bowen remained grounded and excited for the prospect of what the future may bring.

There were signs of hope – a win over then No. 24 St. Cloud State, a double overtime victory over then No. 11 Northern State on the road and the thriller against Duluth.

After the win against Northern, here’s what Bowen said:
“We had it in our hands, but in typical physical and young Beaver fashion, we gave the game away … It was a comedy of errors but we really found some resilience in overtime and we were able to make some big plays.”

When Bowen showed up to Bemidji State, he was charged with the process of cleaning house and rebuilding a program the right way: Commit to the program as a head coach and build from the ground up with Minnesota kids.

That meant no quick fixes with skilled transfer students with questionable personal backgrounds, a practice in some Division II programs and something that was done at Bemidji State prior to Bowen’s arrival.

Reason for optimism

Bowen has stayed true to the vision of the university and building a basketball program the right way. Four years in, that brings a reasonable prospect of winning starting this season.

Bowen started the rebuilding process four years ago with three players and now enters the 2009-10 season with a roster of his recruits who fit his playing style.

Will the Beavers be a national contender or ranked power this season? I think that’s a stretch.

Could the Beavers be in the running for the conference playoffs and make noise in the conference playoffs? I think so.

Being optimistic at the start of the season is a welcome change after three brutal seasons through the NSIC gauntlet. There’s no mercy in the best Division II basketball conference in the country. As it should be.

That’s what will make any Bemidji State success this season something to savor for Bowen, the coaching staff and the players.

Like anything worth having in life, the greater the challenge makes reaching the goal all the more rewarding.

To take nothing and build it into something requires a bold personality, persistence, patience and teamwork.

The Beavers have trudged through the valley of rebuilding and can begin the process of climbing the mountain of success this winter.

Even if the Beavers only reach base camp come spring, there will be satisfaction in looking back at the ground covered and the confidence to move forward with the summit in sight.

There are no excuses for Bemidji State in 2009-10. Anything remotely close to a 20-loss season will be considered a failure and a disappointment.

Matt Bowen will tell you that straight to your face.