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Loyal O’Connor finally leaves for head coaching job

Chris Federico | Thursday, August 28, 2003

It was only a matter of time.Considered one of the top assistant coaches in collegiate baseball, Brian O’Connor couldn’t remain as Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri’s associate forever.Still it was a sad day for the Irish skipper when long-time assistant and good friend O’Connor left Notre Dame to take over the head coaching job at the University of Virginia July 9.”You have a whole myriad of emotions,” Mainieri said of O’Connor’s departure from the program. “First is you’re so happy for him and so proud of him. You know he’s worked hard, and he deserves it. At the same time you have a tremendous sense of loss.”O’Connor came to Notre Dame with Mainieri nine years ago, serving as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator and earning the title of associate head coach two years ago.”It’s almost like a death in your family,” Mainieri said. “The guy’s been with you for nine years and been involved with every major decision you’ve made relative to the program. “You know he’s had a lot of impact as far as success of the program, and not only that, but he’s also a very close friend of yours. You developed a very close relationship and all of a sudden he’s gone.”Along with helping Mainieri and the Irish to their first College World Series since 1957, O’Connor cultivated the development of major league pitchers Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman, along with current Irish aces Chris Neisel and Grant Johnson.But with a talented, young pitching staff that includes four incoming freshman, Mainieri realized the importance of quickly finding a skilled coach to replace O’Connor.”The biggest emotion that I had was concern for the future of our program,” Mainieri said. “I know that I owed it to our kids to not rest until I went out and found what I felt was the best available pitching coach in the country … so that we can carry on the great work that Brian did.”Mainieri had a great task ahead of him, however, as over 200 coaches – some of them Division I head coaches – applied for the position with the Irish, a testament to the growth in prestige the Notre Dame program has experienced under Mainieri and O’Connor.”I think that position is a much better one now, nine years later, than it was when Brian entered the position,” Mainieri said. “I think the thing that was attractive to a lot of candidates was the fact that we’ve had some great success here, we’ve got some quality pitchers in our program now, and I think people see that we’ll be able to continue to attract some quality players.”Even with all the applicants, Mainieri quickly narrowed the list down to three names and selected Terry Rooney, pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Stetson, after the interview process. It turned out Mainieri took one last bit of advice from his associate, as O’Connor recommended Rooney as his successor. “I conducted a really exhaustive search and refused to lower my standards of who we were going to hire,” Mainieri said. “Some real critical people that I talked to had some very compelling things to say about [Terry Rooney] that got my attention. If you look at his record as a pitching coach and recruiter … I think it was phenomenal. He was the third person I interviewed and was clearly the right person for the job for us.”Rooney comes to Notre Dame from Stetson, where his pitching staff led the Hatters to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and 40-win seasons the past two years. In 2003, Stetson eliminated perennial power Georgia Tech from the NCAA Tournament. With the Irish, Rooney will assume the role of pitching coach and work with assistant coach David Grewe on recruiting.”I’m very excited about the opportunity to be here and work at Notre Dame,” Rooney said. “You really feel like your working with the upper-echelon student athlete in the country with the combo of academics and baseball here.”One aspect of Rooney’s position that makes him enthusiastic is the talented staff O’Connor leaves behind. Rooney will work with juniors Niesel, John Axford and Johnson, who returns to the staff after missing all of 2003 due to shoulder surgery, sophomores Ryan Doherty and Tom Thornton and a hyped incoming freshman class that includes Texas phenom Jeff Manship.”Certainly the staffs [Notre Dame has] assembled in the past couple of years have been phenomenal, and I’m honored to follow in those footsteps with the staff we have this year,” Rooney said. “With the corps of guys we have returning and the young guys coming in, I think it’s a tremendous situation from a pitching standpoint in that we’ve got some proven veterans and high profile young arms coming in.”