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For Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor, all roads have led to Omaha

- - Saturday, June 18, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As a child, Brian O'Connor could look out the window as the family car rolled up I-29 through the Missouri countryside, back into Iowa, and see the signs telling him he was heading toward Omaha, Neb.

His entire life, all roads have led to Omaha.

He was born there, grew up across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and played college baseball for hometown Creighton. This weekend, his Virginia Cavaliers are back in Omaha for their second College World Series, where they will open against California on Sunday at 2 p.m.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, O'Connor's father, John, would take his three boys on the three-hour drive down to Kansas City where they watched the Royals in their heyday.

"I grew up a Royals fan," O'Connor said, his face lighting up in a smile as he stood along the third baseline at Virginia's Davenport Field, not far from where the Cavaliers dogpiled in celebration a few days earlier.

"My dad took us to Kansas City all the time for games. We watched players like George Brett and those clubs that they had, but at that age I never thought I'd be in the position that I am."

Maybe it was done subconsciously then, but three decades later O'Connor, who turned 40 in April, is the head coach of a Virginia Cavaliers program that's become one of the best in the nation. It's a ballclub not unlike the Royals of his youth, a team built for a home park with a deep fence and spacious power alleys.

The Cavaliers (54-10) don't hit many home runs — 24 this season — but boast a staff of gutty, cerebral pitchers and the lineup sprays timely hits all across the outfield.

And wouldn't Brett have been impressed Monday when Virginia used three singles up the middle in the bottom of the ninth Monday to beat UC Irvine and advance to the CWS?

As O'Connor got older, the College World Series became a bigger part of his makeup. He'd cross the bridge into Omaha and buy a seat at Rosenblatt Stadium. Cliff Gustafson's Texas Longhorn teams played in the CWS 12 times between 1972 and 1989 and O'Connor was in the stands, taking mental notes.

"I really admired the Texas program," he said. "At that time they were the model of consistency. In putting our plan together to have success at Virginia, you look at programs like that."

BOARDROOM OR FILM ROOM

Even after pulling off his blue baseball cap, O'Connor hardly ever has his salt or pepper hair out of place. When he was studying marketing and business at Creighton, people thought maybe he'd become an executive at Berkshire Hathaway and today even in a baseball uniform he looks and sounds the part.

"Brian never came to me and said he was going to be a coach," Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "But I can tell you one thing, after a short period of time in the dugout it was clear he was going to be really good at something down the road. He was, to me, the can't-miss kid."

Hendry will be in Omaha this weekend not only to watch his friend and protégé go for a national championship, but also to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Creighton's only CWS team. Hendry was the Bluejays' coach, O'Connor the closer.

As a college player, O'Connor began learning to be a college coach, developing the diligence that helped turn Virginia into a powerhouse.

"I looked at my college experience and the success we had there and what I learned there to manage a team and organization to have success," O'Connor said.

The demeanor that made people think O'Connor might someday lead meetings in a boardroom later drew recruits to UVa.

"I just love how he's real professional," said Chris Taylor, whose two-RBI single Monday was the Super Regional winner. "The way he runs our team. ... I came to a practice and the way the practice was run, everything was so high intensity. It seemed like something I wanted to be a part of."

COACHING PRODIGY

When he was 23, O'Connor moved away from the Greater Omaha area, but had it in his head that one day his teams would be annual visitors. Underneath the polite, sometimes soft-spoken exterior was a competitor with a drive that wouldn't fail.

"He's a clean-cut, good-looking guy," Hendry said. "When he was younger he didn't look like the tough guy that he really was."

Paul Mainieri saw that toughness when he was hired to take over the Notre Dame program before the 1995 season. O'Connor was barely older than the Fighting Irish players, but Mainieri put him in charge of the pitching staff.

"A year after college I had him as my No. 1 assistant at Notre Dame because I could see there was something special about him," said Mainieri, now at LSU. "Not only was he inordinately mature for that age, he had a total grasp and understanding for an entire team to win."

Notre Dame won five straight Big East titles and made it to the College World Series in 2002. O'Connor turned down at least four head coaching offers before Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage called in 2003.

"I told Craig if he hired Brian O'Connor his reputation as an athletic director would be made," Mainieri said. "I think I was pretty prophetic about that."

Virginia never had sustained success and a few years before decided against a proposal of cutting baseball scholarships and making it little more than a club sport, instead deciding for a push to become one of the game's premier programs.

O'Connor had a plan to make it happen, but it required winning the full support of the university and the Charlottesville area.

"When Coach O'Connor first got here he told the administration we were going to do it and when we did they needed to be ready to respond," Cavs pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. "That when was our first year when we had a very good record and was able to host [an NCAA regional]."

Today, Davenport Field hardly resembles the stadium it was in 2003. The original grandstand held 1,500 fans, but now seating stretches around the outfield to accommodate sell-out crowds of 5,050. Underneath the seats are modern clubhouses, an indoor hitting area and, perhaps most importantly, a film room.

The Cavalier coaching staff scrutinizes the opponents' every play on video, knowing exactly how it wants to pitch to each hitter and precisely where to shift outfielders, depending on the batter and the count.

On the recruiting trail, O'Connor looked for players that had the same desire to build a winner he did.

"That was our pitch," he said. "Do you want to go where it's comfortable and they've always had success or do you want to say for the rest of your life you made the difference in a program going to Omaha?"

Heading to his second CWS as head coach, the recruiting pitch has changed a bit. But it's about the only thing about O'Connor that has.