In just his fifth season at the helm at the University of Florida, Kevin O’Sullivan has already crafted one of the best runs in Gator baseball history: consecutive trips to the College World Series, back-to-back Southeastern Conference titles (2010 and 2011), and three straight SEC Eastern Division crowns from (2009-11).
Inside Pitch caught up with University of Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan, who is married to wife Barbara Jo and has a daughter, Payton Tyler O'Sullivan, to discuss just how he's made the Gator chomp so vicious.
Inside Pitch: When did you realize you were going to be a coach?
After I graduated from the University of Virginia I basically had two career paths: physical therapy or med school, or get into the coaching side of things. I graduated in December, so I had the spring semester at home in Jupiter (Fl.), where I did some substitute teaching and got into high school coaching and from that point on, I knew it was what I was going to do.
A big influence on me was Bob Shaw. He lived in my hometown and took me under his wing. It was very eye opening, an opportunity that most people don't get. After practice, we'd go get something to eat and we'd break it down: pitching, bunting, base running, infield play, you name it. He was such a knowledgeable guy in all phases of the game and to this day, I still remember writing notes down on napkins, going home and thinking about some of the things we spoke about.
Having Coach Shaw get me started in coaching really got me going. He's still probably the smartest baseball guy I've ever met. He'd been at every level- played in the big leagues, worked his way through the minor leagues, was a big league pitching coach, and got into American Legion baseball, which was really competitive at the time. And he referenced people- when he talked about base running, he talked about Maury Wills, when he talked about catching, he talked about Del Crandall. He had such a wealth of knowledge from so many people, and he passed it on, and I was smart enough to really pay attention.
IP: Who are some of the other mentors?
I think you take something from everybody. There are a lot of good X's and O's guys out there, but running a program is more than that- academics, behavior, representing your program and how you're perceived, and getting involved in the community. I learned a lot from Coach Leggett at Clemson. Dennis Womack gave me the opportunity to be a pitching coach. Kevin Cooney was also very instrumental. The bottom line is if you're not observant and you're not paying attention, I think you're missing the boat.
IP: What would you like for people to notice when they watch a Kevin O'Sullivan-coached team?
Hopefully we play the game the right way – fundamentally sound. We're going to play hard; we're going to play fair. The bottom line is that we try to do everything the right way – win with class, lose with class, play hard, play spirited, but at the end of the game, win or lose, we have a tremendous amount of respect for our opponent.
IP: When you got the job at Florida, how did you assemble your staff?
We all come from the Bob Shaw coaching tree. Our assistant coaches, Brad Weitzel and Craig Bell, were both involved in professional baseball and they both were scouts, but really they were baseball people first. I've known them both for over 20 years, and to be able to evaluate talent, to coach and be on the same page – what we want to get across to players is basically the same thing – it's a natural fit. They also have Florida ties, they're very well respected people and they know the state.
I knew it was a little bit different than what others have done in the past, but with the players we're recruiting at Florida, there needed to be professional influence because the players get scouted so much. Above all, they're baseball guys first.
IP: Why do catchers make good pitching coaches?
They have a different on-field perspective. When you're catching at an early age, you learn to become the quarterback of the team, the guy that's supposed to lead. That's ingrained in kids. You have to worry about more people other than yourself; you're always working with the pitcher. It's unlike any other position on the field.
IP: What is your philosophy as a coach on calling pitches during games?
My ultimate goal is to have a catcher and pitcher do their own thing, but a lot of it depends on personnel. This year, with Mike Zunino, I don't call many pitches. Did I call a lot more his freshman year? Absolutely. But I trust him more now, and we have an older team.
Ultimately, you try to put your players in a position to win and it depends on where they're at in their careers; it depends on how many pitches I call. The one thing we have on our players is that we don't have to worry about Math or English or Science, or taking a Chemistry test – the players do. That's where we can help out a little bit.
IP: Your midweek opponents are very, very good. How do you communicate that to the players?
I think it's a product of our opponents. We play Bethune-Cookman, they're a regional team every year. We play Central Florida, they're a regional team. We play Miami, we play Florida State. Our schedule is difficult, it's always a challenge. I don't think we overlook anybody. Sometimes we just get beat by a pretty good team on a night we didn't play as well as they did.
In the long run, it'll make us a better club. We don't necessarily want to be playing our best baseball in the middle of March; we want to play our best come June. There are always peaks and valleys, the national champion every year usually loses between 15-20 games, and it's not always going to be perfect, but with the schedule we have, it definitely hardens us up.
IP: How important is the walk-on/nonscholarship player in your program?
I hate the term “walk-on.” I don't like it because that's not what it is. Oftentimes, when we recruit a player that's not a scholarship player, they think it’s on a year-to-year basis. In our situation, they're on the team. It's not like they're always looking over their shoulder, feeling that they're not as important as somebody else. That’s just my personal preference.
Those guys play a valuable role and they're important for every program. There's no possible way you can get through a season with just 27 scholarship players. For us, they find themselves in the lineup or pitching early on, and there's no difference – they get treated exactly the same and they're extremely important. Everybody from day one gets a fair shot, from freshman to senior, walk-ons to scholarship guys, and our players know that.
IP: What would you like to see changed in the current recruiting process?
I'd certainly like more scholarships than 11.7. To land on that specific number is extremely difficult. For juniors on our team, are they going to sign or come back for their senior year? For incoming guys, are they going to sign or come to school? I think that if our roster limit is 35, we should be able to have 35 scholarship guys and be able to divide the money up the way we see fit.
IP: What is the advantage of a drafted player out of high school playing in college?
Every situation is different. Every 18-year-old coming out of his school is in a different stage of maturity, development, and academics. I think each situation should be dealt with on an individual basis. To throw a blanket statement that “every kid should go to college” or “every kid should sign” on either side is wrong. Do I think college helps? Absolutely. The ability to mature is extremely important in a kid's development.
I've always taken the stance that if you develop, if you mature, then college is a terrific route to go. You're not going to lose your talent overnight, and to play in the SEC in the venues that we play in, to have the support staff with coaches, academic support, training staff, strength coaches – everything that's in place – it would be hard not to get better.
I think in our job we try to not only find good players, but those that truly do have every intention of going to school. That's probably the most difficult job in recruiting; everyone can read a radar gun or a stopwatch, but it's sifting through their true intentions of going to school, trying to recruit kids that want to be here.
IP: How do you utilize video analysis?
As you can see, we have all the DVDs here (pointing to a stack of them). We use it a lot, but the one thing that's conveyed to everyone is that it's not a crutch. Just because someone has a bad performance or a bad game, we're not going to run to the computer and see what's wrong mechanically; oftentimes it's a mental thing. It's used as a tool, but not the only tool.
IP: If you could spend one week with any coach, who would it be and why?
I've always been fascinated with Joe Torre, just how he handled expectations day in and day out with class and poise. There's no job in sports that demands more than the manager of the New York Yankees, and how he was able to sustain that year after year and handle everything, to me was remarkable. He always handled it with class, poise and dignity. He kept that team concept together with so many star players. Everything was done in a professional manner. I've always been intrigued by that.
IP: How do you balance coaching with your personal and family life?
I think it's a personal choice. Anybody in coaching can choose to have balance. Sometimes you have to check yourself, and sometimes you need someone else to check you. I think if you choose to have balance, you can have balance. Yes, there are a lot of demands. Yes, there are expectations, but innately, I think most coaches have higher expectations for themselves and their programs than anyone else.
IP: What's your favorite part of coaching?
I love seeing players develop, improve at their game. I think any coach loves the competitive spirit of our profession and managing games. And knowing that our league is pretty good. It's a lot of fun to coach in the SEC.
IP: What’s the best baseball advice you’ve ever received?
The Bob Shaw theory of work ethic, most important thing of all. Work hard. Regardless of the outcome of today, tomorrow doesn't change. If you win today or play a great game, or if you have an 0-for-4 game, you still come out with the same attitude and the same work ethic. To get a lot, you have to put in a lot. It's as simple as that. IP