Tons of emotions for UVA’s Brian O’Connor on this CWS Father’s Day

By Jerry Ratcliffe

John O’Connor (left) and Brian O’Connor celebrate Virginia’s 2015 national title in Omaha.

Today will be a profoundly bittersweet Father’s Day for Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor when he steps into Charles Schwab Stadium in Omaha.

For the first time in his life and his many visits to this stadium and the old Rosenblatt Stadium, where the College World Series is played annually, O’Connor’s father, John, won’t be around. John O’Connor passed away last November at the age of 82, and lived just across the river over in Council Bluffs.

The past eight months have been tough ones, personally for O’Connor. In April, Les Disharoon, the “Godfather of Virginia Baseball,” and a second father to O’Connor for the past 20 years, passed away at age 90.

On the brighter side, the Virginia head coach will have two special people at the stadium today — his daughter, Ellie, who actually works for the University of Florida athletic department (yes, she was rooting for dad Friday night), and O’Connor’s longtime mentor, Jim Hendry, who was O’Connor’s coach at nearby Creighton.

All the emotions aside, the Cavaliers’ coach will be focused on winning. UVA meets TCU in an elimination game (see our Wahoo Preview for a breakdown and other information on today’s game).

Still, thoughts of his two lost fathers will seep into his mind on this very special Father’s Day.

“This is the first time that I’ve played or coached [in the College World Series] that my father hasn’t been there,” O’Connor said.

Going back to his playing days for Hendry at Creighton, O’Connor played in the CWS, returned there as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, and has taken six of his Virginia squads to college baseball’s mecca in 20 years.

His dad used to take him to the games growing up, and inspired him to become a standout pitcher for Creighton before becoming a coach. John O’Connor has a plaque on his customary seat at the CWS stadium, Row M, Section 111.

Virginia’s players and coaches have worn a patch on their uniforms since Disharoon passed. It’s a simple black patch, with “Dish” featured in striking white letters.

UVA AD Carla Williams, Les Disharoon and Brian O’Connor

Disharoon Park was named for the 90-year-old businessman, a baseball fan for life, someone who sat on the board of directors of the Baltimore Orioles for two decades and was extremely influential in building a facility to replace Memorial Stadium with Camden Yards in downtown.

“Les was like a second father to me,” O’Connor said. “For 20 years, during the season, most every Monday we had lunch. He was in his luxury box every game we played. He loved these kids, loved supporting them and made a huge impact on our baseball program. I know he’s up there smiling down on this team and very proud.”

Disharoon, who first started coming to Virginia baseball games in the 1980s (he noted there were only eight fans at the first game he attended), wasn’t crazy about the stadium bearing his name.

“When Brian called me about this, my immediate reaction was I didn’t want to do it,” Disharoon once told this reporter over lunch. “It’s frankly embarrassing to me. It’s not who I am.”

An extremely successful but modest man, Disharoon was finally convinced by his daughters to accept the honor. Still, Disharoon said, “I’m embarrassed every time I hear it on the radio, but it’s a wonderful honor.”

Disharoon and his late wife, Ann, who passed 10 years earlier, were avid Wahoo baseball fans, and Les made lots of magic happen in terms of how the stadium looked and promoted Virginia baseball, particularly for fans and for TV viewers.

Hendry is in Omaha, but so is Hendry’s son, John, a member of O’Connor’s coaching staff. John is in his second year as director of player development and scouting.

Jim Hendry is a special assistant to the New York Yankees, and former general manager of the Chicago Cubs. He was O’Connor’s coach in college where they created a lifetime bond.

“Jim gave me an opportunity to come play baseball at Creighton and changed my life,” O’Connor said. “Not with the opportunity, but what I learned from him as a player. Jim Hendry is the reason I’m in college coaching because of the profound impact he made on my life.”

When Hendry’s son graduated from college, O’Connor asked him if he was interested in becoming a college coach and gave him an opportunity, paying back his mentor for giving him a chance.

Ellie O’Connor is 23 years old and a former honor student at High Point. She has worked for the College Football Playoff and now for Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, which made Friday night’s UVA-Florida battle a sticky situation.

Not really. Ellie wore a Virginia shirt (yes, she had on some Gator gear underneath), but her heart was with her dad.

“It’s funny,” Brian O’Connor said. “Jeremy Foley (Florida’s former AD) said to me, well, at least we were able to get one of the O’Connor’s in our program.”

Foley tried to hire O’Connor to become the Gators’ coach several years ago, but O’Connor has remained loyal to Virginia, even though many of the elite programs in the country have knocked on his door.

Tons of emotions, family connections and special memories will flow through the Virginia coach’s mind today, and understandably so.

The best Father’s Day gift for him, though, would be a win over TCU.