Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan sat in a royal blue chairback seat behind home plate at McKethan Stadium on the first day of fall practice, watching his team warm up from a distance as a fan approached him.
Three months earlier, rumors surfaced that he was leaving UF to become the next head coach at the University of Texas.
“Thank you for staying,” the fan told the coach before she gave him a hug. “It was going to be a hell of a drive to Texas for a home game.”
O’Sullivan, wearing blue gym shorts and a neon orange shirt as fiery as his personality, lifted the sunglasses from over his eyes and smiled.
“I wasn’t going anywhere,” he responded.
O’Sullivan is on the cusp of a milestone season. No. 3 Florida’s season opener against William & Mary on Friday will mark the beginning of his 10th season as the Gators’ skipper.
It has been a long road for the 48-year-old, one that has seen him bring back conference titles, build up Major League Baseball-caliber players and make baseball a perennial powerhouse again at the University of Florida.
But there’s one piece of hardware missing among all the glory: A national title.
“We’ve built something special here,” O’Sullivan said. “We just have to take that last step.“
Taking that last step has been O’Sullivan’s mission since he was hired in June 2007 to shore up Florida’s baseball program, which had quickly fallen to the bottom of UF’s top three athletic programs with both the football and men’s basketball teams winning national titles the year prior.
Jeremy Foley, Florida’s athletics director at the time, knew O’Sullivan had the credentials to be a quality head coach despite never leading a program before.
When they sat face-to-face for the first time, Foley’s intuition was all but confirmed. The coach came into the meeting room with a crisp plan of attack, one he hoped would bring Florida back to consistent postseason runs as early as his first year in Gainesville.
And most important to Foley, O’Sullivan was sincere in his desire to lead the program, a quality the athletics director saw a few years earlier when he hired Billy Donovan to take over the men’s basketball team.
“This was the guy,” Foley remembers telling himself after the interview.
And so began the start of O’Sullivan’s head coaching journey. It’s one that took him 16 years in the business to achieve with stops on five college staffs and a year coaching minor-league baseball along the way.
“There was no selling point,” O’Sullivan said. “If they made me an offer, I was going to take it.”
O’Sullivan wasted no time turning the program around, making nine straight NCAA appearances in nine years. Over the last seven years, the Gators reached the eight-team College World Series five times, including the last two.
“He wants to win. Bad,” sophomore Blake Reese said. “And that’s why we win.”
Junior JJ Schwarz added: “He’s really intense, but he does care a lot about us. He cares about the program a lot and that’s something that we feed off of.”
But with those perks comes the added pressure from a hungry fan base to bring home a national title even with the annual success.
That first national title could come this year. O’Sullivan returns seven position players with starting experience from last year and has a weekend rotation on the mound that includes three potential first-round draft picks.
“I’m looking forward to winning that last game of the year at some point,” O’Sullivan said. “I really do believe once we get that one, I think we’re going to get multiple.”