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

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Sep 5, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston College players come onto the field prior to the game against Pittsburgh Panthers at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Upon taking his job at NC State, Tom O’Brien had this to say of his former school:

"The best anyone can do at Boston College is nine or ten wins. The sky’s the limit at NC State; we’re not here to win nine or 10. Tom O’Brien, as quoted in The Heights (September 6, 2007; quote edited for punctuation)"

In the first season after O’Brien left, Boston College won 11 games. He only had one season as good as nine wins during his six years in Raleigh before getting fired at the same time as Frank Spaziani in 2012.

The departure of Tom O’Brien from Boston College in 2006 had some short-term positive impacts and long-term negative effects. In the two years after, the Eagles had coach Jeff Jagodzinski lead the team to 20 wins and two ACC Atlantic titles. Under Jags, Matt Ryan had the best season for an Eagles quarterback since the days of Glenn Foley or Doug Flutie. This probably would not have happened if O’Brien remained, especially given that his teams were usually good but never very good or great. The Eagles had bravado and swagger after O’Brien left.

As for the negative, Tom O’Brien bailing for NC State planted the seeds of paranoia about fleeing coaches in the mind of one Gene DeFilippo, erstwhile Boston College athletic director. Then, two years later when Jagodzinski even considered the possibility of moving on, Gene fired him on the spot and replaced him with a more loyal head coach, Frank Spaziani, who wrecked the program in short order. To this day, Boston College is still recovering from it.

I do not intend to blame Tom O’Brien for what happened in Boston College football from 2009 to 2012, but there is some indirect cause. O’Brien’s hasty departure contributed to Gene’s quick trigger finger with Jags, which saddled us with four years of rapid decline under Spaz.

Tom O’Brien’s Complex Legacy

Boston College Eagles
Boston College Eagles /

Boston College Eagles

Eight years on, Tom O’Brien evokes mixed memories at Boston College. He got the football program back on track after some bad years, but his success had limits, and as demonstrated by his quote at NC State, he seemed to believe he was not responsible for his team failing to get further than they did. Add in some ruffled feathers along the way and the coach had his share of supporters and detractors by the end of his ten years here.

Based on how he left, should he be embraced by the Eagles community? That’s a tough one. What he was able to do for the football program in the late 1990s was both important and necessary, and he can hardly be blamed from the perspective of not wanting to work for Gene anymore. Yet, how he left, going to a division rival, and some of those aforementioned ruffled feathers are not that far in the distant past.

Ultimately, how O’Brien’s teams plateaued at a certain level every year might be how Boston College fans remember him, but that’s probably a lot better than how NC State fans will remember him.