BY STEVE KRAH
Ryan Brownlee has always enjoyed a challenge.
As a baseball player, he appreciated being pushed.
The new assistant executive director for the American Baseball Coaches Association played for hard-nosed coaches. There was Quentin Merkel at Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Ind., then his father and brother, Jim Brownlee and Tim Brownlee, at the University of Evansville.
“They were not the easiest people in the world to play for,” says Ryan Brownlee, 45. “But they would keep you accountable.
“I’m in a way better position because of the way I was handled in youth sports.”
Memorial lost in the first round of the 1992 IHSAA State Finals to finish 29-1 and sent many players on to college baseball. That was Ryan Brownlee’s junior year.
“I owe (Merkel) a lot,” says Brownlee. “Over the summer, I read a book on the mental aspects of baseball and that changed my playing career.
“I looked at myself in the mirror. Coach Merkel didn’t need to change. I was the one who needed to change.”
In 1993, Memorial went 36-2 and reigned as state champions (Tim Brownlee was part of a state championship team as a Memorial senior in 1989) with team leaders John Ambrose and John Sartore trading duties on the mound and at third base.
“Quentin was very organized (using the same signs at each level from freshmen to varsity),” says Brownlee. “He doesn’t get the credit, but he was very forward-thinking.
“We were doing breathing techniques back then. He saw it as a way to change mentally.”
In 2017, Brownlee wrote a blog post entitled, “Just Breath.”
Playing for Jim and Tim, Ryan was motivated to be a four-year starter for the Purple Aces and twice earned all-conference honors and was an ABCA All-Region selection.
“You just never got a break,” says Brownlee. “I needed someone to push me.
“There’s always things you needed to improve on. I didn’t need to get complacent.”
Brownlee moved to Evansville in 1979 when his dad went from a teacher and coach at Princeton (Ill.) High School and manager for five summers of the Galesburg Pioneers of the old Central Illinois Collegiate League to head coach at UE. Young Ryan got to see the Evansville Triplets, managed by Jim Leyland, and spend lots of time at one of the country’s historic ballparks.
“I fell in love with the game at Bosse Field,” says Brownlee, who played there as Memorial Tiger, Evansville Purple Ace and then for one summer (1997) as a professional with the Greg Taggert-managed Evansville Otters.
“The first half we were terrible,” says Brownlee. “Our bus broke down in Johnstown (Pa.) and we bonded as a team.”
The Otters got hot in the second half and ended up losing in the independent Frontier League finals to the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles.
Brownlee’s resume includes 22 seasons as college baseball coach — seven as head coach at Western Illinois University (2013-19) plus assistant gigs of nine at the University of Iowa (2004-12), four at James Madison University (2000-03) and two at the University of Evansville (1998-99).
The UE staff included Tim Brownlee (now owner/president of Diamond Sports Promotions), Jeff Leystra (a student assistant who played with Ryan Brownlee on the Otters) and Ryan Barrett (who played with Ryan from age 9 through college).
After 18 years in the Pocket City, Ryan moved nine hours to Harrisonburg, Va., to join McFarland at James Madison.
“(McFarland) was at complete opposite end of the spectrum (from Quentin Merkel, Jim Brownlee and Tim Brownlee),” says Ryan Brownlee. “He had a low pulse and was very laid-back with a dry sense of humor. You could be yourself.
“Spanky is one of the best pitching minds in the world (he’s coached future big league pitchers Kevin Brown, Dan Meyer, Ryan Reid and Brian Schmack, the current Valparaiso University head coach, among others during his career).”
Brownlee also learned much from James Madison assistant Chuck Bartlett. He had batted No. 4 in a Mississippi State University lineup surrounded by Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and is now a New York Yankees scout.
Being in a new area also challenged Brownlee to get out of his comfort zone. While at JMU, he earned his masters degree in athletic administration. The Dukes were good enough during Brownlee’s time there (averaging 36 wins per game) that he got his foot in the door at Iowa.
Brownlee helped Dahm stabilize a program that had fallen on hard times. He saw Dahm’s personality somewhere between his father’s and McFarland’s.
“He’s just a really good person,” says Brownlee of Dahm, who later hired Jim Brownlee as Hawkeyes pitching coach after the elder Brownlee was head coach at Illinois State University. “We had to do some heavy lifting in nine years to get that thing built up. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if not for him.”
In 2012, Brownlee addressed the ABCA Convention in Anaheim, Calif., on the “10 Rules of Recovery.”
It was a time management planner that he continued while at Western Illinois and plans to share his values on personal development during speaking engagements with the ABCA.
“If you can manage yourself away from your working environment that carries into your working environment,” says Brownlee. “Hopefully, that makes you productive. The most successful people can handle a lot more. They can balance things. They don’t seem as rushed.
“I guarantee those people are taking some times for themselves, too. It can’t be all work and it can’t be all free time. You have to have that mix.”
While leading the Western Illinois Leathernecks program presented its challenges because of facilities and school size, Brownlee thoroughly enjoyed his time there because of the people he met.
“For me it was about the relationships with the guys,” says Brownlee, who slept in his office his first year at WIU. “That needed to be our niche. That was an enjoyable experience for me. The coaches were great and the kids were great.
“The opportunity with the ABCA was going to be great.”
Brownlee arrived in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday (Oct. 23) and his first full day at the office was Thursday (Oct. 24).
“It’s similar to coaching,” says Brownlee of his ABCA role. “You wear a lot of different hats.”
This fall, he helped host ABCA Barnstormers Regional Coaches Clinics across the country (he took 10 and Jim Richardson took 10). He also lines up the youth speakers and helps with the hot stoves at the national convention (which is Jan. 2-5, 2020 in Nashville). He assists the ABCA’s youth and travel baseball committees and is a liaison for NCAA Division II. After the New Year, he will be part of the ABCA podcast.
“My dad was an ABCA member. I’ve been an ABCA member for 22 years. This is an opportunity. It’s a great company. It’s been around since 1945. The ABCA has always been there to help coaches. Hopefully, that helps players.”
Ryan has been married to Henderson, Ky., native Aimee for 17 years. The Brownlees have two children — Jackson (16) and Norah (14). Ryan says the plans plan is to have the rest of the family move to North Carolina at the end of the school year.
Ryan Brownlee (right) shares a moment with daughter Norah. Ryan Brownlee, who played high school, college and pro baseball in Evansville, Ind., and was a college coach for 22 (the last seven at Western Illinois University) has become an assistant executive director for the American Baseball Coaches Association.