When head coach Brian O’Connor and assistants Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn arrived at Virginia in 2003, they were inheriting a program that had not reached the NCAA tournament in seven years and had made just three trips to regionals ever.
In the six years since, the Cavaliers have been to regionals every season, capped by their first trip to the College World Series in 2009. That team was dominated by underclassmen, and UVa. will enter 2010 as a leading contender for the national title.
Virginia has arrived as an elite college baseball program, thanks in no small part to its success on the recruiting trail. Led by the tireless efforts of recruiting coordinator McMullan, the Cavs have brought in four top-25 recruiting classes in the last five years, including top-10 classes in 2005 and ’09.
But the rankings and accolades and on-field success only scratch the surface of McMullan’s value to the Cavaliers. McMullan is the 2009 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year, not only because he’s a gifted talent evaluator and an accomplished hitting coach, but also because he knows how to bring out the best in his players.
“He’s just a tireless worker. He’s got a really good eye for talent but also for helping players continue their development,” said O’Connor, who developed a respect for McMullan when both were assistants in the Big East (at Notre Dame and St. John’s, respectively) and wasted no time adding McMullan to his staff when he was hired at Virginia. “He demands a lot out of the players, he holds them accountable—which I think is really, really important—and he doesn’t let things slide.
“From a developmental standpoint, he’s with those guys every day or every other day that we work with these players in individual workouts—he’s in the fight with them every day. And he holds them to a very high standard.”
Naturally, McMullan’s own background shaped his coaching style. His father, John McMullan, was an offensive lineman at Notre Dame and in the NFL, and his mother died when he was 3, leaving John to provide for five kids by himself. Kevin was the youngest—he had two brothers and two sisters, all within nine years of age.
“You were motivated to impress your dad, and the chores you do, the way you go about them—when we say, ‘Dust your shelves,’ we mean dust them,” McMullan said. “Don’t just say you dusted them. There was that competitiveness between brothers and sisters. I remember growing up having wars on the front yard, whether it’s ‘kill the man with the ball’ or Wiffle ball, and my brother’s the Yankees, I’m the Red Sox.”
The lessons of his childhood—”not making excuses and just playing the hand you’re dealt”—would be reinforced over and over again in McMullan’s life, so it’s no wonder he holds his players to a high standard. He played baseball and football growing up in Dumont, N.J., but he chose to attend Division II power Indiana (Pa.) on a football scholarship partly because football was a full-scholarship sport, so his education wouldn’t cost his family any money.
McMullan played exclusively football for two years, and when he proved himself as an All-American linebacker, football coach/athletic director Frank Cignetti allowed him to play baseball also his junior and senior years. He earned D-II All-America honors in that sport, too, as a catcher, but his football mentality was deeply ingrained.
“There’s a lot more instruction at the lower levels about staying the course and being tough in a football setting than there is in a baseball setting,” McMullan said. “I think it gives you a different perspective, because you’re going to get hit in the face, you’re going to get knocked down, and you’ll have to get back up.”
When McMullan’s sister was dying from cancer during his college football days, McMullan needed some help to get back up, and he hasn’t forgotten it.
“I was snappy and short, and my position coach sat me down and said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” McMullan recalled. “That hour-long conversation kept me from going down the toilet bowl. He reeled me in when I needed it and became a big brother/father figure for me. I think our job as teachers and coaches is to try to redirect some of their past habits into good habits, and if you can give them an explanation why, it’s a pretty easy formula.”
After graduating, McMullan planned to become a graduate assistant in football and proceed down the football coaching career path. But when the independent Salt Lake City Trappers called, McMullan embarked on a three-year pro baseball career, which also included time in the Yankees system. The more time he spent around baseball, the more he realized that the mental side of baseball appealed to him, so he jumped at the chance to take over as baseball coach at his alma mater when Cignetti offered him the job before the 1994 season.
“He said, ‘This is your lab, your alma mater. You have no scholarship money but you can learn, sell your university, sell yourself, and if this works out you can move on from here,’” McMullan said. “So it was really the right opportunity at the time.”
McMullan spent three years learning on the fly as a young head coach, then accepted a job as the recruiting coordinator at St. John’s, where he said he learned from his first true “baseball mentor,” head coach Ed Blankmeyer. During his four years at St. John’s, McMullan met his future wife, Sandra, and they started a family shortly after McMullan joined Keith LeClair’s coaching staff at East Carolina in 2000.
McMullan was struck by LeClair’s unceasing optimism even while he battled ALS, a disease that would eventually kill him. LeClair was a master communicator, and when his disease began to interfere with his ability to communicate with his players as effectively as he wanted, he gave McMullan the duties of acting head coach. LeClair’s impact on McMullan is most obvious in the way he interacts with his players.
“Here’s a guy that was a walk-on at Western Carolina, and he never treated any player any different—whether you were on a full scholarship or a walk-on, if you played the right way he treated you the same way,” McMullan said. “That’s teaching, for me. He always believed in the kids, never ever doubted them at all.”
After the Pirates chose to hire Randy Mazey to succeed LeClair, McMullan spent a year in pro ball as the Braves’ catching/extended spring training coordinator. But the job took a toll on his young family, so when O’Connor approached him about joining him at Virginia, McMullan couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
O’Connor agreed to let McMullan fulfill his commitment to the Braves and head to Charlottesville after the summer was over. He also gave McMullan plenty of autonomy in his job. The arrangement has worked out well for everyone involved.
“Anytime you get a head coaching job, you think about who are some of the better candidates out there, and he’s the first one that came to mind for me,” O’Connor said. “I saw how he interacted with the players, and I think that’s the most important thing.
“I know our players have a lot of respect for him. From a teaching standpoint, he keeps things very, very simple, but he emphasizes hard work, and it’s paid off for us.”