PEMBROKE — Following The University of North Carolina at Pembroke baseball team’s 9-3 win over Catawba at home Wednesday, men’s basketball coach Ben Miller came into the dugout to congratulate baseball head coach Paul O’Neil on his 500th coaching victory at UNCP and asked him how he was celebrating reaching such a feat.
O’Neil shrugged off the idea of any celebration, saying, “I’m going to do the same as always. I’m going to get ready for Georgia Southwestern.”
That consistency of sticking to the same routine that has helped him win 500 games as skipper of the Braves and has been one key that he has tried to follow throughout his coaching career.
“You’ve got to stay real consistent with your core values as a coach,” O’Neil said. “Whatever is important to you in your coaching philosophy, you need to be that way all the time. You can’t start off coaching one way and change and try something else. I try to stay true to who I am and try to do things the way I know is the right way of doing it, and the right way to get the most out of young men.”
His coaching philosophy was forged while serving as an assistant at Montreat College and Virginia Commonwealth University, before becoming the head coach at Shenandoah for four seasons ahead of starting at UNCP in 2001.
“My coaching philosophy is formed off of the guys that I’ve worked under as an assistant,” O’Neil said. “I saw how they did it … and I put it together and I added my own twist to it.”
Since taking the helm at UNCP, O’Neil has had two sub-.500 seasons in his 16-year stint and has found success in recent years, bringing in 11 consecutive seasons with at least 30 wins into the 2016 campaign.
That includes a 44-12 team in 2011 that won the Peach Belt Conference tournament.
“I’ve been blessed that I’ve had a lot of good players, I’ve been blessed that I’ve had a lot of really good assistant coaches who’ve worked with me for the past 15-plus years,” he said. “It’s been a good run, hopefully we can keep marching on and winning games.”
Fairmont grad and UNCP relief pitcher Alex Britt is one of the few players that have been with the team for more than one year, and has seen his work ethic improve under O’Neil.
“I came in my freshman year and I didn’t know how to work at it. So he put me on and my sophomore year I came out here early every day and that’s what he wanted,” Britt said. “He’s been fair to everybody and given me my chance constantly. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for.”
Adjusting to the change in players from year to year, but also finding balance to change your game plan to fit your team is something he says he has done to help his team be successful.
“I do believe you have to coach the players that you have,” O’Neil said. “No matter what your philosophy might be, you have to coach towards to what your personnel is that year.”
O’Neil is facing that situation this season with the departure of most of the offensive force that led last year’s squad. Knowing that his team would need to be more well-rounded than it was last year, even though his team on Wednesday looked like the 2015 team with the high offensive output, O’Neil has coached his young team looking to become just that.
With all the success on the field, getting to know each player on a one-on-one connection is something he holds in high regard and is a big part of his coaching philosophy.
“I get to know them all on a personal basis, that’s part of my coaching philosophy, having a relationship with the kids and letting them know you care about them before they play hard for you,” O’Neil said. “I try to do that with every single player that comes through. Granted I want them to be good players, but I want to know what’s going on with them and make sure they’re in a good place in their life when they’re here.”
“He’s a good coach and he has an open door policy that you can talk to him about anything,” Britt said. “He’s always there for every teammate on the team.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.