Who IS Bill O'Brien (Part II)?



St. John's Preparatory Yearbook Photo (Attended 1984-1988). Photo via

If you missed Part I of this series, click here.

Bill O'Brien is a grinder. In football terms, a grinder is someone who knows he's not going to be on a trading card, and endorsements are nothing more than his grandmother telling her friends at the beauty salon that her grandson is playing next week in some obscure small-town college stadium where there is nothing but the college's mass communications program covering the game. For a class project. But it's football, and you are playing football because you love it. So you grind away, unable to put it down.

Bill O'Brien was born into a football family in Andover, Massachusetts. His grandfather, according to an article by PennLive author Stefanie Loh, was a newspaperman who played football for a team called "Pere Marquette" in South Boston, and he once faced three of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in a game against the Hartford Blues. Bill O'Brien's father played football for Brown University, Class of 1955, just five years later than Joe Paterno, Class of 1950. Both Bill and the middle brother, Tom, played football. And all three of the O'Brien sons graduated from Brown University. Bill is the youngest of the three O'Brien sons and graduated from Brown University in 1992. In Bill's own words, he was a grinder.

"We weren’t very good," O'Brien said. "I was always a team guy, and I was disappointed we didn’t win more games. I wasn’t terribly athletic, but I was tough and didn’t miss a lot of practices—your typical grinder." -- Bill O'Brien, Texans head coach

In his playing days at Brown, he would yell at his opponents and encourage his own teammates so much that his voice was usually almost completely gone by the fourth quarter of the game. And the language? He went full throttle with the curse words, too, though he said "I've calmed down a bit," according to Jon Birger's excellent in-depth article published in a Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Brown Alumni Magazine.

SIDENOTE: Please do yourself a favor and go read the Jon Birger article. You will read O'Brien explain the whole Brady-O'Brien sideline argument, which reveals that the issue cleared up quickly--the Patriots came back to win the game--with nothing more made of the issue.

Another revealing look into the intensity of Bill O'Brien shows that it's not some act he uses as a coach, it's actually part of his personality and the fire of competition burns strong wherever he goes. Read the below quote by Brown University football teammate Bill Hamilton, also Class of 1992, regarding his reaction to seeing O'Brien argue with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, on live television, during that now infamous game everybody is talking about now that O'Brien has landed back in the NFL.

Hamilton, who was watching the game live, wasn’t nearly as stunned by O’Brien’s outburst as most viewers. "Seeing him yelling at Brady was like a flashback," Hamilton says. "I remember him doing the same thing all the time during halftimes of Brown games whenever we were getting beat—which was most of the time." -- Bill Hamilton, O'Brien teammate at Brown University

See? It's not an act when he yells or gets hot under the collar. It's in his DNA. Every great sports competitor and coach has a genetic predisposition toward being wholly unsatisfied with anything less than winning. Compared to the stories about Michael Jordan, Bill O'Brien is a saint. He cusses, he yells, and I bet at the end of a lost game O'Brien shook the opponent's hand and said "Good game." It's football, not a spelling bee. In this area, I think Bill knows his limits and am fairly confident that it stays in the time and setting it belongs.

After working as a positional coach at Brown University from 1993 through 1994, Bill landed in 1995 what is arguably the series of positions and promotions with Georgia Tech that I believe show his ability to grow, learn and produce real results that are frankly attributed to his own football intellectualism and not some coattail riding of a larger figure. Yes, then head coach George O'Leary--who, by the way, is currently the head coach at UCF...yes, UCF where Blake Bortles is QB...--was the man in charge at Georgia Tech and who hired Bill O'Brien in 1995. But look at the below graphic and you will see that O'Brien moved swiftly up the ladder at Tech. There was a discernible upward swing with every position or system of offense that O'Brien was in charge of through his long career at Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech: 1995-2002

The years at Georgia Tech, his breakout as a college coach, I think personify the hard work and smarts of Bill O'Brien. Here you will see that he started as a graduate assistant and moved up the ranks from position to position, having success at each level of the program.

I think I can safely say that O'Brien has his coaching lineage from the George O'Leary tree. O'Leary is currently the head coach at the University of Central Florida. Whatever was happening in Georgia Tech with O'Leary and O'Brien, whether it was a product of O'Brien or O'Leary I am not sure, seems to have been a fit for O'Brien when he was with the Patriots. And it seems to have been a fit for O'Leary at UCF. Passing yards and points are the soup of the day for those two coaches.


Maryland (2003-2004) and Duke (2005-2006)

In between Georgia Tech and Penn State University, new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien had stops at Maryland as a running backs coach for two years in 2003 and 2004, and then a stint with Duke where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Blue Devils for 2005 and 2006. Then he got to the New England Patriots.

The next two graphics show a glimpse of his work with Maryland and Duke. Nothing eye-popping here, but I promised I would explore and post everything I could find on his coaching stays. The Ted Roof era at Duke was a bad time for Blue Devils football fans, with Roof compiling a 6-45 record over a 4+ year tenure as head coach. Still, O'Brien managed to make the best of what must have been an almost impossible situation there.

One last thing: The two most successful coaching jobs for O'Brien, Georgia Tech and Penn State, represent in my mind the best overall snapshot of who this coach is and what he can do well. In both of those destinations, there was a heavy emphasis by O'Brien on recruiting players. In the NFL, he will work closely with the Texans front office to identify college players and NFL veterans on the free agency market. He seems to be very talented in the area of convincing players to buy into his system and into himself, as a person who cares for them, too. I am extremely stoked about this aspect of our new head coach. There is a raw, visceral fearlessness about this man that I believe has been missing forever here.



New England Patriots: 2007-2011

O'Brien had a front row seat to the show that is Patriots football, using his own hard-earned successful ways and gleaning every kernel of wisdom and tactical strategy he could from Bill Belichick. Pay special attention to the final part of Birger's article where O'Brien reveals that Belichick is not playing a mind game, nor being a jerk on camera, when he "talks up" every Patriots opponent in the week leading up to the game.

O'Brien joined the Patriots staff as an offensive assistant in 2007. He took over play-calling duties in 2009 following the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Denver Broncos. O’Brien was named offensive coordinator in 2011. He compares working for Belichick to "getting a PhD in football." Much of what he’s doing coaching players and managing assistant coaches at Penn State he says he learned from Belichick. "As an assistant," O’Brien says, "he gives you the parameters, but he lets you be creative and coach."

Belichick rarely has anything interesting to say to the reporters who cover the Patriots, but O’Brien says that behind closed doors, Belichick is actually a master motivator with his players. "He’s a great guy with a very good sense of humor," O’Brien says. "To me, he’s really a player’s coach because he tells them the truth. He’s not a sugarcoat-it guy. When he talks to them about football, it’s with a purpose. They’ll run through a wall for him because he’s all about trying to make them better."

During his pre-game press conferences, Belichick is famous for talking up the talents of even the lowliest of opponents. This, says O’Brien, is no act. "Wednesday morning is the first team meeting when we’d talk about that week’s opponent. It didn’t matter who we were playing—every time, Brady and I would walk out of that meeting feeling like we were getting ready to play the 1985 Chicago Bears. But Belichick is right: he understands that there are so many great players in that league that you can’t just roll the ball out there and expect to win." -- Bill O'Brien, Texans head coach

O'Brien was instrumental in helping New England reach two Super Bowls over five years, including Super Bowl XLVI. From 2009-11, O'Brien coached the Patriots' quarterbacks, being promoted to offensive coordinator for the 2011 season, when New England led the AFC in scoring at 32.1 points per game. During the 2011 campaign, O'Brien was instrumental in New England earning a 13-3 record, the No. 1 seed in the AFC and advancing to Super Bowl XLVI. The Patriots scored 513 points, the AFC's highest total and No. 3 in the NFL. New England was second in the NFL in total offense (428.0 ypg) and passing yards (317.8 ypg).

Under O'Brien's tutelage, Brady threw for 5,235 yards (No. 2 in NFL) and 39 touchdowns during the 2011 regular season, as the Patriots won their final eight games. Wide receiver Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions and his 1,569 receiving yards ranked second in the NFL. Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski (90-1,327) ranked No. 1-2 in the AFC in receiving yardage in 2011. Gronkowski led the NFL with 17 touchdown receptions and was second with 18 overall scores. Tight end Aaron Hernandez also was prolific in the passing game with 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns during New England's AFC Championship season.

From 2009-11, O'Brien coached Brady and the quarterbacks. Brady was selected the first unanimous Associated Press NFL MVP in 2010 after leading the Patriots to an NFL-best 14-2 mark.

Not so subtle reminder: Read the Brown Alumni Magazine article. Click the link and read it all the way through. You'll learn more about Bill Belichick in an obscure Brown University alumni magazine article than you will by reading some ESPN Insider article on the man. Jon Birger wrote a helluva article there, of which I drew practically the majority of my information from for this post. There is a wealth of information in that Birger article that I couldn't fit here.

Penn State: 2012-2013

Bill O'Brien knows how to put up yards and points. If a little bell is ringing in your head about the Patriots' ability to put up yards and points, and how Bill O'Brien also commanded a potent passing AND rushing offense as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, then check out the below graphic of his work with Penn State University and the bell should begin to sound more like an air raid horn piercing the Sunday afternoon air in 2014.

His performance at Maryland and Duke seem to be outliers when compared to his work at Georgia Tech, New England, and Penn State. Let's take a look at his most recent numbers from the past two seasons at Penn State:


The following is from the PSU Official Football Website bio on O'Brien. Enjoy this for the way it debunks the myth that O'Brien left the college game because he didn't want to do anything but coach:

At PSU, immediately after the 15 allotted 2012 spring practices that culminated in the Blue-White Game, O'Brien spent the next week meeting individually with every squad member to discuss where they stood in his eyes and what they needed to work on academically or related to football in order to improve or earn more playing time this season.

The following Monday at 6:30 a.m., O'Brien was on a customized bus en route to Philadelphia for the start of the ambitious and unprecedented Penn State Coaches Caravan. Over the course of nine days in the first half of May, O'Brien met with Penn State alumni, fans and former players at 18 events in 17 cities across seven states and Washington, D.C. He did nearly 80 interviews with local and national media over the three weeks to assist in introducing himself to Penn Staters, potential recruits and the nation and spreading his vision of Penn State Football.

From the day he was introduced to Nittany Nation, at each of the Coaches Caravan events and every day since, O'Brien has emphasized the four cornerstones of the program he is leading: Academics, Football, Integrity and Respect. During each of the evening Coaches Caravan events, O'Brien introduced himself and the rest of the foundation of the football program with an enthusiastic and well-received PowerPoint presentation titled "Penn State Football: A Championship Program On and Off the Field."

The Bill O'Brien Family


photo via

Many people have discussed the O'Brien family's unique circumstance with their special needs child, wondering if relocation from Pennsylvania to Texas would affect the family as well as the decision by Bill to accept or decline the head coaching offer from Texans owner Bob McNair. I will again draw upon Jon Birger of Brown Alumni Magazine who sheds light on how Bill and his wife met, and Bill's outlook on his son and family life.

O’Brien parlayed his coaching apprenticeship at Brown into more senior coaching gigs at Georgia Tech, Duke, and the University of Maryland. O’Brien was Georgia Tech’s offensive coordinator in 2001, when the Yellow Jackets averaged 31 points a game and were 9–4 for the season. But his stint in Atlanta was even more important off the field. When O’Brien celebrated a victory at a local sports bar with fellow coach Doug Marrone, Marrone introduced him to his girlfriend’s college roommate, Colleen Corran. Bill and Colleen immediately hit it off and were married in 1998.

The couple have two children, Jack, 10, and Michael, 7. Jack is a special-needs child who was born with a brain malformation called lissencephaly. "He’s dependent on Colleen and myself—mostly Colleen—for everything. In the off-season, I try to help out as much as I can, but during the season, it’s really all her. He can’t talk, he can’t walk, we have to feed him and bathe him. But he’s a great little boy with a great demeanor. He communicates to us by nodding yes or no, and he can choose things by pointing them out."

Asked how Jack’s disability has affected his own outlook, O’Brien tries not to get too philosophical. "Everybody’s got problems, and obviously we’re not the only parents with the challenge of having a special-needs kid. But as it relates to being a football coach, I think my perspective probably is a little different because of Jack. I’m going to do the best I can for these kids and this university, but at the end of the day there are a lot more important things out there than just winning football games." -- Bill O'Brien, Texans head coach

The Patriot Family


photo via

If you need to see what the Patriot players, owner, and head coach think of your new Houston Texans head coach, just read the following heartfelt things and smile as you think "He's OURS."

"They're [Penn State] getting a great man, I'm so sorry to see him leave. They're getting the real deal. He's a passionate guy. He knows the game and is a great people person. He's not afraid to speak up, whether it's (Bill) Belichick, (Tom) Brady, myself or something isn't right and that's what you need. He's one of my favorite people to come through this system. He and his wife (Colleen) and their whole family are just first class. Whoever chose him at Penn State is a very wise person." - Robert Kraft, New England Patriots Chairman and CEO

"Over the course of his long coaching career, Bill O'Brien has met every personal and professional challenge head on with great passion and competitiveness. I expect Bill to draw on his deep background in college football and the NFL to continue attracting and developing top players. For five years, Bill's outstanding work with our quarterbacks and entire offense has led to record-setting performances. His presence and command before our team has grown into that of a inspirational leader. This is a great match between a storied program and a old-school football coach. Bill will be up to the task and I couldn't be happier for him, Colleen and the O'Brien family."
- Bill Belichick, New England Patriots head coach

"Billy has been a great coach and friend. We have a great relationship; probably a very unique relationship in that we communicate all the time. I always enjoy working with him and he's done an incredible job with this team and this offense. He expects nothing less than our best." - Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback

"Bill O'Brien brings a lot of energy and fire to an organization. I think being in a head coaching position, that type of personality will allow him to do very well." - Wes Welker, Former New England Patriots wide receiver

"As an offensive coordinator you can have a little fire. You can have a little passion about the game, and that's what he has." - Kevin Faulk, Former New England Patriots running back

"For me to know him personally and understand what kind of person he is and what kind of coach he has been while I've been here, I think it's a great move. He's an extremely passionate coach. This is important to him and I think you can expect great things out of him." - Rich Ohrnberger, New England Patriots guard/Penn State All-American & All-Big Ten honoree

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bill O'Brien. Having been around him, I could tell that he eventually would be discovered and move on to great things. A few characteristics that I admire most about Bill O'Brien are his accountability, his professionalism and his ability to motivate. Penn State has found a spectacular coach."
- Tedy Bruschi, Former New England Patriots linebacker

Bill O'Brien played defensive end when he was grinding out those practices back in the early 1990s, icing down after the beating his body took for what amounted to a lot of freaking losses. In his senior season at Brown University, the team went 0-10. A 10-game losing streak; not a single win in what would be his final season of football as a player. He knows losing sucks, and he will do what he has done with so many college players at so many coaching destinations in his 20+ years of coaching football: He'll have a one-on-one with every Houston Texans player, he'll tell them what they do good and what they can do to get even better. And he'll tell them there is a plan, that he wants them there for it, and that the real work begins soon. Very soon. He'll gladly talk to the media and serve at civic and charity functions, but he'll be in a different realm altogether when the Texans hit the field for that first preseason game in 2014.

When people ask about O'Brien and his defensive philosophies, just remember that he played on defense at Brown University. He wasn't a quarterback in college, and he didn't play alongside a legend in the NFL, but he does have a working knowledge, a real tangible understanding of how defenses operate. He has flipped the script, choosing to use his knowledge and passion for defense as a way to create and deploy his own version of offense that deals with ANY defense that attempts to oppose his offense. I have a pretty good feeling that his choice for defensive coordinator is going to be more than capable of providing as dynamic of a defense as O'Brien will provide for the Texans on offense.

And now a public service announcement regarding timely immunizations of your Texans "kids." Grind flu is nothing new, Mr. D.J. Swearinger. In fact, there's going to be an outbreak of epic proportions when you and the rest of your teammates arrive for the first day of training at Reliant Stadium. You're about to meet and work with a man who yelled at and goaded opposing players, too. But you've already had two more wins in your rookie season than the new boss had in his senior year of football in 1992. Bring a pen, notepad, and remember to ice down after practice, because I have a feeling Grind 101 is going to be a helluva intro class to a degree in O'Brien Football.

If you want to know a little bit more about his life as a young man in Andover, Massachusetts, read the article by PennLive author Stefanie Loh, who shares interesting facts about Bill O'Brien that won't make SportsCenter anytime soon. Stefanie also penned (pun intended) this article which is another great read, as well.

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