Coach Of The Year: UF’s Kevin O’Sullivan

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Kevin O’Sullivan knew it was only a matter of time before Florida won its first national title. After all, he’s long held the belief that it wasn’t a matter of if UF will win a national title, but precisely when that time would come.

That time arrived this season, when on a personal level, O’Sullivan, 48, needed it the most. For that and more, the long-time Gators head coach, who led his team to a CWS Finals win over LSU earlier this week, is the D1Baseball.com Coach of the Year.

“I said before the championship series that I thought my players were champions,” O’Sullivan said. “They were already champions no matter what happened. I didn’t want them thinking they had to win the final two games of the season to have everything validated.

“For me, personally, it was an unbelievable journey, and I loved it,” he continued. “My kids loved it. But again, I wasn’t going to let the CWS Finals determine what this season meant for my team, me, and my kids.”

But let’s face it, winning his and the program’s first national title was a little icing on the cake and the first milestone of what has already been an astonishing career with the Gators. In his 10 seasons with the program, O’Sullivan has now guided the Gators to a national title, six CWS appearances, one second-place finish, while also reaching the NCAA postseason every season of his tenure. That’s incredible consistency.

O’Sullivan might’ve done his best coaching job this season. The Gators didn’t have their most star-studded club. After all, one person close to the program turned to me during the postgame celebration against LSU and made a comment about this being the fourth or fifth-best team Sully had taken to Omaha. You know, that might be true. But while the 2017 Gators lacked overwhelming offensive firepower, they got big hits in big situations, had an outstanding weekend rotation with Brady Singer and Alex Faedo leading the charge, and had Michael Byrne develop into a premier back-end threat that earned him D1Baseball All-American honors.

You know what else Sully instilled into this Gators team? Toughness and grit.

“We didn’t have a single hitter hitting .300 or better. You have to have talent, which we did, and you have to have dominant pitching with a guy on the back end,” O’Sullivan said. “We had to have a guy like Michael Byrne, and we have to have a guy like Tyler Dyson. We had to have that and more. And you know what, that comes from having some grit.”

Kevin O’Sullivan pushed all the right buttons with the Gators in the postseason. (Eric Sorenson)

O’Sullivan has many fond memories from the 2017 campaign. The Gators got off to a rough start in SEC play, getting swept on the road against Auburn. UF needed a spark, and got just what it needed a week later when it took two of three from LSU at home, and almost swept the series. It was at that point that O’Sullivan felt like this team had what was needed to potentially win college baseball’s grand prize.

“After we got swept at Auburn and won two of three against LSU, for me, that was the turning point,” O’Sullivan said. “That showed me something about this team. We could’ve easily been 0-6 in the league, but the boys stepped up, won two of three and got ourselves back in the conference race.”

Another moment that O’Sullivan vividly remembers was the South Carolina series. The Gators skipper remembers enjoying and marveling over a Christian Hicks’ 16-pitch at bat in the middle game of the series, while when the Gators looked like they might be on the way to a series loss to the Gamecocks a day later, JJ Schwarz hit a grand slam in the eighth inning to take a 7-5 lead and ultimately win the series.

Schwarz’s grand slam was a defining moment in the season for the champs.

“There are a lot of moments, but the one that sticks out to me was Christian Hicks’ big at bat. It was so awesome to watch,” he said. “That really got everyone on our team going and it just so happened to occur in the middle of the season. Then JJ hit that grand slam and that just really got this team going.”

Some of O’Sullivan’s best moments this season were outside the lines, too.

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O’Sullivan takes great pride in being successful in this profession. He takes even more pride in being the best father he can possibly be.

So, when circumstances unfolded and he needed his kids, Payton, 6, and Finn, 4, to be more involved in the baseball side of things than in the past, he was more than up to the challenge, no matter the lack of sleep or just how inconvenient things might sometimes seem. A normal day for O’Sullivan during the regular season was rather grueling. The profession calls for late nights, but the dad life requires early wakeup calls, getting the kids ready for school, picking the kids up from school to take them to the ballpark for practice, getting Finn’s jersey on and oh yeah, taking care of that occasional popcorn request.

“It was pretty challenging, but what made it easier is that the players totally embraced it,” he said. “They knew how hard it was for me, bouncing back and forth like that. But they embraced it.”

Sully’s players went the extra mile to make the O’Sullivan kids part of the team. If you watched the Gators throughout the regular season, his son Finn, often wearing a No. 1/2 jersey, would sometimes take batting practice, and in some instances, even take infield before the game. His daughter Payton was involved in other ways. On a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks in Omaha, she stole the show at press conferences. And after winning the bracket championship over TCU, proudly proclaimed “my daddy won!” as the Gators took their seats at the press conference.

Kevin O’Sullivan was joined on the podium by his daughter Payton in Omaha. (Kendall Rogers)

O’Sullivan even made the comment after one game in Omaha that he had about three hours of sleep one night, thanks in part to scouting reports for the next day and an early wakeup call from the kids.

Sully certainly seemed somewhat annoyed at the lack of sleep and the fatigue that was setting in, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was all worth it.

“No words can really describe having my kids in Omaha with me. The feeling as a dad, the memories that they’ll never forget. They don’t know that quite yet, but they will,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. The players just embraced the kids throughout the season and took them under their wing. They were just awesome this season and the past few weeks.”

“Honestly,” he continued, “It was the best two weeks of my life.”

Finn and Payton’s daddy is now a national champion, and they had a front row seat for the ride.

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It’s only been a few days since the Gators won their first national title, but the grind never ends. After returning from Omaha on Wednesday, a few thousand fans were waiting at McKethan Stadium for the Gators to arrive for a championship celebration. O’Sullivan and his coaching staff were back at work Thursday morning getting ready for exit meetings, having meetings about scholarships and taking care of other miscellaneous items.

“Whether you win a national title or not, what I learned today is that you immediately move on to the next year,” O’Sullivan said. “You win a national title and life still goes on. I came home to take care of bills, do some laundry and not much changes. It’s not like you come home, celebrate, then go on a two-week vacation to the Bahamas. We’ve got a lot of meetings to take care of.”

The idea of being a national champion still hasn’t fully set in for O’Sullivan, but he said it might happen this weekend, maybe Saturday or Sunday, when he has a little extra time to think about it.

Then, Monday, it will be right back to work for O’Sullivan and his staff, as they look to earn back-to-back national titles in 2018 with the return of Singer, Dyson, Byrne, Jackson Kowar and a host of others from a team that will forever go down as the first baseball champ at UF.

“I feel like next year’s team is going to be just as good, from where I am sitting, at least,” he said. “We won this title, though, so let’s enjoy it. I’ll find a weekend somewhere along the way to celebrate it. But man, I want to win the next one next year, too.”

O’Sullivan has spent the past few seasons wondering when he might win his first national title. Now, he moves forward looking for a second one.

The championship feeling, at least for O’Sullivan, never stops.

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