Why Steve Bieser believes in Mizzou baseball's upside despite hefty challenges in SEC (2023)

Dave Matter

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Steve Bieser’s T-shirt said enough. Sitting in his office at Taylor Stadium on a recent afternoon, Bieser wore the word “battle” scripted across his chest — a word that tells the story of Missouri’s baseball season and, in some ways, his seven-year run as the Tigers’ head coach.

Matched against challenges unlike his peers across the baseball-crazed Southeastern Conference, Bieser manages a program in the league’s northwestern post with minuscule margin for error and, seemingly, never enough resources.

But his Tigers have battled this season, through weather, through injuries, through the annual unforgiving SEC schedule. He’s seen unmistakable progress along the way.

“We’re close,” Bieser said this week, fresh off winning two of three games against Mississippi, the defending College World Series champions. “I hate saying this because I don’t like, ‘Well, we’re competing.’ I think that sounds like you’re OK with losing. You want to be better than competing. You want to win those games. But every time I talk to somebody, I hear, ‘You’re this close.’

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“Yeah, but close is not what we’re shooting for. We’ve got to find a way to get over the top. I really do believe the administration is on board. They know what we need.”

In the long view, Bieser believes Mizzou can equip itself to build a consistent winning program, even in a cutthroat conference where other teams dwarf MU’s baseball budget, play in warmer climates and attract thousands more fans to their bigger, flashier facilities. Bieser would love a new stadium to replace 21-year-old Taylor Stadium, a 2,200-seat venue that inconveniently sits atop a steep hill on the southwest edge of campus that’s unofficially the windiest locale in Boone County. Earlier this year, the university hired global consulting firm Huron to study ways Mizzou can invest in athletics projects. Bieser is anxious to see how baseball — specifically, a new stadium — fits into Huron’s feedback this fall.

“Everybody wants to know what the plan is,” Bieser said. “We know that we have to enhance our plan. If we don’t, we’re going to get the same results.”

But in the short term, Bieser needs more wins. With two SEC series left against Georgia (home) and Auburn (road), the Tigers stand 27-20 overall and 7-17 in SEC play. They opened conference action with a stunning three-game sweep of powerhouse Tennessee, but injuries have since decimated a deep pitching staff. Bieser has lost six pitchers to season-ending injuries, at times leaving the staff with just eight healthy arms for a three-game SEC series. For now, the Tigers would qualify for the 12-team SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama — Mizzou is one game up on Ole Miss and Mississippi State for the No. 12 seed — but their once-strong NCAA tournament credentials have slipped. The Tigers are No. 47 in the latest RPI rankings and, for now, not among the 64 teams projected to make an NCAA regional. Series wins over Georgia (No. 29) and Auburn (No. 28), plus next week’s home finale against No. 7 Indiana State, could get the Tigers back in contention for their first NCAA regional appearance since 2012.

After loading up on experienced pitchers via the transfer portal, Bieser expected a breakthrough year. Early returns on those investments were strong when the Tigers opened the season with wins over Big 12 foes TCU and Texas. But over the season’s first few weeks, three key members of the staff went down with season-ending injuries: Carter Rustad, Ian Lohse (Marquette High) and Tony Neubeck. Freshman reliever Sam Horn had a setback in his second standout appearance in February, suffering a strain in the right arm he uses to throw a 97 mph fastball and, he hopes, touchdown passes for the football team this fall. Horn recovered in time to pitch again this spring, but Bieser opted to shut him down.

“We had to be careful. I don’t want to be the (reason) Sam doesn’t get a chance to be QB1,” Bieser said. “So that was a really tough decision that we had to make with him. But he’s going to be completely healthy. Sam is going to be a legit Friday night (starter) in the SEC. That’s where his future is in baseball. Who knows where it’s going to be in football, but he’s the real deal on the mound.”

With all the pitching injuries, four freshmen have combined to pitch 116 2/3 innings, nearly 30% of the staff’s entire workload.

Offensively, third baseman Luke Mann (Vianney High) has carried Bieser’s lineup at times and needs five more home runs to break Mizzou’s career record of 49, set by Jacob Priday in 2008.

“Those are the guys that you win with, guys that really compete and just get better each year,” Bieser said. “I’m still floored that somebody didn’t grab him in last year’s draft.”

There are other signs of promise surrounding the program. In last week’s homestand, the Tigers shattered their single-season home attendance record, with 32,457 showing up for 20 home games, including five with 2,000-plus on hand.

“If you get out there and beat the bushes and you show that that you care about getting fans in here they show up,” Bieser said. “We’ve seen it.

“We’ve seen how the administration’s been able to get out and build those relationships and the requirements for the coaches to be out there on the ground level to build those relationships and what that does for your attendance,” he added. “For us playing in front of 2,500 at this stadium it’s huge. It sounds like it’s packed and there’s energy in the stadium.”

Bieser has seen alumni support grow in recent years, too. He and his staff host weekly Zoom meetings with former players to keep them engaged with the program, including a recent Zoom with the team’s most successful alumnus, three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who took out time on a day he was scheduled to start for the New York Mets to meet virtually with MU’s staff about the program’s trajectory.

“He’s always been passionate about Mizzou,” Bieser said. “We’ve got to be inviting him back even more.”

Other challenges remain, especially when it comes to funding. Bieser has consistently signed top 40 recruiting classes — Perfect Game ranks the 2024 class of commitments at No. 23 — but when recruits ask about opportunities to earn name, image and likeness compensation, the staff doesn’t have compelling answers. MU’s preferred NIL collective, Every True Tiger Foundation, plans to raise funds to pay baseball players and athletes in other non-revenue sports, but those developments are still on the ground floor.

Bieser called NIL “a huge agenda” for the program.

“I think we’re going to be in a spot to have some advantages this year — and not advantages over our league but advantages over what we’ve had in the past,” he said. “We’ve dealt with it for over two years.”

“You can’t use NIL as a recruiting inducement,” he added, “but when a kid asks you, ‘What type of NIL money do you have?’ Immediately that’s our answer. We really don’t want to go down that road because we don’t have … whether it’s $20,000 or $300,000 that we’re hearing that some of the top players in our league are getting … we don’t have that. So we immediately shut that down. … We’ve been working really hard and working with some key people that are interested in trying to help us.”

That’s not the only area where Mizzou lags behind its competitors. According to data collected by the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, during the 2022 fiscal year, Mizzou spent $700,600 on baseball game operating expenses, which includes travel costs for lodging, meals and transportation plus equipment and uniform costs. That’s just 46% of the average SEC baseball budget of $1,526,465. Only Kentucky spent less ($695,431) on those costs than Mizzou, while eight schools more than doubled Mizzou’s spending, including four that spent more than $2 million: Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas A&M, at a league-high $2,893,563.

The travel issue is especially critical, Bieser said. Next week’s trip to Auburn is the first time Mizzou will use a charter flight for a road trip since 2019. While non-stop charter flights are standard for other SEC programs, MU routinely returns from road trips at 3 or 4 a.m. after flying commercial with connections between Columbia or St. Louis and their SEC destination.

“Travel is a huge piece for us right now to get figured out,” Bieser said. “Does that translate into two more wins in conference play? Three more wins? Nobody (in the SEC) has the length of travel that we have and the time that it takes us. Nobody else gets back at 3 a.m. in the morning. Those are pieces that I think we can fix quickly.”

Desiree Reed-Francois, Bieser’s third Mizzou athletics director since he arrived from SEMO in 2016, has made it clear she wants to see the Tigers make the NCAA postseason. Bieser, with one year left on his contract, described his administrative support under Reed-Francois as “100% progress.” Her latest hire, associate AD Blair DeBord, is expected to help oversee the baseball program and could become the head coach’s most important ally. DeBord, an All-Big 12 catcher at Kansas State in the early 2000s, ran Tennessee’s head-coaching search in 2017 that landed former Mizzou player and assistant Tony Vitello, the 2021 national coach of the year.

As for Bieser’s future, he believes in Mizzou’s potential and the blueprint it takes to fulfill expectations that have gone largely unmet since Mizzou joined the SEC more than a decade ago. The battle has just started.

“The thing for me is I am a Missouri guy,” he said. “I bleed black and gold. I do understand the pecking order. I do understand that our football (team) has to be very successful and basketball has to be successful. But to some degree, maybe earlier I wish maybe we would have just asked for more. Because we do need the help. Now I see progress — and I want to be part of this progress. I want to be here when we build a new stadium. Because I do believe that we’re going to build a new stadium.”


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