GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan was reminded Wednesday of something former Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan once told him.
After all, the two have plenty in common now.
Donovan, of course, won two national championships on the hardwood with Florida, O’Sullivan just delivered the Gators their first College World Series title and both needed 10 seasons at the school to reach the pinnacle of their respective sport.
The celebration of the school’s first national championship in baseball continued Wednesday evening at McKethan Stadium as O’Sullivan tried to put the significance of the moment in perspective.
“To be honest with you, I don’t feel any different. I’m still numb about the whole thing, but I remember talking to Billy Donovan about this,” he said. “You think this profession is about winning the last game of the year and you think everything’s going to change, and it just doesn’t. It’s really about the players. It’s about the relationships. I think he was spot on, to be honest with you. Nothing’s changed really.”
O’Sullivan was already back to work Wednesday with the Gators hosting recruits on campus. He was preparing for his exit interviews with his players Thursday and needed to crunch the scholarship numbers for the 2018 roster.
“I’m just happy for the players, I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “Is it a great accomplishment? Of course. But I knew we’d win one at some point. I just didn’t know when. I was just hoping sooner than later.”
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It already had been a remarkable run for O’Sullivan, national championship or not. But that was the one missing line on his stacked Gators resume. Really, the only missing line.
Since taking over at Florida in the summer of 2007, he has led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament each of his 10 seasons. He guided the program to the College World Series six of the last eight years — more than any other school in that span — and earned a national runner-up finish in 2011.
O’Sullivan had fulfilled the pledge he made to former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who along with former associate athletic director Chip Howard identified the longtime Clemson assistant coach as the right man to turn the Gators program over to a decade ago.
O’Sullivan recounted that story for the fans Wednesday at McKethan Stadium.
Clemson had just ended its season in 2007 and he had his recruiting papers out on the kitchen table while getting ready to hit the road.
“[I] got a call from Jeremy Foley — a 352 number — and I had to call a bunch of my friends to see if it was a joke. Lo and behold, I was on a plane a couple of days later,” O’Sullivan said. “I really did not think I was going to get the job. I think that’s why I was so comfortable in the interview process. I remember going to lunch with Chip, we were just across the street and he said Jeremy wanted to meet with me real quick before I continued the tour. And he only asked me one question when I walked in. He asked me if I could get the Gators to the postseason each and every year, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Next thing you knew, he stuck his hand out, shook my hand and that was it.”
The story drew a loud cheer from the fans, who filled about three-fourths of the ballpark for the celebration.
It has no doubt been a remarkable run for the man most know simply as “Sully.” He’s 448-208 in his time at Florida, is a two-time SEC Coach of the Year honoree, was named the national coach of the year by Baseball America in 2011 and has now strung together three straight 52-win seasons while furthering his reputation as an elite recruiter and developer of top-tier pitching talent.
Only O’Sullivan truly knows what if any pressure he felt mounting in recent years to check that final box, as the Gators went 0-2 in Omaha in 2012, fell short of the College World Series the next two seasons, went 3-2 in 2015 and 0-2 last year as the No. 1 overall seed.
He says he never looked at it that way.
“No, honestly I didn’t. Because when you get to that point of the season, how can it be a failure? You can’t look at it as a failure because there’s only eight teams that go. So what are you going to do? Obviously everybody’s disappointed, but it’s not a failure of a season,” he said. “We just happened to have a gritty bunch that figured it out in the end (this time). What can I tell you?”
Gators second baseman Deacon Liput added his own insight on the matter, saying, “I feel like it’s not really pressure to him because he always coaches his heart out, he always puts teams in the right place and he always has a chance to win it. So I think he’s proved what kind of coach he is.”
They’re both right. The Gators have set the standard so high that perhaps the feat of just getting to Omaha so consistently had been taken for granted or minimized.
But at Florida, it’s always been about national championships. From football to men’s basketball to softball, track and field, golf, women’s tennis, gymnastics, swimming and diving and women’s soccer.
And now baseball.
While O’Sullivan emphasized that he was just happy for his players, they in turn were happy to do this for him.
“Obviously this is huge for him,” shortstop Dalton Guthrie said. “I can’t see him stopping anytime soon. As soon as you get that first one out of the way, with the way he coaches, the way he brings in players, I see it happening for a long time.”
Said Liput: “You can definitely sense some relief. He’s always putting himself in the contest and he’s always putting himself close enough to win it. He just kind of came up shy, but to be able to win one is awesome and he’s only going up from here.”
And infielder Christian Hicks: “I saw him crying a little bit. I know it probably means a lot to him with his kids there and the team, we’ve all worked so hard since the beginning of the fall to get to this point.”
This College World Series championship was well earned for O’Sullivan, and whether he had anything left to prove or not, he can officially remove his name from the list of best coaches yet to win a national title.
The only list for which he applies now is simply that of best coaches in college baseball, but that’s not a new designation.
So what’s next?
Well, the celebration was still going Wednesday when O’Sullivan was already asked if his Gators could do it again next year. He seemed amused.
“We’ll be good enough next year. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “We’ll be talented enough, but I’m going to try to enjoy this one for now.”