June 16, 2011

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O’Connor, Corbin Lead Elite Programs

Cavaliers, Commodores Mirror Images of Each Other

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

Twitter - @collbaseball

 

On 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 college baseball.”

 

About 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.

 

Little 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.

 

Today, 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.

 

That 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.

 

In the five years before O’Connor arrived, Virginia average 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 Series.

 

“I’m a 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.

 

“In 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.”

 

Back 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.

 

“I 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.”

 

* * *

 

Before 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 detail.

“I knew that he would be successful,” Pawlowski said. “You're just not sure of the timetable.”

 

* * *

 

O’Connor 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 winner.”

 

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 yard markers.

 

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 baseball ballpark.

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 said.

 

* * *

 

Corbin got the first crack at being a head coach, joining Vanderbilt in 2003.

 

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 Auburn.

 

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.

 

And winning.

 

“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.”
 

* * *

 

O’Connor 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 with anybody.”

 

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 baseball.”

 

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 Charlottesville Regional.

 

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.

 

Most.

 

“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)