OMAHA—Shortly after South Carolina won its first national championship in 2010, Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner received a congratulatory note from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
"I wrote him back," Tanner recalled, "and I said, 'Your team is outstanding, your coach is the best, and you will win a national championship sooner than later.' "
Little did Tanner know that his Gamecocks would beat the Gators in the College World Series a year later. Tanner, who won Baseball America's College Coach of the Year award in 2010, submitted another masterful coaching performance in 2011—but so did Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan.
In four years at the helm, O'Sullivan has transformed the Gators into a college baseball powerhouse. After missing regionals in 2006 and '07, Florida exceeded expectations to make a regional in O'Sullivan's first season in 2008. The next year, the Gators won a regional. The year after that, they made it to Omaha. And this year, they earned a preseason No. 1 ranking, ended the regular season atop the rankings and advanced all the way to the CWS Finals. For constructing a model program with a rock-solid foundation, O'Sullivan is Baseball America's College Coach of the Year.
Coaches who have crossed paths with O'Sullivan knew he was destined for great things. Tanner said he knew even when O'Sullivan was an assistant at rival Clemson that he would make a great head coach.
"There was never any doubt in my mind," Tanner said. "There was never a doubt. This guy's the best. He has been for a long, long time, and now he's a young head coach. He just does it the right way. They get after it. You don't want to lose, but you like being in an environment where it's done the right way. And that's the way they do it."
Even scouts—notoriously hard on college coaches for their natural tendency to prioritize winning over player development—have great respect for Florida's coaching staff, which includes a pair of former scouts in assistants Brad Weitzel and Craig Bell.
O'Sullivan carved out a reputation as a rising star in the coaching world for his work as Clemson's pitching coach, but also for his relentlessness on the recruiting trail. His decision to fill out his coaching staff with a pair of former scouts reflects that emphasis.
"It all starts with recruiting and getting players, and Sully is one of the best at that," said Florida sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. "He gets all the right guys in. And then from there on out it's up to the players to bond, work hard and try to get here. And I think he got the right guys in here."
Florida's ability to recruit a deep pitching staff has made it easier for the coaches to protect their arms, which in turn attracts more elite arms. The most notable, of course, belongs to righthander Karsten Whitson, who opted to attend Florida rather than sign with the Padres as the No. 9 overall pick last year.
O'Sullivan never allowed Whitson to throw more than 92 pitches in a game this season, and never extended him beyond 61â"3 innings. When it came time for O'Sullivan to decide whether to bring ace Hudson Randall back on five days' rest for Florida's third CWS game, the coach decided to go with lefthander Alex Panteliodis instead, in part because he was not going to start Whitson on short rest the following day, if necessary.
"We were not going to throw him on four days' rest," O'Sullivan said. "We hadn't done that all year long, and we weren't going to put that pressure on him. And the fact of the matter is if we were going to get to this point, some other guys needed to contribute. So it's a fine line. But I think it all starts at recruiting, to be quite honest with you. If you recruit pitching depth, it gives you other options."
O'Sullivan made sure to make ample use of all his options over the course of the season. From the start of the spring all the way through the College World Series, O'Sullivan managed his team with an eye toward the biggest prizes: winning a national championship this year, and competing for a championship every year. He used midweek games as an opportunity to get innings for all of his pitchers, and if the Gators took a few more midweek losses, so be it. At least all of the key arms would be fresh—and none would be inexperienced.
It was a winning formula. And while Tanner's Gamecocks might have denied O'Sullivan's Gators a championship this year, both Tanner and O'Sullivan said they expect Florida to be back soon, and often.
"You know, Jeremy Foley made it loud and clear when he hired me: This isn't a two- or three-year deal. This isn't about 2011," O'Sullivan said. "This is about making Florida like a South Carolina, like a Florida State, like a Miami—year in, year out, you have a chance to play for a national championship. Never once did he say, 'You have to win a national championship.' It was all about consistency and being one of the elite programs in the country."