OMAHA — The “Road to Omaha” statue sits at the corner of Cuming and 13th streets, just a few hundred yards away from home plate at TD Ameritrade Park. There are four players depicted, all in different forms of celebration after a College World Series win.
So when Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin first came to town more than a week ago, he did what most fans do when they make the pilgrimage here for college baseball’s championship: He took a picture with his two daughters in front of the famed sculpture.
A self-described “College World Series nerd,” Corbin then gave his children a history lesson they didn’t initially believe.
“That’s Coach O’Connor from Virginia,” he said, pointing toward one of the bronzed players.
Corbin shared that story on the eve of the College World Series finals, with Cavaliers Coach Brian O’Connor sporting an uncomfortable grin to his right.
Vanderbilt and Virginia will face off in a best-of-three series beginning Monday night, with the winner taking home their first baseball national championship. But it’s O’Connor, whether he wants the attention or not, whose story will dominate the spotlight over the coming days.
The 43-year-old was born in Omaha and then raised just across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He went on to pitch at nearby Creighton, a reliever on the 1991 team that came within one win of reaching the College World Series finals.
Those Bluejays are still talked about by security guards who have worked this event for decades, and many still wonder what might have been had Creighton pinch-runner Steve Bruns not been thrown out at the plate by Wichita State in the bottom of the 12th inning to secure a 3-2 win.
O’Connor was the losing pitcher but was still chosen to represent Creighton on the “Road to Omaha” monument.
“It was ‘Field of Dreams.’ The stadium shook that day,” said Howard Bolden, who called the game on the radio. “It was truly one of the quintessential moments of the College World Series.”
It’s why so many here have adopted Virginia as their team of choice now that O’Connor has built the Cavaliers into a powerhouse over the past decade. This is his third trip to the College World Series as a head coach, and his ties to the area can be seen everywhere.
Down the road from TD Ameritrade Park sits Barry O’s, where O’Connor worked as a bartender to earn extra money when he first began his college coaching career at Creighton. The doormen all donned “Omahoos” or “O’Connor’s Army” shirts this past week, and there’s a framed O’Connor jersey mounted on the wall.
At the Horseshoe Casino parking lot in Council Bluffs is a collection of 13 recreational vehicles filled with parents of Virginia players. The families wanted to spend this College World Series run together like they often do during a typical Virginia home game. Chuck Waddell, the father of Virginia starting pitcher Brandon Waddell, rented them all from a business owned by an O’Connor family friend.
O’Connor’s parents still live in Council Bluffs, where the coach also met his wife.
“Brian being a Council Bluffs guy, you can’t go across the river and talk to anybody. It’s going to be the first thing on their mind and what they want to talk about,” former Creighton coach Todd Wenberg said. “He gets tired of the sculpture, but basically [Virginia] is the home team for the most part.”
True to form, O’Connor played down his Omaha roots Sunday. He says this is no more special for him than any other coach eyeing a national championship. But none of them begged for autographs from the stands or volunteered to string cable for ESPN.
“You grow up in this area, the College World Series is your major league baseball,” he said.
Still, he won’t allow this homecoming to become a distraction, not when Virginia’s roster of eight MLB draft picks is on the verge of fulfilling the expectations that came with being ranked No. 1 in the nation this preseason. He claims only to have left his hotel for games and to eat dinner at Sullivan’s, his favorite steakhouse.
His team, though, has come to appreciate the benefits that come with playing for one of this region’s native sons.
“If you had to pick a team here, they’d pick Virginia because of Coach O’Connor,” senior pitcher Artie Lewicki said. “It’s pretty cool that you can come out here, home away from home really, and have a supporting fan group other than our family and friends.”