After the 2005 Gator baseball season which took them to the College World Series final game, the Florida program looked to stay amongst the elite in the SEC, possibly the nation. Those dreams were met by disappointment as the last two seasons have ended without the Gators having a berth in the NCAA tournament or a record above .500.
With the dismissal of manager Pat McMahon and his coaches, Jeremy Foley tried to find a coach to represent Gator baseball for the long haul. Enter Kevin O’Sullivan, a young, energetic coach who is excited about what the future holds.
The Clemson Tiger baseball team was experiencing an outstanding post season, after an average regular season by Clemson standards. They were a two seed in the Coastal Carolina bracket, a rivalry that had just begun to bud. After many passionate games within the bracket, Clemson eventually advanced to play at SEC powerhouse Mississippi State the next weekend.
The Bulldogs proved to be too much for the underdog Tigers, and beat them on consecutive days by scores of 8-6 and 8-5. After that second loss on Saturday, June 9th, Kevin O’Sullivan felt as if a dream had ended. On the next day however, a brand new dream would begin.
“When I got the call, I was excited about the great opportunity if it were to happen at that point,” O’Sullivan. “I just look forward to the challenge. I automatically started thinking ahead to start recruiting guys to Florida that I had been recruiting at Clemson. Then it was on to putting the coaching staff together.”
The meeting with Jeremy Foley in Gainesville was everything O’Sullivan wanted it to be. Growing up playing high school baseball in Florida, he never dreamed he would one day be coaching one of the instate powerhouses.
“I came down on Wednesday and met with everyone in the athletic department. I accepted the job before the words even came out of his mouth. It all happened pretty quickly. It was something that I was extremely anxious to start and not waste any time.
O’Sullivan has fallen in love with the facilities he has at his finger tips in Gainesville. It’s a rare occasion that you would find O’Sullivan in this office during his first month on the job however, as he has been out on the recruiting trail more often than not.
“I had already been to Gainesville, but not since they redid the stadium,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s all really, really nice. It’s a great place and with the additions to office, training room, locker room and batting cages, it’s now first class all around. It’s something we use on a daily basis, but it’s an excellent complex to use while recruiting.”
Though O’Sullivan boasts 16 years in coaching the game, he has never had a head coaching job at any level. If you give any prospective coach a choice of which collegiate manager he would like to spend time under, plenty of names come to mind.
The SEC alone is full of historical coaches. What men like Ron Polk of Mississippi State have done is simply remarkable. The Big 12 is also full of coaching legends such as long time Texas coach Augie Garrido. When you look at the ACC and even the nation, some think that Clemson’s Jack Leggett sticks out above the rest.
For the past seven years, Kevin O’Sullivan has had the opportunity to work under Leggett. He has learned many skills in his seven years under Leggett and plans to take many of his ideas to the Florida baseball team.
“He’s a very personable friend and a great guy to work for,” O’Sullivan said. “He trusts you enough to let you do your job. He has an outstanding knowledge of the game and has been very successful. All the guys who have coached underneath him have been successful and it speaks volumes about him.
“He’s two best skills are developing practice schedules and motivation. He is great at using the time the NCAA allows to practice and get the most out of it. He’s involved in every aspect of the program daily. When it comes to the kid, he is focused on the academic process, the strength training, and conditioning. When the players work out or run, he’s with them and the other coaches follow suit. He’s just always involved.”
During O’Sullivan’s eight years at Clemson, he helped more than 29 pitchers reach their eventual goal of being selected in the Major League Draft. Of the 29 picks, 11 of them were taken during the top five rounds. Even more impressive are the three first round picks he has coached, including Mike Paradis (1999), Tyler Lumsden (2004) and Daniel Moskos (2007).
“Each one of them brought something to the table,” O’Sullivan said. “A lot of them weren’t drafted from high school and that progression is something I take pride in. Seeing them progress to eventually be drafted, but also help get to Omaha. To see them ultimately reach their next goal, I think that’s just tremendous.”
Over the past two years, the Florida baseball team has fallen somewhat under the radar. This is mostly because of the success the football and basketball teams have had, combined with two less than exceptional seasons.
On O’Sullivan’s trip into Gainesville to meet with Foley, he walked into the baseball stadium with a clear view of the Swamp and the O’Connell Center. Both places have experienced national championships aplenty in the past two years, a far cry from what has taken place on the diamond nearby. It seems that these two stadiums would stand over Alfred A. McKethan Stadium demanding to see the baseball team step up to the challenge. Does this make O’Sullivan feel any pressure?
“To be honest, I don’t feel any pressure,” O’Sullivan said. “I have my own pressure I put on myself everyday. I don’t think pressure from anyone else is greater than the expectations that I have for this program. I think it’s a positive that the basketball and football programs have done so well. We use that in recruiting also. We’re going to do the best job we can and get the best guys possible. I don’t think it’s a pressure situation, but rather a total positive.”
The coaches O’Sullivan has brought on board to assist his efforts at Florida look to be an all star group. Craig Bell has 11 years of coaching experience on the high school level. After helping the Wellington High School win the 6A state championship in 2000, he took a job with the Seattle Mariners where he served as their Supervising Area Scout for the Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“The one word that describes Craig Bell is instincts,” O’Sullivan said. “His instincts as a coach and an evaluator are great. He’s surrounded himself with great people. He has on the field teaching knowledge on all aspects of the game. We have to be able to evaluate the right player and not go after the guy that’s going to sign (professionally) and not show up. He has the right mentality to make sure these kids have the right makeup we’re looking for and have the toughness that we need to win in this league.”
Brad Weitzel also has an outstanding reputation as a scout, with his areas running deep into the state of Florida. He has served as the Florida Area Scout for the Minnesota Twins since 1991. His eye for talent is unquestionable, as he currently has 11 signees in the Major Leagues.
There has been speculation as to which assistant will be named the hitting coach and where other titles will be given. O’Sullivan says that he does not plan on issuing labels, but rather have a coaching staff that knows how to excel at every level of the game. Regardless of which coach focuses on a certain area, it’s obvious that all three of them have outstanding eyes for talent.
“When we put this staff together, what I wanted to do was have a well-rounded staff,” O’Sullivan said. “Some guys get labeled as a hitting coach or an infielder’s coach. In coaching, you use a player’s strengths to put him in the right situation. Coaching is no different.”
“When I put this staff together, Brad and Craig were at the top of my wish list. We all have the same coaching background. Their hitting, fielding, and base running philosophies are all what I would teach if my expertise was in that area of the game. It would be a great mistake to limit either of these guys to only coaching one area on the field. They must have constant communication between each other about where they’re at with certain kids and we’ll do that on a daily basis. I’m going to let these guys go and do what they do best.”
While O’Sullivan already has the title of head coach, he does plan to continue coaching the pitchers and catchers, just as he did at Clemson.
“I’ll still handle the pitching and catching, and that’s one part that will be somewhat separate from the position players,” O’Sullivan said. “Having those two guys on board allows me to have the flexibility to coach the pitching. I’ve been doing it for a long time and quite frankly I didn’t want to give it up. It’s an area we need to improve on quite a bit and with my background it’s a lot easier to sell to recruits since I’ve done that at Clemson for the last nine years.”
Last year’s Florida pitching staff was an obvious weak spot on the team. The pitchers had a team ERA of 5.27, more than 1.5 runs higher than the 3.73 ERA put up by the Clemson Tigers pitching staff O’Sullivan coached. The same Clemson pitching staff had a .263 batting average against them, compared to the .307 batting average against the Gators pitchers.
The most telling stat however could be pitching depth. Last year’s Florida team had only two pitchers maintaining an ERA under 4.00 that threw more than 35 innings, while the O’Sullivan’s Tigers staff boasted seven pitchers with the same qualifications. The stats surely speak of the improvement O’Sullivan will bring to the mound, but from the sound of it, the Gators’ pitchers will be more exciting to watch.
“Our pitchers are going to be aggressive on the mound, I can promise you that,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re going to work fast and they’re going to get hitters to put the ball in play. Guys who do that will pitch, and guys that don’t do that won’t pitch. We’re not going to walk a lot of people and we’re not going to work a lot of deep counts. We won’t be afraid of contact and they’re going to have a quick pace to their game. It’s going to be really just that simple. Everyone who buys into that theory will find themselves on the mound an awful lot.
“We want the ball in play early in the count to keep our fielders active and field as many balls as possible. We want to get our guys in on offense a lot quicker and not be standing around for an extended period of time. We’re going to work hard to get the leadoff hitter of every inning out and we’re going to make quality pitches when we need to. I’m going to make sure they have confidence in themselves and have a great mindset because they’re controlling the tempo of the game. And we’re going to do that here.”
The hitting philosophy however will not be as set in stone.
“We know that we can’t cookie cut every hitter,” O’Sullivan said. “We have a couple guys who can run and are top of the order type guys who need to learn how to bunt and be really good at it. We want those guys to work deeper counts and to work some pitchers. Then we have to depend on some guys in the middle of the order that we have to depend on to drive in runs. We’re going to try and teach each hitter to their strength, rather than trying to teach one philosophy.”
Regardless of whether the Gators are on offense or defense this coming season, O’Sullivan says that they will be an exciting team to watch. They are going to do things the right way, have the ability to get the job done no matter the situation and be a difficult team to beat.
“In every aspect of the game this team will be aggressive,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to be very good at base running and bunting. Every guy in the lineup will have the ability to lay down a sacrifice. We will not be afraid to make mistakes on the field. We want to play with a little bit of reckless abandon and have a chip on our shoulder. We’ll get out there and compete. These guys will be proud to wear a Gator uniform. Most of all though, we’ll be aggressive. I can promise you that.”
When Jeremy Foley announced the dismissal of Pat McMahon, one area he spoke of was lack of recruiting success. O’Sullivan enters as a solution to this problem. Coming from Clemson, he brings a reputation as one of the nation’s most persistent recruiters.
“Working with Tim Corbin (current Vanderbilt head coach) for five or six years and then working at Clemson is where that reputation comes from,” O’Sullivan said. “The bottom line of this business is you have to have good players that fit your system and personality. Regardless of the type of coach you are, you aren’t going to be successful if you don’t have the players. All of our efforts so far by me, Craig, and Brad, have been trying to find guys who fit into this recruiting class. We’ve made some good contacts and have a little ways to go. It’s the most vital part of any program.”
It’s a very good argument to make that college baseball coaches have the most difficult sport to recruit for. Now that basketball is forcing high school graduates to play one year in college, baseball is now the only sport of the big three in which a coach can lose a recruit to college baseball.
O’Sullivan already has an idea of what he would like his recruiting philosophy to be as the Gators head coach.
“You’ve got to roll the dice on a few kids every year but you can’t do it too much in one class,” O’Sullivan said. “You’ve got to pick your spots at a position you can afford it. If you need a catcher in a particular year, you can’t go out after the best kid in the country, have him not show up, and then you’ve got nobody there. We’ve got to have a calculated chance at getting a kid if we’re going to go out and recruit him.”
In the end, O’Sullivan says the coaching trio is mostly excited about the road of head. The University of Florida baseball program offers a unique opportunity to recruit from one of the top high school baseball states in the nation. This combined with the evaluation and recruiting prowess shown by the group, and the sky is the limit for the Florida program.
“We’re excited to be here,” O’Sullivan said. “We know the expectations here and we’re looking forward to meeting them. It’s a great community to be a part of and it’s an outstanding opportunity. We’re certainly looking forward to the challenge.”