June 16, 2011
CWS Statistical Comparison
CWS First-time Appearances
NCAA Interactive Bracket
O’Connor, Corbin Lead Elite
Cavaliers, Commodores Mirror Images of Each
By Sean Ryan
Twitter - @collbaseball
a Saturday night in May 2004, traditional ACC also-ran Virginia
pounded ACC power Florida State 15-2.
Davenport Field, packed to the gills with 2,430
fans, was delirious. The Cavaliers – in the midst of a 44-win
campaign under first-year coach Brian O’Connor (right), 15
better than the previous year – were becoming relevant.
O’Connor said that night: “It was an opportunity for us to
really continue to make a name for ourselves this year. And we
did that tonight.” FSU coach Mike Martin remarked: “It’s
exciting for me to see baseball in this atmosphere in
Charlottesville. This is great for the league, it’s great for
550 miles away, Tim Corbin was in his second year at Vanderbilt.
The same night Virginia beat FSU, the Commodores blanked No. 16
Tennessee on the road and won the series the next day. A week
later, Vandy lost two one-run games at No. 5 LSU and won the
third game. It was part of a 45-win season, 18 better than
Corbin’s first campaign.
did most in the college baseball world know that when Vanderbilt
beat Virginia to win the 2004 Charlottesville Regional, they
would be looking at the start of two unheralded programs’
ascension to elite status.
the Cavaliers are prepping for their second trip to the College
World Series in the past three years, and the Commodores are
giddy about making their first.
the programs reached Omaha this year isn’t a shock. What is
surprising is how they have come from the depths of their elite
conferences to join the likes of Texas, Arizona State, Cal State
Fullerton – and FSU and LSU. What’s even more uncanny is how
O’Connor’s Cavaliers and Corbin’s Commodores have been near
mirror-images of each other.
five years before O’Connor arrived, Virginia averaged 25 wins a
season. The Cavaliers had reached the NCAA tourney once (1996)
in the previous 18 years. In the eight years since he arrived,
O’Connor – who came to Charlottesville after assisting at Notre
Dame – has led Virginia to an average of 46 wins per season and
eight NCAA tourneys, three Super Regionals and two College World
big fan of Brian O’Connor,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said
in the postgame news conference after his Anteaters lost a
heartbreaker to the Cavaliers. “I trust that everybody here and
everybody in this community is a big fan of his. What they’ve
done here is not easy. What they’ve done, in fact, is very, very
hard to do.
the period of the eight years that he’s been here, they’ve built
a program that’s on the short list of the best programs in the
nation…It’s a true program now. It’s not just a good team: it’s
a premier program. What’s been done here is fabulous.”
in Nashville, the Commodores averaged 23 wins a year in the five
years before Corbin arrived and hadn’t been to the NCAA tourney
since 1980. Corbin, who arrived after assisting at Clemson, has
guided Vandy to an average of 42 wins in his nine seasons, seven
NCAA tourneys, three Super Regionals and now, a long-awaited
trip to the College World Series. Sixty-one of his players have
been drafted (11 of whom were drafted multiple times) – eight
Commodores had been drafted the five years before he arrived.
always thought Vanderbilt had the capability of being like
Stanford,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “With the right
leadership, I thought that program could be developed.”
* * *
coming to Vanderbilt in time for the 2003 season, Corbin (left)
was one of the hottest assistant coaches in the country.
As a member of Jack Leggett’s staff at Clemson,
Corbin was regarded as one of the top recruiters in the country
– each of his nine recruiting classes (1994-2002) was ranked in
the Top 25 in the country. The Tigers, in turn, reached the NCAA
tournament each year and appeared in Omaha in 1995, 1996, 2000
and 2002. In 2000, Baseball America and the American
Baseball Coaches Association named Corbin their National
Assistant Coach of the Year.
Others noticed as well.
Gillespie, then the coach at USC, invited Corbin
to join his staff of Team USA in 2000, a position normally
reserved for a head coach. And according to Corbin, there were
some mid-major opportunities, namely Georgia Southern and
College of Charleston.
In 2002, Corbin interviewed at Fresno State. He
and his wife thought it was too far away.
“California to me was like Russia,” said Corbin,
who’s from Wolfeboro, N.H., and was the head coach at
Presbyterian for six years before Clemson.
A week after the interview, he was named the head
coach at Vanderbilt.
“Vanderbilt was different, just because of the
academic background,” Corbin said. “Those are the kind of kids I
wanted to work with.”
Corbin knew success wouldn’t come instantly, but
he was confident he could be successful. He’d seen what had
taken place at schools like Rice, Stanford and Notre Dame.
“There was a blueprint to go by,” he said.
John Pawlowski, Auburn’s head coach, spent five
years working alongside Corbin at Clemson. Pawlowski saw some of
Corbin’s best attributes, remembering how meticulous and
organized Corbin was and how he paid attention to every little
“I knew that he would be successful,” Pawlowski said. “You're
just not sure of the timetable.”
* * *
was a huge part putting Notre Dame baseball on the map.
Mainieri, who had just
become the head coach of the Fighting Irish in 1995, hired a
23-year-old O’Connor, just a few years removed from pitching for
Creighton in the 1991 College World Series. The match was made
possible by Jim Hendry, now the general manager of the Chicago
Cubs. Hendry, who coached with Mainieri’s dad Demie, recommended
Mainieri consider O’Connor to become his pitching coach.
“I knew the kid was destined for greatness,”
Mainieri said. “It’s the best move I’ve ever made in coaching.”
Like Corbin, O’Connor spent nine seasons as an
assistant at a top program. Like Corbin, O’Connor helped recruit
players who would play in the NCAA postseason – Notre Dame made
the NCAA Tournament six times while O’Connor was there,
including a trip to Omaha in 2002 (although the Irish didn’t
meet Corbin and the Tigers). Like Corbin, O’Connor was named by
Baseball America and the American Baseball Coaches
Association as the National Assistant Coach of the Year (in
2001, the year after Corbin).
“He just had a way about him with the kids,”
Mainieri said. “He’d build confidence in the kids but he was
firm with them…he just had that aura about him that he was a
Virginia needed a winner.
The Cavaliers had been at a baseball crossroads.
Consistent success was tough to come by – Seth Greisinger led
Virginia to the 1996 ACC title – and facilities were substandard
to the rest of the ACC. For example, the Cavaliers’ infield
around that time was used turf from Scott Stadium, where the
likes of Shawn Moore and Herman Moore played pitch and catch,
turf that was pieced together and still bore the indentions of
The university considered changes to the program,
namely lessening baseball’s importance by taking away funding
and making it a non-scholarship sport. Supporters, however,
stepped to the plate, and a commitment was made to enhance the
program. The Washington Post and Chronicle of Higher
Education each reported that Charlottesville resident and
best-selling author John Grisham played an integral role in
making it happen.
In 2002, Virginia opened Davenport Field, a bona fide college
One season later, Virginia called on O’Connor to build a winner.
“I knew when I took this job eight years ago that
if the university was going to be passionate and committed with
regards to the resources that it would take to be successful, I
knew we’d have a chance to have consistent success,” O’Connor
* * *
got the first crack at being a head coach, joining Vanderbilt in
Compared to the next eight seasons, Corbin’s
first year (27-28) wouldn’t seem to be a success. Nothing could
be further from the truth.
Vandy swept No. 13 Florida,
behind a Jeremy Sowers-led pitching staff that allowed four runs
in the series. It took two of three from No. 7 LSU and No. 8
The Commodores entered the final weekend of the
season needing a home sweep of Tennessee to reach the SEC
Tournament for the first time since 1996. After taking the first
two games, Vanderbilt trailed the Volunteers, who needed one win
to reach the league tourney, by a run in the bottom of the ninth
and were down to their last strike when Worth Scott, a .190
hitter, hit a two-run homer inside the right-field foul pole to
lift the Commodores to a win and a spot in the SEC tourney.
“The last weekend, we had to beat Tennessee three
times to go to the SEC Tournament,” Corbin said. “That moment,
more than anything, kind of catapulted our program forward.”
Corbin said the season itself, “was the turning
point in our program.”
Corbin and his young staff, which included Eric
Bakich, now the head coach at Maryland, and Derek Johnson, his
longtime pitching coach whom this year was named the top
pitching coach in the country in a CollegeBaseballInsider.com
poll of Division I head coaches, had momentum on their side.
Pitchers like Sowers, Matt Buschmann, Jensen
Lewis and Jeff Sues and position players like Cesar Nicolas,
Ryan Klosterman, Tony Mansolino and Warner Jones went off to
play summer ball (Sowers, Klosterman and Jones were Cape Cod
League all-stars), and Corbin said the program surged forward.
That made it easier for Bakich, a master
recruiter, and Johnson to bring in players and develop them
alongside Corbin. Players like major leaguers David Price and
Pedro Alvarez and 2011 draft picks Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin,
Jason Esposito and Aaron Westlake (just four of an SEC-record 12
players selected this year).
Corbin said his staff began selling recruits a
vision, selling the academics, selling the SEC and selling a
roadmap that they can come compete and leave with the
opportunity to play professional baseball.
“Kids look at your school a little differently
than they did 10 years ago,” Corbin said.
Yet, he said that selling the dream of being a
professional baseball player is something he very seldom does.
“I would tell you more than anything else, we
sell a lifestyle,” Corbin said.
It’s a lifestyle that includes academics,
athletics and social behaviors.
“Obviously in this league, in how talented the
league is, to average 42 wins a year is phenomenal,” Auburn's
Pawlowski said. “There’s so much parity in college baseball now.
To do what he’s done and sustain it over an extended period of
time is phenomenal.”
* * *
made an immediate splash his first year.
The Cavaliers swept No. 17 Georgia Tech in
Atlanta to open ACC play in 2004, and a few weeks later, they
swept Clemson at Davenport.
“I just thought that those were defining weekends
for our program,” said O’Connor, 32 when he took over the
Virginia program. “That historically those were two programs
that U.Va. hadn’t had a whole lot of success against, it really
sent the players a message: That they absolutely could compete
It also included that weekend in Charlottesville,
when the Cavaliers actually lost the series to Florida State but
left a mark on the Seminoles’ legend of a coach.
O’Connor had his own young and aggressive
coaching staff in Kevin McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn,
who have been with O’Connor every step of the way.
“The consistent recruiting has happened because
of three things,” O’Connor said. “One being that we’ve gotten
consistent results on the field and your players want to be a
part of that; and we’ve had the same coaching staff for eight
years recruiting those players; and we’ve proven to recruits
that they can come to the University of Virginia to develop
their skills to have opportunities at the next level of
Stars of yesterday Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds
and Joe Koshansky who reached the major leagues have paved the
way for pitchers Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts and Tyler Wilson
and position players John Hicks and Steven Proscia to be drafted
in the top 10 rounds of this year’s draft.
“He’s maybe even exceeded my expectations,”
Mainieri said. “I’m not surprised he’s having a lot of success.
But the success he’s had is on another level.”
* * *
The rookie coach Brian O’Connor matched wits with
the “veteran” of two years Tim Corbin in the 2004
The Cavaliers dug themselves a hole by losing
their first game to Princeton – a 4-2 defeat to future major
leaguer Ross Ohlendorf. They battled back to face Vanderbilt for
the right to play Texas in the Austin Super Regional.
Virginia, shy on pitching from working its way
through the losers’ bracket, got roughed up by Warner Jones (4
for 5, 2 RBI) and Aaron Garza (3 RBI). Matt Buschmann allowed
three runs (none earned) in 6.2 innings for the Commodores.
Virginia ended its season 44-15. Vanderbilt
traveled to Austin and suffered two straight losses to the
Longhorns to finish 45-19.
In the seven years since that meeting, Virginia
and Vanderbilt have more than doubled the size of their
stadiums, and the Killer V’s have piled up a ton of victories.
More than most ever would have imagined.
“I thought Brian was one of those guys…who was
very intelligent and very smart and willing to do whatever it
took to build a ball club,” Corbin said. “I think he’s put
together, like us, a staff of very good teachers and coaches who
get the right player for who they are. They’ve done a great job
of getting that kid and securing them and done a great job of
developing them while their there.”
Added O’Connor: “I knew that when we played
Vanderbilt that year, they were going to do something special
and consistent with their program. And I knew we would to.
“I’m really happy and excited for Tim Corbin and
their team; they’ve been No. 1 in the country at different times
the last few years… It’s so unfair sometimes that programs are
judged whether they get to Omaha or not. Look what they’ve done
in their program for the last nine years. That shows how hard it
is to do. I think sometimes people take that for granted.”
The Cavaliers and Commodores haven’t played since
2004. If it were to happen this year, Virginia and Vanderbilt
would be battling for a national title in the championship
series of the College World Series.
It would be a national title matchup of teams
that when they look in the mirror, they see the other.
(UVa celebration photo by Jim Daves,
Virginia Media Relations, other photos by Jimmy Jones)