To say that Tom O’Brien didn’t exactly jump at the chance to continue coaching football would be an understatement.
In fact, O’Brien, who is Virginia’s new associate head coach for offense, told Cavaliers head coach Mike London “no,” several times before finally yielding to common sense and his wife, Jenny’s, suggestion to get back into the game.
After 16 years as head coach at Boston College and North Carolina State, O’Brien struggled with being given a pink slip by the latter two days after this past season ended. He wasn’t exactly sure if he wanted to coach again or what he might do or even where he would do it. He was more occupied by trying to find jobs for his former assistant coaches.
Then London called his old friend, about 10 days after O’Brien left State, and wanted to meet for dinner in Raleigh at one of O’Brien’s favorite spots. London was out to strengthen his own UVa staff and knew what OB (nickname) would bring to the table. London had worked for him at BC and coached against him at State. It was worth the gamble to try to convince O’Brien to return to Charlottesville where he had worked under Hall of Famer George Welsh for 15 years.
“I told [London] a couple of times that I wasn’t going to do it [coach again],” said O’Brien on Friday, wearing a blue, Virginia crossed sabres vest, upon his reintroduction to state media. “I told him that more than a few times. Of course, I didn’t know what was of interest to me because I had never been through [being fired] before.”
The fact that London and UVa executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver presented O’Brien with a good plan helped, but in the end, it was O’Brien’s own rationale that made the difference.
“I thought back to all the coaches that have been out of it and about a year later, they’re trying to get back into the profession one way or another,” O’Brien said. “When you [coach] every day, every hour, every minute, for 38 years and then you’re stuck doing nothing, and your wife looks at you and says you ought to go back to work, well, that’s a pretty good hint that you ought to go back to work.”
At age 63, the veteran coach knew he might coach another two to five years and then reevaluate, but in his final analysis, O’Brien decided he wasn’t done with coaching.
He didn’t think too much about London’s offer until after Christmas and closer to New Year’s he decided to accept. Things came together faster than expected and now he’s once again a Cavalier.
“I got in the car to come here and report [for the new job] and realized I came back to Charlottesville exactly 30 years and one day after the first time I came here [in 1982],” O’Brien said. “I got in the car, turned the car on and the radio was playing Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles, singing ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home,’ so obviously it was a sign that this was going to be a pretty good deal.”
One of the first things he wanted to make clear upon arrival was that while he is associate head coach for offense, that he in no way was interested in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s job or anyone else’s job. London already knew that.
“I told [Lazor] he shouldn’t feel threatened, that I’m not here to take his job or do his job,” O’Brien said. “I’m here to help him. He’s the coordinator. I can be a great assistant.”
What O’Brien will be is an experienced sounding board for London, Lazor, or any other of Virginia’s coaching staff. He will also coach the Cavaliers’ tight ends, a post similar to where he started under Welsh at Navy back in the ‘70s.
“I should be the best assistant here because I know what [London] goes through, the day-to-day grind it takes to be a head coach,” O’Brien said. “If I can take some of that off of him and make us all better coaches, that’s what I want to do.”
Another lure to Charlottesville was that O’Brien could actually get his hands dirty again. He explained that head coaches lose contact with the actual coaching aspect of the game because they are pulled in so many other directions.
He missed the meeting rooms, missed the hands-on coaching of players on a daily basis and that’s one thing he will reunite with at UVa. He will also be on the recruiting trail (it appears the greater Richmond area will be his assignment) and O’Brien is looking forward to getting out on the road again.
Certainly Charlottesville and UVa has changed greatly since O’Brien left in 1996 to become Boston College’s head coach.
When he arrived in ’82, Welsh’s office was in University Hall and the office space for football was so cramped that the assistants moved into some double-wide trailers situated next to The Cage. Scott Stadium has since expanded, John Paul Jones Arena was built, and so was Davenport Field.
“[Virginia’s] got an indoor football facility,” O’Brien said, raising his voice in excitement. “How about that? That’s something I tried to get for six years at State.”
The city has changed, too.
“North 29 used to be two lanes, now it’s a major expressway with a light every 10 feet it seems,” O’Brien chuckled. “The town has grown, for the better I presume.
“We first lived in Four Seasons and back then that was the edge of town, and then we moved to Forest Lakes when it was built and that was the edge of town,” O’Brien said. “Now the town never ends.”
When OB and Jenny moved here in ’82, daughter Colleen (now an associate producer at ESPN) was a toddler, son Danny (now an assistant football coach) had just been born in Annapolis before the move, and daughter Bridget (museum coordinator for the Historic Charleston, S.C., Foundation) was born in Charlottesville.
“When you raise your kids in [the Charlottesville] environment for 15 years you really get good friends and many of those are still here,” O’Brien said. “If my wife had her druthers, she would come back to Charlottesville.”
This time, Jenny O’Brien got her wish. So did Mike London.