Tim Corbin’s Vanderbilt Commodores and Brian O’Connor’s Virginia Cavaliers are set to begin the College World Series Finals on Monday. It’s a meeting of two programs that now stand on unchartered ground after making meteoric strides into the ranks of college baseball elite since the arrival of their respective head coaches.
Virginia is playing in its third College World Series and 11th consecutive NCAA Tournament since O’Connor took the helm in 2004, while Vanderbilt is in its second CWS and is playing in its ninth straight and 10th NCAA Tournament in Corbin’s 12-year tenure.
“I think the programs have been built along the same lines to be honest with you,” Corbin said during Sunday’s pre-finals press conference. “There’s a very similar timeline to the timing that Brian became a head coach and that I became a head coach. We both had great mentors.”
Vanderbilt began playing baseball in 1889 (famed writer Grantland Rice coached the team for a year in 1908), with Virginia’s first year playing the sport in 1886 (famed writer John Grisham’s son once played for Virginia). Each school had exactly three NCAA Tournament appearances prior to the arrival of its current head coach.
Corbin and O’Connor have used similar blueprints to build their programs. Pitching, defense and strong attention to detail form the foundation of both programs, which have also both seen their schools invest substantially in facilities over the past decade. Both coaches also took similar paths early in their careers to get to where they are today.
“I would say the teams are very similar and the programs are a lot alike in a lot of different ways,” said Corbin. “We run into them sometimes in recruiting and I would say we go after very similar kids.”
O’Connor’s Omaha bloodline is possibly the most well known by now. O’Connor was a regular at Rosenblatt Stadium attending the College World Series with his dad while growing up just across the Missouri river from Omaha in Council Bluffs, IA.
He pitched for Omaha-based Creighton and helped the hometown Blue Jays, coached by future Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, reach the 1991 CWS. Eighteen years later, O’Connor would lead his Cavs to Omaha after taking the helm prior to the 2004 season.
“It doesn’t mean any more to me than it does coach Corbin or any of our players on either one of our teams,” O’Connor said Sunday when asked about coaching for a title in his childhood backyard. “A lot is to be made that I’m from here, but it’s about these kids’ experience. The only difference between me and those young men is my birth record.”
O’Connor cut his teeth as a college coach in his nine seasons at Notre Dame under current LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. Not so coincidentally, it was Hendry who gave Mainieri his first coaching job at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School in 1980.
The Hendry-Mainieri connection led O’Connor to Notre Dame, where he was twice named National Assistant Coach of the Year (2001 and 2003) as ND’s pitching coach and associate head coach. The 2002 Fighting Irish team, which had no all-conference pitchers on its staff, knocked-off a No. 1 ranked Florida State team in Tallahassee to advance to ND’s first CWS appearance since 1957.
Just seven years later, Mainieri and O’Connor were going head-to-head in the first round of the 2009 CWS (a 9-5 LSU win over Virginia as Mainieri’s Tigers won the national championship). The Cavs were 1-2 in O’Connor’s CWS homecoming that season. They were 2-2 in their return to Omaha in the first TD Ameritrade CWS in 2011 (both losses to eventual champ South Carolina).
“I learned how to run a college baseball program from somebody who I believe is the best out there and does it the right way,” O’Connor said of his time with Mainieri under the golden dome.
O’Connor coached future MLB pitchers Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman in his time at ND. His top Virginia pitcher was Danny Hultzen, who started game ones in Omaha in 2009 and 2011 and was the No. 2 overall pick (Seattle) in the 2011 MLB Draft.
Corbin didn’t grow up in the shadow of the College World Series. In fact, he grew up about as far outside the college baseball universe as could be. The New Hampshire native played his college ball at Ohio Wesleyan and began his coaching career as head coach at Presbyterian in Clinton, SC. He helped the previously defunct program transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II from 1988-1993 before joining Jack Leggett’s (another New Englander) staff at Clemson.
Corbin helped Leggett’s Tigers reach the College World Series four times in his nine seasons on staff, including the same 2002 CWS as Mainieri, O’Connor and Notre Dame. Known as one of the top recruiters in the country during his Clemson tenure and was named National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2000.
Corbin’s background has been working with hitters and outfielders, but pitching has been Vanderbilt’s calling card. David Price (2012 AL Cy Young winner) and Sonny Gray (Oakland A’s) preceded current ace Tyler Beede (No. 14 overall pick this year by San Francisco) as Commodore pitchers to be selected in the first round of the MLB Draft.
True to Corbin’s roots, Vanderbilt has also featured several New England natives who have figured prominently in the program’s recent success. Curt Casali (New Canaan, Conn), Mike Yastrzemski (Andover, Mass) and Jason Esposito (Bethany, Conn) were all key cogs for the 2011 CWS squad, while Beede (Auburn, Mass) and Rhett Wiseman (Mansfield, Mass) have both been key to the current Vandy team’s Omaha run.
In a CWS that has been dominated by pitching, Virginia carries a miniscule 0.55 staff ERA through three games into the Championship Finals, while Vanderbilt (3.50) has the highest staff ERA of the Omaha Eight. With four games under their belts, the Commodores lead the Omaha field with a .259 team batting average and 15 runs scored. Virginia’s .239 team average in the second-best, but their stellar pitching has allowed them to win three games (including one in 15 innings) with a total of nine runs scored.