How close was Brian O’Connor to taking the LSU job?
The news that Paul Mainieri broke on our “Jerry Ratcliffe Show” podcast a couple of weeks ago about trying to talk Brian O’Connor into replacing him at LSU was so subtle that even Jerry and I missed out on what he’d had to say.
It was at the 34:22 mark in the podcast, in response to a question about O’Connor deciding to start Devin Ortiz in the Regional clincher against ODU.
The full response from Mainieri:
“Brian and I have, we kind of know each other so well that we knew, I knew what he was thinking and what he was going to do,” Mainieri said. “We’ve made a lot of decisions together about pitching, you know, through the years. Back in the Big East Conference, when we were at Notre Dame, we made decisions, and with the USA team. I mean, Brian makes good decisions all the time. You know, they don’t always work because, you know, you’re dealing with human beings, but he knows what he’s doing.
“You have an unbelievable baseball coach at Virginia, not just because he’s my friend. I know I’m biased. But this guy knows the game, and he is absolutely phenomenal. I wish I could have talked him into leaving Virginia to come and replace me at LSU, but he wouldn’t bite. You know, he loves it where he’s at, he loves Virginia, and he wants to be the coach of Virginia, nowhere else,” Mainieri said.
I present this in defense of how it wasn’t Augusta Free Press or JerryRatcliffe.com that broke the story about LSU’s efforts to see if O’Connor would “bite” at the job, but rather The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, and staff writer Wilson Alexander.
LSU, rebuffed, would eventually name Jay Johnson, recently of Arizona, which also made it to the 2021 College World Series, as its next coach, who, OK, can you imagine how he feels, knowing that he wasn’t the first choice?
That’s for LSU baseball to deal with down the road. They’ll do just fine there, with their six national titles and 18 CWS berths to fall back on, not to mention the 10,000 bloodthirsty fans who fill Skip Bertman Field for mid-week games in February, much less the SEC weekends.
The bigger story to me is how it is that O’Connor turned down arguably the plum job of college baseball when it was dangled in front of him, and not just that, but turned down his mentor in the process.
Seriously, LSU baseball is the Duke basketball and Notre Dame football of the sport of college baseball.
It’s the job.
I’m analogizing Mainieri asking O’Connor to replace him at LSU to Dean Smith calling Roy Williams at Kansas and saying, Roy, we need you.
I’ll explain myself here, using our conversations with Mainieri and O’Connor on “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show” to illustrate.
“I was named the baseball coach at the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 1994. Jim Hendry has had been my best friend in the world for several years. We had coached high school baseball together. Jim Hendry and I actually became best friends in the summer of 1978 when I was playing in the Cape Cod League and Jim was an assistant coach on the staff, and we just became unbelievable friends. And then after Jim and I were coaching high school together in Miami, Fla., Jim was offered a position to become the assistant baseball coach at Creighton University, eventually became the head coach at Creighton University,” Mainieri said.
“He had a righthanded pitcher on his team by the name of Brian O’Connor in 1991. Ironically, 30 years ago, now, they’ll be having the reunion of that 1991 Creighton Blue Jays team that went to the World Series. They’ll be having a reunion this weekend. And Brian pitched for Jim, and was a great competitor as a pitcher, as you might imagine.
“So, I was named the coach at the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 1994. And I called Jim up and I said, Jim, I need to find a pitching coach. And he said, I’ve got the perfect guy for you. He was a 23-year-old, runny-nosed, just graduated, a guy who had coached one year back at his alma mater at Creighton as a what they called a restricted earnings assistant coach.
“I called Brian up on Jim’s recommendation, and Brian met me and in South Bend, Ind., and we sat down to have dinner. And I knew within 10 minutes, Jerry, that he was the right guy for the job, and I hired him as my number one assistant coach,” Mainieri said.
Some context here: Hendry would go on to become the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, serving in that capacity from 2002-2011, and is now a special assistant to New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman.
Hendry is the guy who gave O’Connor his first coaching job, and recommended him to Mainieri for his second, the big break at Notre Dame that would lead to him ending up at Virginia.
The three would reunite in 2018 when Mainieri was named to serve as the head coach of the 2018 Collegiate National Team, and brought on O’Connor as his pitching coach and Hendry as his bench coach.
“Boy, did we have a great time doing that,” Mainieri said. “We beat the Chinese Taipei team five straight times, we beat the Japanese national team three out of five, and then we went down to Cuba and beat them three out of four. So we had a lot of success. We had a lot of fun. And it was really a highlight of my professional life to spend that summer with those guys again,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri and O’Connor worked together on the Notre Dame staff for nine years, “and I don’t think we had a disagreement in the nine years,” Mainieri said.
“He was a phenomenal assistant. He turned down several head coaching opportunities to stay with me at Notre Dame because he just didn’t feel like he was ready.”
It was Mainieri who fielded the call that would lead O’Connor to Charlottesville.
“I’ll never forget the day,” Mainieri said. “Brian was out recruiting, ironically, I think he was in Nebraska. I got a phone call from Craig Littlepage, former athletic director of Virginia. I spoke with him for about 45 minutes on the telephone about Brian. And I told Craig Littlepage, I said, Craig, your reputation as an athletic director will be solidified if you hire Brian O’Connor as your baseball coach.
“It’s a pretty bold comment, but I believed in Brian that much. And obviously, it made an impact on Craig, because he ended offering Brian the job.
“I called Brian after I got off the phone, and I said, Hey, Brian, I just got off the phone with your new boss. He was like, what are you talking about? And I said, I just talked to an athletic director that I think’s going to offer you the job, and I think it’s the right spot for you. After you’ve turned down these other positions, I think this is the right one. And he said, where, and I said, the University of Virginia, and Brian’s reaction was, Wo-o-o.
“I knew then that it was going to be a match made in heaven,” Mainieri said. “I’m not surprised at all with the great success that Brian has had there. He’s been terrific, I know, for the community there in Charlottesville and the state of Virginia. And he’s still got a long ways to go. He’s still going to do some great things. And I’m his number one fan, believe me.”
A special place
O’Connor took the Virginia job in July 2003, a year after helping Mainieri take Notre Dame to the College World Series.
Mainieri would move on to LSU in 2007; a year later, he had the Tigers back in Omaha, and in 2009, after beating O’Connor and UVA in the CWS opener, he would guide LSU to its sixth national title.
O’Connor, on his side of the ledger, has led Virginia to a 750-319 overall record in his 18 seasons, and his .701 winning percentage is the second highest of any active coach in NCAA DI baseball.
Things have worked out well for the long-time friends, who have remained as close as they were when they had offices across the hall from each other in South Bend, talking several times per week, about life, about what each was going through with their baseball programs.
“We kind of live through each other,” O’Connor said. “When we were together at Notre Dame for nine years, we had offices right next to each other, and Paul was around for the birth of each one of my children. Just a major influence in my life. When you when you live with somebody like that for that long, you grow very, very close, and then what happens is you just live your life through the other person as well.
“In the years that he was at LSU, and now he can say that about me being here, Virginia, you know, I just felt like I was a part of so many of the decisions that he had at LSU and was kind of living with him there and me here, and we’d always talk to each other, about all kinds of everything, you know, like things would happen on your team and discipline of your players, and how you’re handling your club at this crucial time, and, you know, he’s just been that guy for me, and vice versa, that we bounced everything off of each other on, you know, everything to have to do with managing a college baseball program.”
Here’s where we get to O’Connor’s version of the story of him being asked to consider replacing Mainieri at LSU.
“You know, as friends do, we talk and, you know, I, I knew there was a lot of things going on his life, and his career was starting to come to an end, and I talked to him a lot this year about that decision and how he was feeling and what his future looked like, and, you know, through that, as friends, you know, he would often joke around, I don’t know that he was joking, but he would bring it up that, wouldn’t it be something if you, you know, succeeded me here at LSU? We had conversations about that as friends, and, you know, and him, along with others, tried to see if they could make that happen,” O’Connor said.
More context here: O’Connor’s contract was coming up at Virginia. He’d signed a seven-year deal in 2014. He was due a $500,000 longevity bonus on June 1.
Nobody would be able to say boo if O’Connor were to have decided to move on.
He’d built Virginia baseball from the ground up, taken the program to its first Super Regional, its first World Series.
This year’s group is the fifth under O’Connor to make it to Omaha.
If he were to leave, he’d leave Virginia baseball in an infinitely better place than he’d found it.
UVA had been thinking about cutting baseball back before O’Connor was hired in 2003.
Davenport Field wasn’t much more than what the area high schools had to offer.
The next guy would have the challenge of having to replace the legend, but recruiting to a place with the success that O’Connor has had, and with the facilities that Virginia now has in place, would be something to build on.
But O’Connor, as Mainieri said, wouldn’t bite.
“This is a special place for my family,” O’Connor said. “And, you know, I just, you know, I reflect and think about that, this team, the University of Virginia, behind the University of Florida, has been to the second most College World Series appearances since 2009, and so, you know, we were right there in the thick of it again, this year, for a chance to win it.
“This place provides our players and our coaches the same opportunity that a place like that can. Now, you know, the LSU fans might not agree with me, you know, on that, but, you know, the proof is out there, and you know, what we’ve delivered in this program over the last 11 or 12 years, and the trips to Omaha, what I’m telling, what I’m saying is the truth. The University of Virginia is a special place, and it’s home for us. And I’m glad that it worked out for us to continue to be this this for us to be home for us.”
Was he close?
O”Connor conceded to at least thinking about it.
Again, there is a lot to lure you in that respect – the pedigree, the fan base.
And we’re not even talking here about the money. O’Connor’s UVA salary in 2021 was $765,000; LSU was paying Mainieri $1.125 million a year under his deal, and was rumored to be willing to go as high as $1.5 million if O’Connor were to bite.
“I mean, obviously, you know, you’re human, you always think about things and whatnot, but, you know, my heart has always been here, my head’s here,” O’Connor said. “I believe that we still have great work to do here, we’ll continue to do great work. And, you know, this is something that we’ve taken a special pride in, I say we meaning, you know, the other coaches, myself, everybody involved with the program, and you know, just feel like there’s continued work to be do, and I just never believed that you have to make a change to make yourself happy. Right? And you can find new ways to have new challenges in your life and new challenges for the program and new standards and things to try to accomplish without changing your area code. And so, we’re excited to be in this position for years to come.”
To close the loose ends here, the University announced over the weekend that it had come to terms with O’Connor on a six-year extension that will keep him on Grounds through the 2027 season.
This likely signals, for a coach who turned 50 in April, that he’s at Virginia for the duration.
“We obviously still need to deliver and deliver results, and there’s expectations and all that, but you know, this is this is home for us, and it’s a special place,” O’Connor said. “Many people have been around this community for a number of years. We’ve only been here 18 years, and I can see why, Jerry, I can see why you love it here. I can see why, you know, people that grew up around here, you know, have been here for an extended period of time, don’t leave, because this is, it’s a special place.
“And for Cindy and I, this has been all our kids have known, right? This is home. This is, you know, our second daughter’s a student, you know, just finished her first year here. You know, I can you can see why people stick around here, because this is a special community and certainly, especially, university.”
Story by Chris Graham