My Q&A with Virginia's Brian O'Connor

How ironic it was to be walking up to Hooks Stadium at Wake Forest last Saturday, as the stadium p.a. was cranking out Ozzy Osborne's "Crazy Train." An appropriate song since I was about to interview Virginia head coach Brian O'Connor. I say that because the only previous experience I'd had with O'Connor was during his playing days and I thought he was crazy.

Don't worry, you'll see what I mean by that in a bit.

First, I showed up a little bit late for my pre-game interview with the Wahoo coach. Didn't mean to, it's just that the Wake campus was a little tough to find for a newbie like me. And secondly, since his Cavaliers had lost the day before to the Deacons, I feared he wouldn't be in the best of moods.

So I thought wearing a Creighton University T-shirt might help me score some brownie points with him, since he is a CU grad and baseball letterman. (I know, I'm an unseemly sycophant on this one.)

We shook hands at the fence down the right field line as Ozzy was still doing his thing on the loudspeakers.

Me:
Hi coach. I'm Eric Sorenson from CSTV.

Coach O'Connor:
Hi, good to meet you. (then he looks at me sort of cock-eyed...) Nice shirt.

Me:
Thought you might like it (I said with a cheshire cat's grin). Just as a starter here, I know it's early in the season, but how do you like your team so far? Is it what you expected?

Coach O'Connor:
I like our team. It's pretty much the same ball club we had back from last year, plus three left-handed pitchers and a little more depth. I think we're playing good baseball - although I would've liked to have gotten a win yesterday - but that's baseball in this league. If you don't play well, you don't win. But I like what I've seen. We've got good pitching depth, good position player depth. We've got what we need, which is an experienced club.

Me:
Let me backtrack just a bit, you grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, right?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah.

Me:
Was there any thought to going someplace other than Creighton to play college ball?

Coach O'Connor:
I did consider some other schools, but the more I got recruited by Coach Hendry (Jim Hendry was the CU coach at the time and is now Chicago White Sox GM), he sold me on the fact that Creighton was the right place. I really just went there for him, more than anything else. I just believe that as a recruit you should base your decision on the coaches and your confidence in them. So it was an easy decision for me.

Me:
So I assume some of the things Coach Hendry did have rubbed off on you and some of the things you do as a coach?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, he was a tough coach. He challenged us and treated us like men. He made a huge impact on me. In fact, he is the reason I went into coaching, because he made such a profound impact on me as a player. You know, after playing for him, I knew that was what I wanted to do was go into coaching.

Me:
Well, to be honest with you. I dig the guy simply for the fact that I'm from Omaha and he brought Creighton to the College World Series. So I'm thankful for that.

Coach O'Connor:
(laughs) Right. Right.

Me:
You didn't stay in pro ball too long, what was your reason for not playing longer?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah, as I said, I knew while I was at Creighton that I wanted to be a coach. But I was fortunate enough to be drafted by the Phillies, I played one year and had some arm problems. The same arm problems I had in college. But I was fortunate during that off season that the pitching coach job came open at Creighton. And as you may know, getting good coaching opportunities is all about timing. They changed head coaches that fall, so I got the chance to become the pitching coach at my alma mater at the age of 22.

Me:
So that was the year that Jack Dahm became the coach, right?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah, Coach Dahm's first year. Then after one year there, I got the chance to be the pitching coach at Notre Dame. And you know, I got the Notre Dame job because of Jim Hendry. He and the Notre Dame coach (Paul Mainieri) were best friends.

Me:
Is that right?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah. So you see that it's all about being in the right places and I've been fortunate in my career.

Me:
After you were at Notre Dame for a few years, the Virginia job came open. Did you have any other overtures of going someplace else. Why did you take this job?

Coach O'Connor:
Actually, the same time the Virginia job came open, the Creighton job opened up. I considered it and went on an interview there. And you know, as special as my alma mater is to me, I just felt the Virginia job was the right fit for me at that time in my career. Because I really felt like this was one of the few remaining sleeping giants in baseball. I think when you get to offer one of the top educations in the country and to play in one of the best baseball leagues, that's the recipe for success.

Me:
Do you like the commitment you've gotten from the University?

Coach O'Connor:
Absolutely. They are 100% committed to winning in baseball and that was what made my decision. You don't want to go somewhere where you're fighting for everything from the University. They give us the resources to have success here and that's a big part of it.

Me:
Okay, back to this year's team. Talk about Sean Doolittle a bit. How does he rate with some of the pitchers and players you've coached over the years?

Coach O'Connor:
Well, he ranks right up there with the better players. You know, it's so rare in baseball at this level to find a guy who can be one of your starting pitchers and be so good as he has been on the mound, and still have him hit in the middle of your lineup. It's really rare.

I've been fortunate in my four years at Virginia to have two of those kind of guys. We had a kid named Joe Koshansky my first year that was the ACC Player of the Year, he started on the mound and hit in the middle of our lineup. And now he's hitting a lot of home runs in Double-A ball. So it's rare to get a guy like that.

Me:
I know you probably hate these kind of media-type questions, but is this the year you guys get over the hump and take another step forward as a program?

Coach O'Connor:
Yeah, Well, we'd like to think so because we've had three straight years of going to Regionals. So our players have the experience of knowing what it takes to get there. It's just a matter of figuring out what it takes to get past that point. I mean, I like our team. It's a veteran ball club. But you hate to put pressure on your team by saying "this is the year." Things have to go perfectly, there are a lot of good teams out there every year that don't make it to Omaha. But I like our experience, I like our depth and if we get that kind of opportunity again at the end of the year, I like our chances, because our guys have been in those big games before.

Me:
You still talk to Coach Mainieri every so often, I assume?

Coach O'Connor:
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. At least twice a week. You know, he's the best coach I've ever been exposed to. He's a great game-day manager, he's a great recruiter, a great motivator. It won't be long until he gets that LSU team turned around.

Me:
It will be interesting to see how things go down there. He's kind of going through a rough stage right now.

Coach O'Connor:
Oh yeah. But it won't be long. He'll get it turned around.

Me:
Okay, one last thing. Short story on my part here. I actually saw you pitch back in '92. A friend of a friend was getting married in Springfield, Missouri. I didn't know the guy real well, but Creighton was playing at Southwest Missouri State that weekend, so I went with some friends of mine, just for the hell of it. We went out to see you guys play out at old Meador Park.

Coach O'Connor:
(starting to grin...) Uh-huh.

Me:
And if you remember, that park had the dugouts and then this fence jutted out down the foul line where people stood right next to the dugout and could see right inside it.

Coach O'Connor:
(starting to grin bigger...) That's right.

Me:
So me and a friend of mine were standing right next to the dugout. When you got done pitching that day, you took off your jersey and had a Harley-Davidson T-shirt underneath it. And for the rest of the game, you held a bat like a guitar and simulated playing "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance, sort of mocking the other team.

Coach O'Connor:
(laughing) Oh man.

Me:
I don't suppose you remember that, right?

Coach O'Connor:
I don't remember it, but back in those days you tend to do a lot of crazy things, you know? (Laughs). As with most pitchers, there's always a screw loose. But I took a lot of pride in playing hard between the lines. I mean, baseball's an odd game and sometimes there's those odd characters in it, you know?

Me:
Yeah, in fact, when you got the job at UVa, that same friend of mine called me and said, "Oh my God, did you see who got the Virginia job? It's that guy that played 'Dueling Banjos' on the Creighton bench in the Harley T-shirt." And I said, "Oh Brian O'Connor got the job. That's awesome!"

Coach O'Connor:
(Laughing) Oh, that's funny. You know what, that just goes to show, somebody is always watching. And I tell you, when you're coaching, you deal with all kind of players and all kind of personalities.

Me:
So you have a Brian O'Connor-type of guy on your team this year?

Coach O'Connor:
Oh yeah, you always have a couple of those. They always rotate a few in every year.

Me:
That's wicked. Coach, that's about it. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.

Coach O'Connor:
Hey, thanks for coming out. No problem. I'm going to go hit some ground balls now.

With that, we shook hands and he grabbed a fungo bat to go hit some grounders to his players in warm-ups. Not to play an air guitar this time.

And although that Ozzy song that was blaring on the p.a. was long over with by now, it did remind me, in the words of the Oz-man himself -

"Crazy. That's how it goes."

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert