O'Sullivan Key to Tigers' Success

CLEMSON – Coming out of high school, the three-headed monster known as Stephen Faris, Josh Cribb and Robert Rohrbaugh were all considered decent pitchers. At the same time, they probably weren't regarded as studs by any stretch of the imagination.

But thanks in large part to Clemson pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan, the trio has become one of the best starting rotations in all of college baseball.

O'Sullivan, who is finishing up his seventh season with the Tigers, was the target of criticism from a loud and boisterous group as to whether or not he was capable of molding the pitching staff to help lead Clemson into contention for the College World Series.

Those fans who think they know how the game is to be played and taught just because they played Little League or watch the Atlanta Braves on television every night, have been rendered silent by the Tigers' second-half surge this season.

And the main reason Clemson is just two wins away from the College World Series is its starting pitching.

Faris, for one, finds the entire situation with some of the fans amusing.

He believes O'Sullivan is solely responsible for his 2005 performance, which has seen him compile a 6-4 record with a gaudy 2.56 ERA.

"He's a leader for our team," said Faris, a sophomore, who will get the start in Game 1 Saturday at the Super Regional against Baylor. "He does catch a lot of heat, but as a coach he expects that. It's up and down. If the season is going well, then he's the best coach in the country. And if we're not doing well, then he's the worst.

"He comes out every day and tries to make us better. Honestly, he's helped me with my entire makeup. Everything from my arm angles to my pitches. I had some decent pitches, but he's made my pitches better. He's made a good curveball or slider into more of a great strikeout pitch. It was something went from being OK, to something that is really good. He's worked with me on everything. But it's not just me, it's everyone. I thank him a lot for everything that he's done and he knows that."

O'Sullivan, 36, does what he can to ignore the outside noise so that he can concentrate solely on the task at hand, which is getting each pitcher on his staff to be a little better each day. But it can get difficult at times when people are constantly telling him that after seven years, he's finally made a believer out of them.

"When you're in this profession, there's always going to be people that doubt what you're doing," he said. "That's just part of the deal. But we've been to Omaha twice and the Super Regionals have been in existence seven years and we've been to five of them. During my seven years here, we've been ranked in the top 25 every year. You don't want to toot your own horn, but at the same token we've got a great program here and we will always have a great program here.

"Coach (Bill) Wilhelm started something special many, many years ago and Coach (Jack) Leggett has done an unbelievable job since he's been here. I'm just happy to be here helping this program stay where everybody expects it to be. Baseball is important to fans here and it's one of the unique places in the country because they do care about it here. It's an Olympic sport that gets treated sometimes like football. And people deserve to have a team that's on the verge of going to Omaha every year. I can understand the last two years why people were disappointed, but there are reasons why we weren't as successful. The reasons why we weren't successful is the same reason why other college programs struggle from time to time and that's the Major League Draft. It's not an excuse, but it's is a fact of life."

Each of member of the three-headed monster can specifically tell you where O'Sullivan has helped them.

"When you're in this profession, there's always going to be people that doubt what you're doing," said O'Sullivan. "That's just part of the deal. But we've been to Omaha twice and the Super Regionals have been in existence seven years and we've been to five of them."
"He's worked with me a lot this year," said Rohrbaugh, a junior that was selected in the seventh round by the Seattle Mariners earlier this week. "I was throwing across my body in the middle of the season and I was getting hit a little bit more than usual. When I throw across my body, I lose velocity and I lose movement on my pitches and I'm not able to pitch inside effectively. I was leaving the ball over the middle of the plate.

"But he made the corrections and you see what happened. I'm back where I need to be."

Cribb, a senior, has his own story to tell as well.

"I have a tendency to tilt my shoulder and when I tilt my shoulders, I'm normally up in the zone," he said. "He's worked with me a lot on that. But he doesn't get on you in a negative way. Midway through the season, I was struggling with just about every pitch and then they took me out of the rotation, but he came to me everyday and he kept telling me that he knew I could get the job done and that there were still going to use me a lot.

"When I pitched at N.C. State, I left two pitches up and gave up six earned runs. But he told me that if the wind wasn't blowing out and if I hadn't left those two pitches up, that I would have won the game. He's always trying to help you find the bright side of things."

Even though the three pitchers were having slight problems earlier in the year, it was still the pitching staff that kept this team from sinking into a major abyss. Clemson was 15-13 at the midway point, but it could have been a lot worse had the starting pitching not been as solid as it was.

"It's really news to me when people say that the pitching has turned around," O'Sullivan said. "Josh Cribb has been solid for us all year. And I think if you go back to when we were 15-13, I don't know what our team ERA was, but it was certainly under 4.00. I think what people saw was the end result. I think we lost seven one-run games up until that point. But we didn't have a guy at the end of a ballgame, and I think that's what people saw. But as a staff, I think we were throwing the ball pretty good. Robert Rohrbaugh and Cribb have been the same for us basically the whole year."

But O'Sullivan doesn't like to self-promote. He's constantly heaping praise on the pitchers. And when something goes wrong, he takes full blame.

In other words, O'Sullivan fully understands an old coaching adage.

"The bottom line is you're only as good as the players you're coaching," he said. "You can be the greatest coach in the world, but if you don't have good players to work with that are talented, then you're probably not going to be as good as you want to be.

"I think you have to have a plan and you try to mold everybody within that philosophy. But you have to be open minded to know that everybody is different and you have to be flexible. But in the end, it all boils down to what type of player you're dealing with."

There's no question that the three key pitchers for the Tigers this year are something special, and that each one has the capability to make any coach look good. But for these guys, it goes beyond the mound.

They have developed the type of camaraderie that will have a long and lasting effect.

"When you work with a kid three or four years in a row, you get really close to the players," O'Sullivan added. "At least I do. And when I know they're honestly giving their best effort on the mound win, lose or draw, I'm in their corner. I can't ask for anything more. And when the season does finally come to an end, I'll go to battle for Faris, Rohrbaugh and Cribb and all those guys up until the end, because I know they're giving their best effort.

"There are certain guys since I've been here that I have true, lasting feelings for, with (Steve) Reba being one of them, and (Patrick) Hogan being another and Matt Henry being another. You remember those guys throughout your career. And I think Faris, Cribb and Rohrbaugh are three guys right now that I can honestly say that for many years to come, I'm going to remember those guys because they gave me everything they have. Hopefully, they'll feel the same way towards me."

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