Tom O’Brien Retired: Revisiting a Boston College Coach’s Legacy

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Nov 29, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Syracuse Orange quarterback AJ Long (4) runs for a touchdown past Boston College Eagles defensive back Ty-Meer Brown during the first half at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the University of Virginia announced that associate head coach Tom O’Brien retired from coaching.

Boston College knows all about the man, as he coached at Boston College for ten seasons from 1997 through 2006.

An appropriate time to take stock of the legacy left behind by Tom O’Brien in this program might have been, say, 2007, but Soaring to Glory was not around in 2007. We also now have the added perspective of time. As the coach has retired, and much has happened in the eight or so years since he left the Heights, how should we remember his tenure?

Tom O’Brien and the Scandal Recovery

When Tom O’Brien took over the program prior to the 1997 season, Boston College football had been rocked by a gambling scandal during the tenure of Dan Henning. Nevertheless, the Eagles of that era were in decline, as the post-Tom Coughlin days did not see much success on the Heights.

O’Brien was hired to bring discipline to Eagles football and try to restore some semblance of winning. To his credit, he did both. Within a couple seasons, three to be exact, Boston College was back in a bowl game. By his fifth season, the Eagles finished the year with a national top 25 ranking.

Progress was slow as O’Brien had some losing seasons to start, but eventually, the Eagles were winning consistently.

The Tom O’Brien Ceiling and Departure

Yet, while Boston College got back to winning, there was a cap to their success.

Consistency is key for any football team, and Boston College won between seven and nine games a season in his final eight seasons. After he left in 2006, the Eagles won their tenth game of that season, but he did not receive credit for it.

O’Brien’s teams had a tendency to lose the big game they needed to win in order to take the next step as a program. The key example is Syracuse in 2004 — all the Eagles had to do was beat a middling conference opponent to win the Big East, and Boston College got blown out at home.

There are more examples. The 1999 Eagles blew a 28-point lead against Miami in what would have been a signature win. In 2005, beating what turned out to be an eight-win Florida State in that first ACC home game would have won the division outright. In 2006, O’Brien’s Eagles collapsed and lost his last game on the road in Miami (“we’re up, aren’t we?”), and also fell to Wake Forest in another game that could have won the ACC Atlantic. Under Tom O’Brien, Boston College football was always the groomsman, but never the groom.

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Following the 2006 regular season, O’Brien left Boston College and took the coaching job at NC State. Having been a student at the time with contacts inside Boston College Athletics, there were at least some football players annoyed with their former coach for quitting on them, though I specifically remember telling one of my contacts that it could be the best thing for them, as O’Brien had done the best he could with the Eagles and a better coach might be able to get BC to that next level that constantly eluded O’Brien.

As it would turn out, I was right, but time would reveal some additional difficulties. More on that in a moment in the next slide.

Next: O'Brien's Departure and Legacy