“Because it’s so big,” Cindy O’Connor said, “we kind of just propped it up in our entry way. We enter through the house every single day through the garage because that’s where we park, so we kind of propped it up there until we decided where we want to put it.”
The location started to grow on Brian.
“Cindy,” he told her, “I love seeing my dad when I pull in.”
John O’Connor died Nov. 7 after a bout with dementia. For 82 years, he lived a life defined by hard work, a genuine kindness to others and immense family pride. Brian, 51, now sees a combination of all those traits when he looks above the tool bench in his garage.
That’s where he decided to permanently place the enlarged photo of his dad celebrating UVA’s national championship.
“I just thought it would be a great spot for it,” Brian said, “because every day that I pull out to go to work, and every day when I come home from work, it’s a reminder of the most important lessons that he taught me.”
Among the 310 colleges with a Division I baseball program, Virginia is one of only 32 to have had the same head coach since 2004. That kind of stability is rarer at the Power Five conference level, where O’Connor is one of just seven coaches to lead an Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern Conference or Pacific 12 team for that long.
His commitment to UVA, despite frequent suitors seeking to lure him away, is a testament to the support he’s received from the University, a love for Charlottesville and his drive to keep elevating the standard he set for the program two decades ago.
Besides, loyalty to a particular place is in Brian O’Connor’s blood.
John O’Connor was buried Nov. 12 in St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That’s the same town where the first-generation Irish American was born and the same cemetery he worked in for 48 years.
“He grew up [in Council Bluffs], he worked there, he raised a family there,” Brian said. “His whole thing was, ‘Hey, you commit yourself to something. You stick it out and see it through.’ I learned that from my father.”
The cemetery was part of an O’Connor family tradition. John’s father, Denis, managed it until John took it over in 1969. Brian, like his two brothers, worked there between playing sports and going to school.
“We’d do everything from weed-eat around gravestones to mow the lawn to dig graves and bury people,” Brian said. “We were on site when a funeral service was over and the family would leave. We’d come in with my dad and literally put the casket in the ground and fill the hole.
“And it didn’t matter if it was 95 degrees or 25 degrees, we were doing the work.”
In 1985, John purchased and became president of a monument company in nearby Omaha. He now was working two jobs at once. Or at least two paying jobs at once.
Brian Ratigan, Brian O’Connor’s best childhood friend, remembers John as a volunteer Little League coach, furniture mover, wood-splitter, basketball rim repairman and football goalpost fixer, among other random duties around Council Bluffs.
“John was everywhere, all the time,” said Ratigan, who went on to play football at the University of Notre Dame and is now the head of orthopedic sports medicine for the Fighting Irish football and baseball teams. “As a doctor now, I have to make myself available for people. That was John. He and my dad, they were doing that kind of stuff all the time.”
Using an oft-used sports phrase describing a player who excels because of work ethic more than natural ability, Brian O’Connor called his dad a “grinder.”
“He worked seven days a week,” Brian said. “He was always the first one up at our house. He taught me what dedication looked like.”
Barb O’Connor, Brian’s mother, still lives in the same house on four acres in the Council Bluffs countryside where she and John raised their boys. She said Brian took his dad’s diligence to heart and noticed it in even the smallest of chores.
“Brian was a great worker,” Barb said of her middle child. “He was very detailed. If I wanted somebody to dust for me and do a good job, it would be Brian. He would get down on his hands and knees, the whole bit.”
Nowadays, Brian has a job that’s all encompassing. He, too, is required to work seven days a week. But just like his dad did for him and his brothers, John Jr. and Kelly, Brian prioritizes time spent with his three children.
John did it through coaching his boys in all sports and each June taking them on a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River to watch the College World Series in Omaha.
Brian’s allegiance to his daughters Ellie, 22; Maggie, 20, and a third-year student at UVA; and to his son, Dillon, 16, is noticed by Cindy, his wife of 27 years and former high school sweetheart.
“When he’s with the kids, he is so present,” she said, “and I think that’s tied into loyalty. He is loyal to me, to being a father. Brian always puts his all into everything. That’s very obvious to everyone as a coach, but what not many people see is him putting everything into it as a father or a husband. But he does do that. He makes sure he’s present.”
To Brian, he’s just following in the steps of his role model.
“My dad always found the time to coach the team, always found time to be out in the yard and play baseball and teach us sports,” he said. “That’s just how we grew up. He was always willing to do whatever it took to provide us opportunity.”
It’s often brought up when UVA plays in the College World Series that Brian O’Connor’s likeness is on the famous “Road to Omaha” statue that sits outside the CWS stadium.
The story on how that happened is more fitting the more you know John O’Connor.
John Lajba, the professional sculptor tasked with creating the statue in the late 1990s, was searching for inspiration when he visited a friend’s office and noticed a picture on his friend’s wall.
That friend was John O’Connor. That picture was of Brian O’Connor pitching for Creighton University.
“The kid had a sparkle in his eye that Lajba envisioned for his sculpture,” wrote the Omaha World Herald’s Dirk Chatelain in 2009.
Brian’s face is now one of four on the statue that sits at the corner of Cuming Street and 13th Street in downtown Omaha. The fact that it got there because of a photo in John’s office is just another example of the pride John had for his son.
In June 1991, after Brian helped Creighton clinch a spot in the College World Series, John was among fans greeting the team in the Omaha airport. You can spot him around the 4:50 mark of this highlight video, excitedly hugging and patting backs with several Creighton players in the terminal, especially his son’s.
“There was so much pride and joy in him that day,” Brian said. “I’ll never forget that. I still watch that video.”
When in Charlottesville to watch the Cavaliers play, John routinely spoiled any hopes of the O’Connors keeping a low profile.
“We knew if John was with us, everybody was going to know that his son was the coach,” Cindy said. “He didn’t know a stranger, so he always started a conversation, asking where there were from. And then, at some point ... ‘Hey, my son’s the baseball coach.’”
Brian played in the CWS once. From his time as an assistant at Notre Dame to his current tenure at UVA, he has coached in it six times. John was there for all of them.