O'Sullivan, 49, in his 13th year as head coach on the Main Line, likes to say he has a "love-hate" relationship with the carnival, the pressure of being a Villanovan contrasted with the immense feeling of satisfaction when his team does well there.
Question: What was your first memory of the Penn Relays?
O'Sullivan: I didn't know what the Penn Relays was until I got to the U.S. As a freshman, and with the dynasty we had then, I wouldn't have anticipated that I was going to run. But [Villanova head coach Jumbo Elliott] threw me on. All I had to do was put my head down and run hard and not worry about too much else because we had upperclassmen to carry the load. I ran two relays, and we won, and it was luxurious in the sense that I was part of something immediately and really didn't know what I was a part of.
Q: You accepted much of the blame for Villanova's shutout in 1983 [when he was a junior] but you came back strong the next year, anchoring two winning relay teams. What happened?
A: It was a part of my college career where I had lost commitment. I had lost what I was there for. It was one of those years where I was anchoring everything, and we lost everything. That's why Penn is love-hate for me. I will never say I love Penn [Relays]. I will never say I hate it because I know how important it is to one's life. But the reason why Penn is so significant to me is: That was my wake-up call that basically said, "Accept responsibility. You came here for a reason."
The next year, for the first time in my life, I found intense commitment in myself. I couldn't wait for Penn to come. I was dying for it to come back. I wanted to be ready. It's amazing that one year captured my whole maturing process. That's why I'm very fond of Penn - it's a love-hate relationship - because it forced me into seeing who I was and deciding who I wanted to be. It means a tremendous amount to me.
Q: Standing outside Franklin Field during the Penn Relays, you've compared the roars inside with those that might have been heard at the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Can you explain?
A: When I was a junior, I was stretching outside and noticed Franklin Field has this kind of Colosseum look about it. I called it the arena because the image I had was of the Christians and the lions. You hear this roar that something happened, and all I'm thinking about it some poor Christian in there getting eaten by a lion. Obviously it's somebody getting run down. I had this kind of image where you needed to be a gladiator to go in there to fight your way literally, not necessarily metaphorically.
Q: Did the Penn Relays change for you after you became Villanova's coach?
A: My biggest regret when I was an athlete for 15 years was that I didn't enjoy it. I didn't really savor it the way I should. So when I got done running, I said that the next job I have, I'm going to relax, try to enjoy it more. I think as you mature in coaching, it becomes clear why you're in the job and why you're doing it, and it becomes far more enjoyable. Penn is a report card. It's something you've got to get. It doesn't mean everything, but it means a lot.
Q: Villanova has won more men's Championship of America relays (89) than any other college. How much pressure is on Villanova at Penn?
A: You have this paranoia that everyone is expecting you to do something. Everyone knows who you are. Because of the Villanova shirt, it's pressure. I have tremendous admiration for teams that can get it done in their hometown. We're of the understanding that we have to be there and be ready every year as best we can.
Q: What do you do to prepare for a race at Penn?
A: We warm up on the lower fields on the grass and then we kind of pitch ourselves across [33d Street] from the pens. We can see the pens, and that helps a lot. But you're on the concrete outside so you don't want to put on your spikes too early. You're trying to time it as best as you possibly can to warm up and keep them warm so they can run as best they can. But everyone is in the same situation, and you understand that.
Q: How have you seen the evolution of the Penn Relays, from your time as a college athlete to now?
A: I think it's great. It's something that's Philadelphia always. It almost becomes a rite of passage on the track. It's all different levels of what it means to so many different people. Jim Tuppeny [former carnival director and 'Nova assistant coach] used to say, "It's good to be at the dance." Once you get into the dance, you don't know what's going to happen, but it's good to be there. You have to be proud of it because there's nothing like it. So therefore, for me [laughs], it's love-hate.
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494