College World Series: Brian O’Connor and his coaches have turned Virginia baseball into a powerhouse

Andrew Shurtleff/AP - Brian O'Connor, above, and his assistant coaches have averaged 46.3 wins in their time at Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Within two weeks of arriving at Virginia in the summer of 2003, baseball Coach Brian O’Connor and his two assistants knew two things about the team they had just inherited: The roster had some serious talent and that ping-pong table in the players’ lounge had to go.

So, according to hitting coach Kevin McMullan, they moved the ping-pong table into the shower and placed a few weightlifting machines in the lounge. 

“Our job at the time was to change the culture,” McMullan said. The message behind the locker-room changes: “This is a place where you’re going to work.”

The three men who instilled that mind-set are the same three who preside over Virginia baseball’s prominence today.  

On Sunday, O’Connor and his top two assistants, McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn, will guide the Cavaliers (54-10) — the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed — against California (37-21) in the opening round of the College World Series in Omaha.

Prior to this regime’s arrival, Virginia had one 40-win season in program history and had not advanced to the CWS; the Cavaliers have been there twice in the past three years. In the eight seasons prior to 2004 — O’Connor’s first at the helm — Virginia averaged 28.8 wins.

In the eight seasons since, the Cavaliers have averaged 46.3 wins.

While there are many reasons for Virginia’s relatively abrupt rise to relevance on the national college baseball scene, the coaching staff’s continuity is widely viewed as the primary cause. 

“The fact that we’ve been able to retain our two coaches for an eight-year period is a big factor because I think that plays into the other reasons that we’ve been able to have success,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been able to recruit very well on a consistent basis, and that doesn’t happen unless you’ve had continuity in your coaching staff.

“And we’ve proven a track record to win consistently every year, compete for a conference championship and make it to the NCAA tournament while developing the players for the next level of baseball. It’s all kind of intertwined.” 

Due to the success of the team and of the individual players they’ve instructed, McMullan and Kuhn have fielded interest from several other programs, but they’ve chosen to remain on Virginia’s staff because they each said they feel appreciated by the university and by O’Connor.

Together, the three molded the program into one that fit their collective image: tough, efficient and successful. In that order.

Three years before O’Connor was hired, the university considered demoting its varsity baseball team to club status or cutting it entirely in an attempt to alleviate budget concerns. Enough money was raised through booster donations to save the program, and a new stadium, Davenport Field, was constructed. 

The athletic administration realized a coaching change was needed to accompany all the revitalization. So Virginia hired O’Connor — then the top assistant at Notre Dame — to replace Dennis Womack, who had been the Cavaliers’ coach since 1981. 

“It was definitely a program that had just been saved,” said Mike Ballard, a pitcher who had just completed his freshman season at Virginia when O’Connor was brought on board. “They had just put a lot of money into the baseball program. They had built a new stadium. And with all that investment they wanted to change the culture there.

“It was kind of a, I don’t want to say country club-ish, but it was a little laid-back with the previous coaching staff. But O’Connor and [his assistant coaches] came in, and it was down to business.” 

Every Wednesday during the offseason, the players met at 6 a.m. for sets of 300-yard sprints. They started out doing nine in a given session with one minute of rest in between. By the time winter rolled around, they were doing nine with only 30 seconds’ rest.

Every Monday, the players would participate in various activities as part of the Iron Cavalier Challenge, exercises designed to foster physical and mental strength, as well as camaraderie through shared suffering.

Without that ping-pong table around, the players spent more time in the batting cages. 

“It was a huge change to a mentality of we’re going to be some tough [expletive],” said Ballard, who pitches for Class AA Bowie in the Baltimore Orioles organization. “There’s not going to be anyone out there who’s going to outwork us. It was just a total change from the way things had been previously.” 

During the 2004 season, with essentially the same roster that had won 29 games the year before, Virginia went 44-15 and earned an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1996.

The Cavaliers have played in the NCAA tournament in every season of O’Connor’s tenure, and as the program’s profile improved, so too did the depth of its talent. O’Connor said the recruiting pitch he and his assistants offer to prospects has changed dramatically since he arrived.  

They used to appeal to a player’s desire to make a difference in a program on the rise. Now they’re appealing more to a player’s desire to reap the benefits of a program near the top.

And they can do so successfully, current and former Virginia players said, because while the recruiting pitch has evolved, the message from the top of the program has remained consistent.

“I think at a lot of college programs the main goal is to win, but at the same time they don’t really develop their guys for the next level,” said Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who played at Virginia from 2003 to 2005. “And I think [McMullan] does a really good job of doing both, where everything is kind of geared toward helping the team win, but at the same time, each individual person he looks at differently to make better so he’ll have a chance to play pro ball, to play at the next level.”

Ballard voiced similar sentiments of Kuhn, whom O’Connor considers the best pitching coach in the country. Virginia possesses the top earned run average (2.26) in the nation.

The program’s status is far more elevated today than it was when O’Connor & Co. assumed its reins, but the methods — and the men who employ them — have remained the same, though McMullan said those offseason Wednesday morning sprint workouts start at 6:30 a.m. now. 

McMullan is viewed as the stern, military-type, while one former player called Kuhn “a little Yoda” because he “says some very intelligent things and some things that will make you think.” Alongside O’Connor — who fills the hands-on CEO role, current and former players said — they’ve guided Virginia baseball to a platform that would have been difficult to foresee when they first arrived.

“They’re three kind of totally different pieces to a puzzle, but when you put them all together, there’s just something about it that works,” Ballard said. “It’s just perfect.”

 
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