Inside Pitch Magazine, Summer 2016

Cover Interview: Brian O'Connor, University of Virginia

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverThe head coach at the University of Virginia since 2004, Brian O'Connor is a five-time ACC Coach of the Year and three-time National Coach of the Year. In addition to bringing the 2015 NCAA title to Charlottesville, O'Connor boasts the third-highest winning percentage of all current head coaches in Division I baseball and the 14th-best mark all-time. O'Connor is the second fastest ACC coach to reach 500 career wins and has ushered a boatload of talent into professional baseball, including the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, Sean Doolittle, and several others.

He came to Virginia after nine years at Notre Dame (1995- 2003) under current LSU coach Paul Mainieri, when he was named the 2001 National Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association and Baseball America and was AFLAC National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2003. Inside Pitch recently visited with the Cavaliers’ head coach to talk about how he manages his clubs, his staff, and the winning culture he has developed at UVA.

Message to team during postseason

My message changes from year to year. I don’t treat any of the teams the same because they’re different in terms of experience; every ball club is different. I treated and talked to our 2015 team, for example, differently than we ever have. I’m not saying we won the national title because of that, but I think it’s our responsibility as coaches and leaders of the program to figure out what makes each team tick and get them to play their best baseball at the right time.

There have been some years were I’ve had to be really hard on the guys and challenge them. That’s just a gut feel I have as a coach on how that particular club needs to be managed.

I’ve learned a lot form my mistakes over the years. Our first few years here we had some pretty good ball clubs. Our 2007 team in particular was a really special team, and Oregon State ended up coming in to our regional and beating us twice to advance on and win the national championship. I didn’t really do a good job of managing them, their emotions, and the team as a whole. I’ve learned from those mistakes and made some adjustments over the years and I think it’s served our program well.

Adjustments throughout the season

We don’t change our expectations throughout the season. Instead, we stress and dwell on our everyday expectations. Certainly not wins and losses, but executing the game, taking care of the game, the expectations we have for each other on how the game should be played. We don’t talk a lot about goals – certainly there’s large things like winning an ACC championship and getting to Omaha – we talk about how to do those things in small detail, but not about winning games. We don’t talk about winning every series or a certain amount of games, it’s more of a day to day thing.

Learning

I feel like I’m always learning. If we feel like if learning stops and we have it figured out, we need to go do something else! I’m learning from the players every day, and from other coaches- coaches across the country- I’m constantly picking their brains on how they handle certain situations. One example of that is last year when we were scuffling, one of the best conversations I had was with John Savage at UCLA. We had about an hour-long conversation and he im- parted some pretty good wisdom on me. We’d lost in the national championship in 2014 and halfway through 2015 I just felt like things were becoming unraveled. A similar thing happened [at UCLA] the year after they won the national championship.

I think we’re always teaching too; the more you’ve been around, the more wisdom and knowledge you have that you want to impart on people—but you’re always learning.

Coaching hitters as a former pitcher/pitching coach

It’s pretty simple. In our system, Kevin McMullan is our hitting coach and works day to day with our offensive players, and our volunteer Matt Kirby is involved as well. I let them do their jobs. With that said, being around the game and knowing the game, you don’t want to make it harder than it is. I’m still involved with hitting and I talk to the guys about adjust- ments, but it’s got to be done in a certain way so that Kevin and I are on the same page.

Assistants

We’ve been together for 13 seasons and that’s pretty much unheard of at this level of college baseball. It has as much to do with our success as anything, quite frankly. With the continuity for the development of our players; we’ve had a very, very consistent message and we’re on the same page, and certainly with recruiting to have the same guys together for such a long time [is an advantage]. I wake up every day and I’m glad those guys are still at the University of Virginia.

Building Staff

When I got this job, I was 32 years old and I had never been a head coach. Quite frankly I didn’t know quite what to do. I leaned on my mentor, Paul Mainieri, who I worked for at Notre Dame. The most important thing was for me to find two guys who were highly motivated, that were hungry, that wanted to put the same time, desire and passion in that I did. Those guys were Kevin and Karl Kuhn. Not knowing for sure what you’re getting yourself into, I’ve been fortunate. They’re both exceptional at what they do, and it’s allowed me to interject in a lot of different areas and spend a lot of time one-on-one with players. Not being the everyday pitching coach, I miss it, but I have zero regrets about it, given where we’re at now.

Culture

It’s something that’s developed every day within the walls of our locker room and our stadium. Every day. It doesn’t just immediately happen. I remember the first practice I held as a coach here like it was yesterday.

The words that come out of your mouth, how you treat your players, the attention to detail and the accountability to what’s important is critical. ‘Culture’ is a hot word now, people talk about having a great culture, but a lot of people aren’t willing to do what it takes to have it. It takes saying difficult things, holding players accountable, whatever it is that you think contributes to having a great culture. We laid that groundwork immediately in our first year, and we were fortunate to have guys wrap their arms around it and embrace it.

Now what has transpired is it’s less us [coaches] talking about it, it’s more players passing it down. That’s when you have something really special—when veteran players are telling the younger guys ‘that’s not the way we do things around here.’ It’s so much more effective coming from their mouths than the coaches.’

I think it has to come from the players. If you have the right guys, you don’t have to ask them to do it. They’ve got so much pride in their team, their program and wanting to have success, they’re just going to do it. It’s not for everybody; it’s just not in some people’s DNA to do that. But if you get the right guys who believe the team is the most important thing, you don’t have to ask them to do it.

Defining "Compete"
There are a lot of different ways you can go with that word. Sometimes it’s tough to judge whether somebody’s competing or not. I think the best way is to pay attention to how they handle adversity. If they don’t handle themselves well, if a guy backs down from those situations, you’re not a competitor in my book.

I look for guys who are aggressive, that exude self-confidence, who handle adversity.

It’s difficult to teach players how to compete. Certainly you can train in those situations, using discipline and conditioning and things like that to see if we can bring it out of them. There’s part of this that can be attributed to how they’re brought up. I think there are times you can put kids into a culture—like I believe we have here—and they’ll learn to become a competitor, but I think it’s difficult.

Statue in Omaha

My father owned a company in Omaha that manufactured marble and granite products. He had a relationship with the individual who was contracted by the NCAA to do the sculpture. The sculptor reached out to my father and asked, ‘I’ve got to do this project; do you have any celebration photos of your son I can use?’ It was kind of weird, kind of odd, I didn’t know it was going on until my father later told me about it. I didn’t have any involvement in it, it was all through my father. That’s how the story goes.

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