RICHMOND, Va. – Working for Paul Keyes was not like Shawn Stiffler envisioned.
Keyes was already something of a legend in Virginia when Stiffler jumped from his alma mater, George Mason, to join the VCU coaching staff 2006. From 1998-2005, Keyes guided VCU to six NCAA Regional appearances and three CAA Tournament crowns. At 26 years old, Stiffler was eager to soak up strategy from one of the games’ most-respected voices.
But Keyes’ approach initially jarred Stiffler.
“It was day one. He would constantly talk to me about, ‘you’ve got to make this decision like you’re the head coach.’ As a young 26 year old I showed up here because I wanted to work for Paul Keyes. I wanted him to tell me what to do. But that wasn’t it at all,” says Stiffler.
Keyes didn’t want to give people around him the answers to their questions. He wanted them to find their own.
“It wasn’t easy for me. Coach Keyes is not a guy if you work for him who told you, ‘go up there and do X, Y and Z.’ If I said, ‘Coach we have nowhere to practice today.’ He’d say, ‘figure it out.’ But now I know how to do that. He just was one of those guys who would push you to push yourself. He stretched you every day. You had to be prepared for it. He did not believe in a routine.”
Keyes, a fierce competitor, savvy baseball mind, from-the-gut strategist, avid golfer and gregarious laugher, died in 2012 following a bout with melanoma. He won a school-record 603 games and directed VCU to eight NCAA bids in 18 seasons. His loss left a crater-sized void in the program.
On May 23, using more than a few of the foundational lessons he gleaned from six years under Keyes’ wing, with the vestiges of the longtime coach’s final recruiting class, Stiffler steered VCU to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship.
It was Stiffler’s first conference crown as head coach, but in some ways, it felt like one final trophy for Keyes’ mantle.
“He was the one who got me here,” says senior Vimael Machin, one of three remaining Rams, along with Heath Dwyer and Matt Lees, to play for Keyes. “When I saw Logan [Farrar] catching that [final out], he came to my mind real quick. I was just thinking he’d be proud of us, the way we play. It was a special moment and I’ll never forget that.”
“As a player, being recruited by Coach Keyes, you kind of felt like you owed him a championship. He brought us here to win championships,” says Dwyer, who ranks second in school history with 27 wins. “It’s really nice to be able to do that for him, especially being seniors. This was our last opportunity. That kind of drove me through the end of the season.”
VCU (37-22), which will meet Dallas Baptist in an NCAA Regional Friday at 7 p.m., is currently riding an 11-game win streak. The Rams needed to win their final six conference regular season games to even qualify for the A-10 Tournament.
“[Coach Keyes] would’ve liked the challenge of having to win the six straight conference games to get in. He would’ve thought that was really cool,” Stiffler said.
“I think he would love this team,” Lees said. “He was all about the nitty, gritty. He never gave up. There was a point 3-4 weeks ago where we had doubt in our eyes, but we turned it around. That’s what Coach Keyes liked, to compete and fight, and that’s exactly what we did.”
At the heart of VCU’s revival are Lees, Machin and Dwyer, who all played significant roles as freshmen under Keyes in 2012. This season, Machin (.336, 50 RBIs) and Dwyer (9-2, 2.95 ERA) were named All-Atlantic 10, while Lees (6-2, 0.87 ERA) was superb out of the VCU bullpen.
“It’s kind of funny because each one of them were kind of like a little bit of Paul,” Stiffler added. “Matt Lees is the ultimate blue-collar, grinder, not flashy. Vimael is the kind of position player coach loved. The ability to play every position, left-handed hitter, could make some spectacular plays…Coach Keyes wanted nothing but a whole team of shortstops on the positional side. Heath Dwyer is hang-loose. If you really knew Keydog, he loved the fact that Heath had a little of the west-coast edge to him.”
Stiffler’s style is certainly different from Keyes, but that doesn’t mean his fingerprints aren’t still on the program. There are plenty of times Stiffler taps into Keyes’ methodology. Keyes could be fiery, especially when it came to umpires, but much of his personality and managerial style centered around his desire to remain the calm, confident, bull-shooting everyman they affectionately referred to as “Keydog”.
Keyes’ approach could be difficult for young coaches to grasp. Stiffler marveled at this particular Keyes’ skill as an assistant at George Mason.
“We were playing against him in the CAA Tournament one year and Justin Orenduff, who’s a first-rounder, is on the mound. Their catcher throws a ball down to second base, hits Orenduff in the back of head, knocks his contacts out. The trainer comes out. They can’t find Keydog. He was in the hospitality tent, like, eating snacks. He literally comes out with a bag of chips. It was no big deal. He didn’t come running out, ‘oh my gosh! Is he doing to be okay?’ He came out eating a bag of chips, man. And it calmed Justin down. It calmed the team down.”
It was from that paradigm that Stiffler coached late in the season. During tournament play, Keyes’ interaction with the team was minimal. No grand motivational speeches, no re-hashing of the day’s mistakes. Keyes’ mindset was, late in the season, players decide championships. Coaches have had all season to teach.
Stiffler and Keyes diverged stylistically on this point. But when the Rams were on the outside of the A-10 Tournament picture, Stiffler figured there was little left to lose. He says he gave the team one formal speech prior to their penultimate regular season series and then backed off. The Rams haven’t lost since.
“Anytime you talk to an older coach they tell you, ‘it’s up to the players.’ As a young coach, you’re thinking, ‘bull____, I’ve gotta do this. There’s some magic thing I’ve gotta say.’ It is about the kids, and that’s why I’m so proud of this group, especially these seniors,” Stiffler said.
VCU players say they appreciated the hands-off approach late in the year.
“When your head coach looks relaxed and confident and doesn’t have to say too much to you and trusts in your players’ abilities, it relaxes your players and makes everyone play with confidence. It definitely gave us an environment of confidence. Calm, cool and collected,” Dwyer observed.
“He’s been on us this year, trying to motivate us and trying to push us. And just by seeing coach kind of lay back and do what they do and coaching us, it kind of took a chip off our shoulder and made us relaxed,” Lees said.
“There’s no stress or anything,” Machin adds. “We’re confident. We’re calm. We’re relaxed.”
While Keyes’ presence may have aided VCU’s championship march, those who knew him understand his impact will last long after this season’s final out.
“Those three [seniors] have changed the culture of our team from the standpoint of, you see the community involvement. It’s because of those guys. They’re the first guys to volunteer for anything. It’s because, I think, another aspect of life hit us when coach got sick. The humanity of everything. There is more to it than just us playing this game, and Paul Keyes was more than just a baseball coach. Life is bigger than baseball,” Stiffler said.
“The way he was with his players, it was unreal,” said Machin. “He loved every single one of them.”
“He made me the person I am now,” Lees said. “Just dealing with what he had to go through and what we had to go through and when my dad had something going on with him, and how Coach Keyes was and so positive and how great of an attitude he had towards it. He was a fighter and that kind of made me who I am now is a fighter.”