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Top Gator was eye of the Tigers

Three years ago, when pitcher Mike Cisco was being recruited by South Carolina, the main competition came from Clemson and its energetic pitching coach, Kevin O’Sullivan. While Cisco chose the Gamecocks, O’Sullivan made it a tough decision.

Justin Smoak also chose the Gamecocks that year, but the first baseman got to know O’Sullivan on the recruiting trail.

“He was a great guy, I liked him a lot, but it felt better to come here,” Smoak said.

Given those and other close calls, and more than a few O’Sullivan recruiting wins, it might have been a relief for USC last year when O’Sullivan left Clemson. The only problem? He took a job at Florida, an SEC East rival.

O’Sullivan, who spent nine years at Clemson, returns to South Carolina today as his Gators visit Sarge Frye Field for a weekend series. Hired to rejuvenate Florida baseball, O’Sullivan has his team in second place in the SEC East, one game ahead of the Gamecocks.

O’Sullivan was hired by athletics director Jeremy Foley even though previous coach Pat McMahon led the Gators to the College World Series in 2005. The demands are high across the board in Gainesville; after all, at this time last year the Gators were the reigning national champions in football and men’s basketball.

O’Sullivan was asked Thursday what kind of challenge that creates.

“I think anybody who would coach here at Florida would understand that there are expectations here and you just hope to meet them,” he said. “But you have everything in place to be successful.”

The question a few might have had was whether Foley picked the right guy in O’Sullivan, a 39-year-old who had not previously been a college head coach. But O’Sullivan apparently had a lot of confidence in his ability to run a program and recruit: Instead of hiring two veteran college coaches as assistants, he hired a pair of pro scouts who had no recent college experience.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett said that was a sign his protege “knows what he’s doing.” O’Sullivan was more than a pitching guru at Clemson, where he also had a hand in hitting, defense, game management and was the lead recruiter.

“One of his best assets has always been he’s a good evaluator,” Leggett said. “He’s a good recruiter and knows that Florida area, so he’ll do a great job down that way. He’s a tireless worker and has those competitive juices. Those are the things that make him stand out.”

O’Sullivan also has experience running a team; in fact, he was coaching a summer team in the Cape Cod League when USC coach Ray Tanner first encountered him. Tanner was impressed by the young coach’s passion.

Leggett hired O’Sullivan in 1999, promoting him to associate head coach within three years. The two have remained in touch, even during the season. Leggett called O’Sullivan after Florida’s first win, and O’Sullivan returned the favor during Clemson’s 11-game losing streak.

“We talk an awful lot. I’m on top of what he’s doing and vice versa,” Leggett said. “He put his heart and soul in this program for a long period of time, so he still has a lot of interest in what goes on here.”

And starting tonight, O’Sullivan has a chance to do what his former team couldn’t do this season: beat South Carolina.

“Their lineup is probably second to none in our league,” O’Sullivan said, going on to compliment just about everything else about the Gamecocks. “It’s going to be a tough series for us, there’s no question.”

Staff writer Paul Strelow contributed to this report. Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.