It was 2011, a hot and humid day in Gainesville and Kevin O’Sullivan was in shock.
He had just seen Mississippi State knock off his Gator baseball team on a walk-off homer against his best relief pitcher Paco Rodriguez to send the Super Regional series into a Game Three the following day. His message to the team was silence.
“I didn’t know what to say,” he says. “And I was afraid to say the wrong thing.”
That night, O’Sullivan’s phone rang. It was Billy Donovan, then Florida’s basketball coach and a close friend.
He wanted to know what Sully’s message was to the team. When O’Sullivan told Donovan he didn’t have one, Donovan told him to get the team together that night and let them know what the plan was for the following day and that everything was going to be OK.
Florida won the next day and went to the College World Series, eventually reaching the championship series.
It’s fitting that the call came from Donovan because what O’Sullivan has built at Florida has been everything Donovan built on the basketball side.
Keep getting there. One day, you’ll have the right team with the right chemistry and the right breaks and you’ll win it all.
Donovan did it twice. O’Sullivan finally broke through in 2017.
“I talked to Billy a lot when he was here,” O’Sullivan says.
Back in 2008 when then UF athletic director Jeremy Foley hired O’Sullivan, he was looking for another Donovan. Florida baseball had a history of getting to the College World Series, but had struggled to sustain success from year to year.
Foley had tried it with established coaches Andy Lopez and Pat McMahon. Both went to Omaha, but never in consecutive years.
“I wanted something different,” Foley says. “FSU and Miami were there every year. I wanted Florida to be there every year. He shared that vision.”
So Foley hired O’Sullivan, an up-and-comer with a lot of the features he had seen in Donovan so many years ago.
“Absolutely, I wanted to do what we did in basketball,” Foley says. “There were 64 teams in the tournament every year. How could Florida not be in the 64? Kevin had no doubt that would happen.”
And it has.
There was the close call in 2012 when the Gators snuck into the tournament and lost in two games to finish under .500. That team was hit by departing juniors and a recruiting class that was gutted by the Major League draft with so many players choosing pro ball over college.
“You have to take some chances,” O’Sullivan says. “But after that year, we knew we had to do a better job of getting guys that would bypass the draft. You have to recruit the families, make sure that they value an education.”
O’Sullivan has taken six teams to the College World Series and made the tournament every year of his 10 seasons at UF. The 2018 team is expected to be one of the favorites to make it again.
And that’s what O’Sullivan is most proud of — sustained excellence.
“You have to have back-to-back good recruiting classes and if you can get a third that’s even better,” he says. “You have to build on the success. So many schools, you see them win it all and they don’t make a regional the next year.
“Just getting to a regional the first year was big because we had been picked 10th or 11th in the conference. And we just kept building on that. Set the standard and build on that success.”
The building never stops. The freshmen of 2018 are considered to be part of one of O’Sullivan’s best classes.
Donovan is gone, coaching Oklahoma City in the NBA. But his impact isn’t only on the Gator basketball program he left behind.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley. This column first appeared in the December issue of Gainesville Magazine.
Collegiate Baseball Poll
|2. Oregon State||56-6||494||3|
|4. Florida State||46-23||489||6|
|5. Texas Tech||45-17||484||19|
|7. North Carolina||49-14||479||17|
|11. Dallas Baptist||42-21||470||20|
|12. Cal State Fullerton||39-24||469||7|
|13. Mississippi State||40-27||465||13|
|17. South Alabama||40-21||456||26|
|19. South Carolina||35-25||450||—|
|22. Missouri State||43-20||443||11|
|23. N.C. State||36-25||440||30|
|25. Southern Miss||50-16||435||23|
|27. Oklahoma State||30-27||429||—|
|29. Georgia Tech||27-28||423||—|
|31. San Diego||35-18-1||417||—|
|32. Sam Houston State||44-23||414||14|
|33. Texas A&M||41-23||412||8|
|34. Kent State||37-18||410||—|