As Virginia searched for a way to restructure its non-revenue producing sports in 2001, its unsuccessful baseball program was among those being considered for a downgrade to non-scholarship status, essentially eliminating the program. Supporters – including one well-known Mississippian – rallied, and the program remained.
A year later, a new stadium opened.
A year after that, Brian O’Connor was hired away from Notre Dame, where he was an assistant, to become the team’s head coach. His teams quickly flourished. Playing in front of record crowds at Davenport Field, the Cavaliers have played in six straight NCAA regionals and will make their first Super Regional appearance when they play Ole Miss on Friday in the first game of the best-of-three series.
“Prior to 2001, our baseball attendance was basically family and friends and a few die-hards,” Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said. “(O’Connor), and the staff and the team – based on the performance – have turned Charlottesville into a baseball town.”
Reportedly, none of that would have been possible without the assistance of Charlottesville resident and best-selling novelist John Grisham.
Yes, that John Grisham, who has degrees from both Mississippi State and Ole Miss and keeps a home in Mississippi.
Littlepage described Grisham as a “good friend” to the entire Virginia athletic department, saying he’s been a suiteholder for football games at Scott Stadium and has had courtside seats at the new John Paul Jones Arena.
“John was instrumental in rallying the support to save the program,” O’Connor said. “Getting everybody involved, and just raising Virginia baseball up. I am, and our program is, forever grateful for his involvement.”
In a 2004 story in The Washington Post, Grisham was described as “the program’s greatest benefactor.”
“There is lots of speculation out there that Mr. Grisham has had much to do with that stadium,” Dennis Womack, who preceded O’Connor as coach, told The Post in 2004. “I would say that the building of that stadium has been the single most influential thing, the best thing, that’s happened in the history of UVA baseball.”
In a profile of the program last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education said that Grisham “reportedly played white knight” and gave part of the $5 million the university needed to build Davenport Field.
Grisham, whose son Ty played on the UVA team for 2 1/2 years, is on vacation and wasn’t available to be reached for comment.