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Friday June 17, 2011Built to Last: Gators Coach Kevin O'Sullivan's Master Plan Includes Regular Trips to Omaha

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OMAHA, Neb. – Baseball had Kevin O’Sullivan at hello. There was something about the game and all its nuances that O’Sullivan couldn’t resist.

The attraction started the moment O’Sullivan put on his first glove and played catch. It blossomed into a full-blown love affair when he met former major leaguer Bob Shaw as a teenager.

Shaw won 108 games in 11 seasons from 1957-67, his shining moment coming in the 1959 World Series when he pitched for the Chicago White Sox. Shaw out-dueled Dodgers star Sandy Koufax in Game 5, defeating Los Angeles 1-0 before 92,706 fans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the largest crowd to ever attend a World Series game.

By the time O’Sullivan crossed paths with Shaw, the former big-league pitcher was a South Florida real estate developer and businessman. He also coached the American Legion Post 126 team in Jensen Beach.

O’Sullivan grew up in nearby Jupiter and played on the team, often catching future major league pitches Joey Grahe and Rusty Meacham. He also talked at length with Shaw about the game in ways his teammates didn’t.

O’Sullivan wanted to know every little detail about what takes place on the diamond and cherished talks with Shaw, who spent time as the Brewers pitching coach once he retired, about the art of pitching.

“He was the guy who took me out on the field when I was 15, 16, 17, and taught us everything,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He was the one who really got me going.’’

Shaw passed away in September at 77 but will forever remain a central figure in what O’Sullivan calls the best day of his playing career. Jensen Beach Post 126 won the 1986 American Legion World Series in Rapid City, S.D., beating Las Vegas Post 8 in the championship game.

O’Sullivan experienced what it feels like to win a national championship. Twenty-five years later, the Florida baseball coach hopes to experience that feeling again with the Gators.

*****

Florida senior second baseman Josh Adams had already signed with the Gators when he received a call from his new coach around midnight. Earlier that day in June 2007, O’Sullivan was hired to replace Pat McMahon, coming as a surprise to Adams.

Adams didn’t know anything about O’Sullivan, who came to Florida after serving as an assistant under Jack Leggett at Clemson for nine years. Adams signed with the Gators expecting to play for McMahon, so one of the first calls Adams made was to current UF assistant Brad Weitzel.

Weitzel was then an area scout for the Minnesota Twins who got to know Adams while scouting him and convincing the Twins to draft the infield standout from Jacksonville Eagle’s View Academy.

“I called Brad to see if I should go to junior college or something like that,’’ Adams said. “After I talked to Brad, he pretty much sold me on Sully being the head coach.’’

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was easily sold too once he did some research. Prior to O’Sullivan’s arrival, the Florida baseball program enjoyed pockets of success under various coaches, including Joe Arnold, Andy Lopez and McMahon.

The Gators made their first College World Series appearance in 1988 under Arnold, the first of five CWS appearances in an 18-year stretch that included a 2005 trip to Omaha under McMahon.

But every time the Gators appeared to be on the verge of building a consistent postseason contender like Florida State and Miami, there would be a down season. The cycle was one Foley wanted to end.

“One reason we made a change was because our history in baseball had repeated itself,’’ Foley said.

What didn’t repeat itself was the way Foley went about hiring a new coach. Both Lopez and McMahon were established veterans with success at other programs prior to coming to Florida.

This time Foley searched for an equivalent of Billy the Kid with a bat and glove – i.e. an up-and-comer like when he hired Billy Donovan to take over the men’s basketball program in 1996 despite Donovan’s only experience as a head coach being two years at Marshall.

“We made a conscious decision that we were going to do something differently,’’ Foley said. “He was from Florida. I think that was huge. He had recruited Florida and he had done a great job at Clemson. He was a great player himself. He was a pitching coach, and at the end of the day, it’s still all about pitching. He had a lot of attributes that intrigued us.’’

As he did his research on O’Sullivan, Foley couldn’t help but notice the number of pitchers Clemson had put into the draft over the years, including left-hander Daniel Moskos, the fourth overall pick of the 2007 draft who made his big-league debut with the Pirates earlier this season.

Foley talked to Leggett, another huge influence on O’Sullivan’s career, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, a close friend and mentor to O’Sullivan, and to Moskos, who provided a player’s view of why O’Sullivan would make a good head coach.

In the end, Foley was sold on O’Sullivan handing over the program to O’Sullivan.

“I was as shocked as anybody,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I still feel very grateful that they went somewhat out on a limb on an assistant coach who had never been a head coach.’’

Four years later, both Adams and Foley agree that O’Sullivan was clearly the right person for the job.

“He knows everything there is to know about the game,’’ Adams said. “You have fun coming out every day and just listening to him talk. It’s definitely been fun playing for him. It’s one of those things you won’t ever forget.’’

“He has done a fabulous job,’’ Foley said. “It’s four years into it, and we’re trying to get 20 years out of it -- every single year to be in the hunt. That’s what they have done at Miami. That’s what they have done at Florida State. That’s what we want to get done here.

“We want to be consistently in the hunt. Does that mean you go to Omaha every year? No. It doesn’t work that way. But you want to be in the tournament every year. We’ve been in it four years in a row. We are still trying to build that consistently, but we’re off to a good head start.’’

*****

Foley likes to tell a story about talking to a pro scout who knows O’Sullivan well during the coaching search. The scout told Foley about O’Sullivan’s tireless approach in the search for players.

“It could be the middle of July and 800 degrees out, and the high school tournament starts at 8 o’clock in the morning, and it will be me and Kevin O’Sullivan sitting in the stands at the end,’’ the scout said.

The story stuck with Foley. Success at the college level starts with recruiting, and O’Sullivan is considered one of the best in the business.

Gators junior outfielder Preston Tucker can attest to that. Tucker, a highly regarded player coming out of Plant High in Tampa, was heavily recruited by O’Sullivan when he was still an assistant at Clemson. When he got the Florida job, O’Sullivan’s calls didn’t stop. They increased.

Tucker didn’t hesitate to follow O’Sullivan to Florida despite the early interest in going to Clemson.

“He was giving me more attention than any of the other coaches,’’ Tucker said. “He seemed real excited to have me.’’

Tucker has developed into one of the Gators’ most dangerous players, his three-run homer in Sunday’s Super Regional win over Mississippi State lifting the Gators to Omaha for the second consecutive season. The back-to-back trips to Omaha are a first for the Gators in the program’s 97-year history.

O’Sullivan’s role in the program’s quick turnaround can’t be overlooked according to Tucker.

“He’s a motivator,’’ Tucker said. “He is one of the most enthusiastic coaches I have ever met. He knows pretty much what you’re thinking at all times. He can help you throughout ballgames a lot.’’

The Gators open the CWS on Saturday night at 7 against Texas. In their first visit to Omaha under O’Sullivan a year ago, the Gators lost to UCLA and Florida State and quickly headed back to Gainesville.

On the flight home, O’Sullivan jotted down several notes on hotel stationary detailing things he would do differently if the Gators made it back to Omaha in 2011. They are now back, including making the trip out a day earlier to get better adjusted so they can hopefully hang around for a while.

The man at the center of it all isn’t ready to celebrate. In his view, the job has just begun.

“I mean, it’s great that we’ve gone back-to-back for the first time,’’ O’Sullivan said. “But honestly, I don’t put a whole lot of stock into it. I think it’s one more thing you write on a piece of paper. In the grand scheme of things, we’re here to win national championship.’’

*****

At 42, O’Sullivan is now old enough to be twice as old as his players. He’s developed some patches of gray hair and a different perspective on life. He has married and become a father since taking over the Gators on June 14, 2007.

Still, O’Sullivan’s love affair with the game has not wavered. He can’t wait to get to work in the mornings and is often on the phone until late in the search of that next player that could make a difference.

“It doesn’t seem like work for me,’’ O’Sullivan said. “This is something I love to do. I’ve always had a passion for recruiting, for identifying talent. That’s what makes the college level so unique, that you get to pick the players that you are actually going to end up coaching.’’

O’Sullivan’s passion rubs off onto the players. Following Sunday’s tension-filled win over Mississippi State, O’Sullivan looked like the 17-year-old kid who celebrated that American Legion World Series title all those years ago.

He fell in love all over again.

“That was only second time I’ve seen him like that,’’ pitcher Hudson Randall said, adding the first time was after the Gators advanced to the 2010 CWS by beating Miami. “It’s great to have a coach who is young and enthusiastic like that. It just gets us pumped up more.’’

O’Sullivan is older and wiser. He has seen the ups and downs that the game and life has to offer. Along the way, he has tried to learn as much as he can from people like Shaw and his college coach at Virginia, Dennis Womack.

He carries the lessons they taught him to the ballpark each day, and he’ll do the same on Saturday night when the Gators face Texas at TD Ameritrade Park. Maybe he’ll remember something Shaw taught him about pitching on a visit to the mound, or something Leggett once told him about running a program or motivating a team.

O’Sullivan is now the teacher and the game his subject.

So far, his class has gone well at UF.

“It’s great that we’ve had some success, but I want to be here for the rest of my career,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I want this thing to be like Florida State or Miami. People have asked me before about what were your goals, what were your expectations.

“I really didn’t have any. I just wanted to make Florida really good.’’

 

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