Magic Lawnmowers, Electric Shocks and Hard Knocks: The Paul O’Neil Story
Before former UNCP Director of Athletics Dan Kenney appointed Paul O’Neil to take over the school’s baseball program prior to the 2001 season, he conducted an intricate search process with one goal in mind.
Kenney wanted to change the culture of UNCP baseball.
It wasn’t an easy goal to pursue. Kenney, who has since taken over as Chief of Staff for the office of Chancellor Robin Cummings, screened multiple candidates from a variety of different backgrounds.
“There’s no other search like a baseball search,” Kenney said. “I don’t know what it is, but everybody, regardless of what level they’re on, aspires to be a college baseball coach. If you’re a high school coach, you want to be a college coach. Even some minor league coaches want to be college coaches.”
Plenty of options were on the table, but Kenney wanted someone who had experience with shifting the culture of a program. He wanted someone to take the Braves to new heights in the highly competitive Peach Belt Conference.
Things changed when Kenney met with a young coach out of Shenandoah, a Division 3 program in Virginia. Coming off of a 31-11 season with the Hornets, O’Neil was ready to take the next step in his career.
“He looked at the Peach Belt in Division 2 and said that’s the best baseball conference in the country, top to bottom,” Kenney said.
Shortly thereafter, O’Neil was named the new UNCP baseball coach.
O’Neil joined the UNCP athletic department at a time when things were changing off the field. Coaches at the school typically carried heavy class loads, teaching to nine credit hours per semester in the years leading up to his arrival. Kenney even taught 10 hours while balancing his administrative and educational roles.
That wasn’t the case anymore, as the department took initiative to make coaching and teaching more evenly balanced. This change allowed O’Neil to focus more on baseball.
In addition to taking on educational duties, O’Neil had to learn the ropes of coaching in Pembroke – a process that Kenney is familiar with.
“I try to tell everybody, because I learned it when I was a coach at Pembroke,” Kenney said. I came here many, many years ago from East Carolina, and when I came I thought I knew what it took [to be successful] at Pembroke. In Pembroke, with all of its distinctiveness, it takes time to understand what works here.”
O’Neil needed to find a niche that would help the program grow. Initially, that niche was attracting transfers to Pembroke. That initiative stemmed from an immediate need to build a winning team, as the Braves finished with a record of 17-36 the year before O’Neil came to the program.
“When I came here, I felt there was some pressure on me to win right away,” O’Neil said. “If you’re going to try to win right away, you’re going to have to recruit an older kid.”
However, he began to realize that he had less control over the maturation of the players early in their careers.
“That’s what was going to work – junior college transfers, four year transfers – and [O’Neil] really talented transfers,” Kenney said. “I don’t want to stereotype a transfer, but what he also found was that some of their behaviors or habits, he didn’t have as much influence on as he would with freshmen.”
O’Neil adaptively changed his philosophy, looking for a way to take the program to the next level.
One of the factors he became keenly aware of during that time was the location of the school. O’Neil was tasked with attracting players to a small school in a rural area, a setting that might not be ideal for a number of players.
Regardless of the predicament, failure was not an option. Dr. Allen Meadors, UNCP’s chancellor at the time, made it clear that nothing but success was expected out of the program.
“When I sat down in [Meadors’] office, he was like, ‘If you can’t turn our baseball program around then we’ll find someone else who can.’”
Throughout his career, O’Neil has learned the value of fundraising, especially at smaller programs. He has routinely taken extra steps to ensure that his athletes get the best possible experience from playing college baseball.
In one instance during his tenure at Shenandoah, taking those extra steps meant getting electrocuted twice in a single night.
O’Neil and his team were facing a tough scenario. With their home being located in northern Virginia, they had to find a way to get away from cold weather for a short period of time in the spring. The remedy for that issue was typically to travel to Florida for a week of games.
However, there was an issue. The team’s budget wouldn’t cover the trip. They needed to raise the funds themselves.
“We needed to play those games in order to become a better baseball team,” O’Neil said.
In order to help raise the money needed for the trip, the team sold Christmas trees. Before they did so, they needed a big investment from their coach.
“I took $1,000 dollars out of my savings account,” O’Neil said. “My wife about killed me. Me and my assistant, we went to a Christmas tree farm and we bought $1,000 worth of Christmas trees.”
After setting up shop in a lot near the front of the school, O’Neil attempted to address the next issue deterring the operation: there weren’t any lights.
He proceeded to take it upon himself to fix the problem. O’Neil strung over 100 feet of wire around the lot, with lightbulbs being painstakingly attached every three feet.
He then retreated to his office, a repurposed recording studio that he shared with assistant coach Ray Hedrick. After plugging in many extension cords to make the lighting configuration work, O’Neil braced for the final step of plugging the wire into an outlet and lighting up the lot.
Unfortunately, that outcome was the exact opposite of what he had hoped. His makeshift wiring setup overwhelmed the capabilities of the outlet. To make matters worse, O’Neil was holding a part of the wire that had not yet been covered with protective tape. A jolt of electricity surged through and knocked him off of the office chair he was sitting in.
Half of Shenandoah’s Shingleton Gymnasium, which hosted a men’s basketball game that night, lost power in the process.
Maintenance staff members were able to easily fix the problem by switching the breaker, but it wouldn’t be the only time they’d have to do so that night.
“I’m doing the second string of lights because I did two strings,” O’Neil said. “I do the exact same thing, probably two hours later. I have my hand holding [the wire], plug it in, and the exact same thing happens. I shocked the mess out of myself.”
The temporary pain was ultimately worth it. Not only was the Christmas tree sale a success, but many of the other fundraising efforts put on by the program brought in considerable funding.
On average, the team’s fundraising intake was twice the total of its allotted budget.
O’Neil quickly got to work rebuilding the UNCP baseball program in light of Dr. Meadors’ challenge. It wasn’t a smooth process at first, as his team’s record fluctuated around the .500 benchmark through his first few seasons at the helm.
He had a familiar face join his staff as an assistant coach. Hedrick wasn’t a full-time employee with the school, making a small amount of money helping with UNCP’s intramural program. His work as a coach was essentially done on a volunteer basis.
Early in O’Neil’s career, the coaches cut the grass at the baseball field themselves. At that time, they did not have access to high-quality lawnmowers that were capable of striping the field. Instead, they pulled a drag behind the lawnmower that gave the field a striped look.
“The people that worked here, they couldn’t understand how we were striping the field,” O’Neil said. “Ray used to tell them that we had a magic Gravely. The physical plant gave us the worst lawnmower they had in their whole fleet… He told them that the one they gave us was the magic Gravely.”
In one instance, however, the magic Gravely landed the pair in a bit of trouble.
In the midst of O’Neil’s first year with the program, Hedrick was out mowing the field one night. At the time, the coaches had access to just one set of keys for a number of essential utilities, including the field’s light switches and storage rooms.
Hedrick had that particular set of keys tied to the drawstring of his shorts that night due to his lack of pockets. While cutting the grass, he saw the keys fall off of his lap and onto the fields. Hedrick then made a critical mistake: instead of retrieving the keys immediately, he committed to picking them up on his way back around.
“I guess he forgot which spot they were in or he didn’t see them, and he runs right over them,” O’Neil said. “He’s got every key on there. He’s got his car keys, house keys, office keys. It’s not like it was just a light key. It’s every key.”
The two were able to break into Hedrick’s car and find his spare key, allowing them to return home for the night. The light key, however, was never found. As a result, the baseball field’s lights remained on all night.
O’Neil and Hedrick, who is now the head coach at Randolph-Macon College, learned a valuable lesson from that experience It was one of many lessons that O’Neil endured while molding the program into a contender.
One of the biggest lessons, however, came from Kenney. During one of O’Neil’s first few years coaching the team, the two sat down for a conversation.
“I was in his office and I was complaining,” O’Neil said. “I was complaining about my team, about how we weren’t any good, or this kid wasn’t going to class, the problems I was having.”
“He told me, ‘This is the best team that you’re going to coach all year’.”
That quote has never left the coach’s mind.
“It was basically, suck it up and figure it out on what you have to do to make this team better,” O’Neil said. “Coach this team as hard as you can. If you want to make a change with somebody, you have to recruit someone else to make a change. But complaining about it is not going to get us any better.”
The baseball team that O’Neil oversees today is nothing like the one that he took over years ago. The Braves are routinely contenders in the Peach Belt Conference and have established themselves on a national level. Last season, UNCP’s 41-17 record qualified as the second-most victories in program history.
O’Neil has tallied over 600 victories in his head coaching career, with more than 500 of those wins coming at UNCP. His record of success has earned him the respect of his players as well as many fans that have seen the team develop over the years.
During the team’s postseason run last season that saw them reach the NCAA Southeast Regional, a hashtag that served as a tribute to O’Neil became viral among the UNCP community. #DoItFor6, a reference to O’Neil’s jersey number, circulated on Twitter as the Braves progressed through the playoffs.
The man Kenney once hired to change a program’s culture is now the man UNCP baseball players want to win for.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage at the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter: @Tester_Brandon