Sept. 20, 2001
Notre Dame’s Brian O’Connor has been named the Division I national assistant baseball coach of the year for the 2001 season, as selected by the American Baseball Coaches Association and Baseball America magazine. O’Connor-who recently was promoted to associate head coach of the Irish-spent the past seven seasons as Notre Dame’s primary assistant coach while overseeing the Irish pitching staff and coordinating the program’s highly-successful recruiting effort.
“Brian O’Connor earned this award thanks to a combination of factors that have helped push Notre Dame to the forefront of college baseball, including a No. 1 ranking in 2001,” said Baseball America’s senior college baseball writer John Manuel.
“O’Connor’s work as recruiting coordinator has helped bring in the talent for that push, and the latest freshman class at Notre Dame ranks among the nation’s best. His pitching staffs consistently have ranked near the top of the nation’s ERA leaders, and he has lent stability to the program with a long tenure as the top assistant for coach Paul Mainieri.”
O’Connor-who pitched on Creighton’s 1991 College World Series team-has tutored 13 eventual professional baseball pitchers, including 10 Major-League draft picks. The native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, has a proven track record of developing pitchers into top-level prospects, including a pair of first-round selections-Brad Lidge in 1998 and fellow righthander Aaron Heilman in 2001-who weren’t even drafted in the first 40 rounds coming out of high school (Lidge was a 42nd-round pick, Heilman a 55th-rounder). Two other pitchers under O’Connor have developed into high draft picks despite going undrafted as preps: lefthander Tim Kalita (7th round, ’99) and righthander Danny Tamayo (10th round, ’01).
During O’Connor’s tenure, seven of nine Irish players who were drafted out of high school have gone on to be drafted in a higher round at Notre Dame while 13 that were undrafted as preps then were drafted as members of the Irish program.
“Every success we’ve had at Notre Dame the past seven years has as much to do with Brian’s efforts as anyone else,” said Mainieri, who hired O’Connor shortly after becoming the Irish head coach in the fall of 1994.
“Brian is unparalleled in the country because of his ability as a recruiter and evaluator of talent, combined with his ability to consistently develop pitchers at the college level. He also is a very clever game technician and gets the most out of his pitching staff game-in and game-out.”
Notre Dame is one of just four schools since 1998 to produce two pitchers who have been drafted in the first round, with only Notre Dame and Baylor having the same pitching coach during that span (Baylor head coach Steve Smith coaches the pitching staff).
“It’s a tremendous honor to win this award and I think it’s a tribute to our entire coaching staff,” said O’Connor. “I feel very privileged to have learned the coaching profession from Paul and he’s given me the responsibility to be the recruiting coordinator while also having complete control of the pitching staff. It’s that kind of trust and opportunity that have allowed me to develop as a coach.
“Ever since I’ve been at Notre Dame, I’ve been very humbled by the great things that Notre Dame stands for. The University provides all of our athletic teams with the ability to recruit outstanding athletes and people from across the country-it gives you the platform to attract top student-athletes who are good fits for Notre Dame.”
During the Mainieri/O’Connor era, the Irish baseball program has produced graduates who have gone on to excel in a wide variety of fields. In addition to 10 current professional players, the recent graduates of the Notre Dame baseball program also include three-Jeff Perconte, Matt Nussbaum and Pat O’Keefe-currently enrolled in law school while former Irish player George Restovich is a lawyer in the St. Louis prosecutor’s office and another (Mike Naumnann) is beginning his medical school studies.
“The power of Notre Dame is a very special thing, because of the opportunity that it provides to the students here,” said O’Connor. “I just feel very fortunate to have been nm a part of Notre Dame and I look forward to some great years to come.”
As a recruiting coordinator, O’Connor led the effort that landed Notre Dame’s current 11-member freshman class. That highly-touted group includes shortstop Matt Macri and righthander Chris Niesel, with both those players considered by some to be the nation’s best freshmen at their respective positions.
Three of Notre Dame’s current freshmen-Macri (Iowa), Grant Johnson (Illinois) and fellow righthander Martin Vergara (New Jersey)-were named the Gatorade player of the year for their respective states while Niesel was one of five pitchers named a first team All-American by Baseball America (Macri was not eligible because Iowa prep baseball is played in the summer).
Most recently, the 30-year-old O’Connor helped the 2001 Notre Dame team compile one of the most successful seasons in the program’s 109-year history. The Irish held the nation’s No. 1 ranking in midseason while setting the team record for wins (49-13-1). Led by the first team all-BIG EAST tandem of Heilman and Tamayo, the 2001 Irish pitching staff ranked sixth in the nation with a 3.22 season earned-run average. An unprecedented six Irish players were selected in the 2001 Major League draft (as were five of the team’s signees, with each reporting to Notre Dame for their freshman seasons).
O’Connor’s most noteworthy pupil has been Heilman, whose four-year All-America career saw him rank as one of the nation’s premier players. Heilman-who burst onto the scene as the nation’s ERA leader in 1998 (1.61)-is the most decorated player in Notre Dame baseball history and became the 14th player in Division I history to reach 40 career wins and 400 strikeouts.
ADDITIONAL BRIAN O’CONNOR NOTES (9/20/01)
* O’Connor’s 2000 and 2001 pitching staffs both led the nation in ERA at some point during those seasons (the 2000 team finished 16th at 3.93). His 2001 staff set Irish records for strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.92, besting the 2.50 from 2000) and fewest walks per nine innings (2.48). The 1997-99 staffs each set the Irish strikeout record (399 in ’97, 456 in ’98 and 478 in ’99, plus 454 in 2000 and 420 in ’01) while the ’98 staff ranked 12th in the nation for season ERA (4.02).
* Three of O’Connor’s former pitchers already have made their marks in pro baseball, as Lidge was named to the Houston Astros 40-man roster for 2001 spring training while Christian Parker (who pitched on the ’95 and ’96 teams) was named to the New York Yankees opening-day roster (O’Connor, Mainieri and others from Notre Dame were able to view Parker’s first start with the Yankees, in early April). Heilman signed with the New York Mets in mid-summer and has been touted as a potential 2002 Major League player.
* During O’Connor’s seven years at Notre Dame, the Irish have posted a .710 winning pct. (304-124-1) and have totaled four conference titles, four trips to the NCAA tournament, 29 players who have been drafted or signed free-agent contracts, and 10 players selected in the first 10 rounds of the Major League draft-while extending the program’s string of consecutive seasons with 40-plus wins to 13, the nation’s fourth-longest active streak. The past seven Notre Dame teams also have combined for a 100-percent graduation rate (47 of 47), among players who completed their eligibility or signed professionally after their junior year.
* Other noteworthy additions in the Mainieri/O’Connor era include catcher/DH Jeff Wagner (a four-time, first team all-BIG EAST selection from ’96-’99), All-America infielder Brant Ust (’97-’99), who preceded Heilman as a member of the U.S. national team (Ust was a 6th-round draft pick of Detroit, in ’99), and shortstop Alec Porzel, the only player in ND history ever to reach 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in his career (he was picked by Boston in the 13th round of the 2001 draft).
* O’Connor posted a 20-13 career record, seven saves and a 3.78 ERA in four years at Creighton. He logged 73 innings and a 5-3 record as a sophomore, helping the Blue Jays advance to the ’91 College World Series in the school’s hometown of Omaha. His losses came versus nationally-ranked Cal State-Northridge, Oklahoma and Wichita State.
* As a freshman, O’Connor went 6-2 with a 1.91 ERA that still stands as the team record. As a junior and senior, the native of nearby Council Bluffs was a fixture in Creighton’s starting rotation, with 14 starts in both seasons while moving into the top six on Creighton’s career charts for victories, appearances, innings and starts.
* After graduating with a marketing degree in ’93, O’Connor was selected in the 29th round by the Philadelphia Phillies. He posted a 4-2 record and 4.03 ERA in ’93 for Martinsville (Va.) of the Appalachian Class A League before accepting a position as pitching coach at his alma mater, under first-year head coach Jack Dahm.
* O’Connor, born April 21, 1971, in Omaha, Neb., married the former Cindy Petratis in October of 1995. The couple resides in South Bend with daughter Ellie, who was born June 1, 2000.