This is the first of what will be a recurring feature here at BSJ, where we talk Boston sports and growing up in New England with various figures in sports and entertainment.
First up: Andover native Bill O'Brien. Born in Dorchester but raised in Andover, the Houston Texans coach talks about Little League, his love of Larry Bird and the Celtics growing up, his family's obsession with the Red Sox, summers on the Cape and working with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
You grew up in Andover, what was that town like as far as youth sports growing up?
Oh, it’s a great sports town. I played football, baseball, and basketball. A guy I grew up with is our wide receivers coach, John Perry. But we had these great youth coaches. Guys named Rick Harrison and Joe Iarrobino, I mean these guys coached us in baseball and basketball and football. Bill Lane… They were just great guys and they really were the first guys who taught you about being on a team and competing. It was a cool town. I always thank my parents for moving there. I was born in 1969 on the South Shore, we lived in Scituate. But I was a baby when we moved to Atlanta, my dad was with ITT. And then we moved back to Massachusetts, I was about 7 or 8 years old and we lived in Andover and that’s where I spent the rest of my childhood. So I really did grow up in Andover. It was a great town.
What’s your most vivid youth sports memory?
It’s a combination. It’s probably mostly baseball, playing Andover Little League. I played on the same team for, I think, four years, same Little League team with one of my best friends, Mike Lane, who is a cop in Andover now. A great guy. He was a really good player, played at UMass-Lowell, excellent high school baseball player. Pitcher, game-winning home runs, things like that. I was a catcher so I would catch him. I just have a lot of good memories of playing on those Little League baseball teams. But the other sports were great. Basketball, playing with John Perry. He was a hell of a basketball player. He had a court in his backyard, so we’d go other there. He had a big family, athletic family. We’d play basketball until late at night.
I didn’t realize how good an athlete John Perry was…
(laughing) Nobody does. He was a great athlete. Great wide receiver at UNH, played basketball. Scored 1,000 points in high school. He could shoot, man.
No hockey for you?
My brothers played hockey and I’m the youngest so when it got to me, my mom especially, she was like, ‘No more 4 a.m., 5 a.m. wakeup calls.’ My brother Tommy was pretty good and they practiced at Phillips Andover Academy. It was an outdoor rink, so imagine that in January and February. She was like, ‘You’re going to play basketball.’ I don’t even know how to skate.
Favorite Boston sports team growing up?
Man… When I was growing up the Celtics were awesome. The 30 For 30 on the Celtics-Lakers was incredible. So the early 80s when Bird came and they were winning like that with the Big 3, Bird, McHale and Parish, and Dennis Johnson, Ainge…all those guys. When Bird stole the ball against Detroit, that was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.
It was a pretty cool sports town at that time in the mid-80s because you had (Doug) Flutie with Boston College and the Miami pass. The Red Sox were a little up and down. The Bruins were a little up and down. But it was mostly the Celtics you remember.
Favorite Boston sports athlete growing up?
I loved Bird. But I loved Steve Grogan. I mean, I remember I loved Stanley Morgan, guys like that. Raymond Clayborn, who I saw just got inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Andre Tippett, who I got to know, which was incredible, when I coached there. But Bird above all.
Favorite memory from going to a Boston sports event?
I have a lot memories of that…maybe they weren’t the biggest sporting events, but I remember going to … When Flutie won the Heisman, the last game of that regular season they played Holy Cross at Holy Cross. And they sent a helicopter basically to get him, take him to the airport and fly him to New York for the Heisman ceremony. So my dad drove me and my brothers to Fitton Field and we watched BC beat Holy Cross (45-10) and then you could see them take him to the Heisman ceremony. That was like a cool thing.
I went to Bruins games. We had a church league basketball coach who was a Bruins beat writer for the Lowell Sun, Rick Harrison, so he would take us Bruins games. I can remember a Brad Park slapshot to win a game when I was there. Didn’t go to many Celtics games. Few Red Sox games. Most of it was watching on TV.
Favorite Boston sports venue?
That’s hard to choose. It’s got to be between Fenway and the old Garden. One time I’ve been to the (TD Garden), but the old Garden was awesome. In fact, when they tore it down, I was driving to Andover to go see my parents. And you could see the inside of it, remember, for a while from the highway when they were tearing it down. That was unbelievable.
Is there a Boston sports team that you keep tabs on?
Been married now, close to 20 years. My wife, Colleen, grew up in upstate New York. So in upstate New York, some are Yankees fans and some are Red Sox fans because where she lived, it was close to Vermont. She is the biggest Red Sox fan, way bigger than me and our son Michael is a huge Red Sox fan. In fact, they just went to a game a week ago. We have DirecTV so they can watch every game because we get NESN. I love the Red Sox, but to sit there for four hours and watch a game … but they do it. They love the Red Sox. That would be the team that I keep tabs on.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the Cape as a kid, even now. What has that been like?
My grandfather was a pressman for the Boston Herald and pre-World War II, he bought a little parcel of land right outside of Harwich in Harwichport and he built a tiny little cottage, which is still there today that my aunt and uncle live in. So we’ve been going there my whole life. Most of my memories are of family, family parties, everybody being down there. But also sports, like Cape League baseball, or even when I was playing football at St. John’s or Brown, preparing for training camp on the Cape at different places, D-Y High School and Willie’s Gym, I remember Jimmy Burke, my cousin, and I would workout at this Willie’s Gym. So I have a lot of great memories of the Cape. Now we are fortunate enough to have a place in Dennis so we go there all the time.
What was your experience at Brown like?
We were brutal. We were terrible. Brown is a great school. I’m very thankful for having gone there but I wish we were better. I had some really good coaches there and I have great friends that I played football with but, god, we were bad. We didn’t win many games. Because of the coaches I had and the guys that I played with there, I still had a love for coaching. And Brown was the type of place that encouraged you to follow your heart. It wasn’t like if you went to Brown you had to be a lawyer or a doctor or go to Wall Street. It was, ‘Hey, whatever you want to do, here’s a couple pathways to get you to do what you want to do.’ So that’s what I appreciated about Brown.
What’s the one thing you miss most about living in New England?
I miss the weather (laughing). I like four seasons. My wife loves the weather in Houston but I miss the fall and the winter and the spring up there, except sometimes there are no springs. But I think the biggest thing for me, and probably for Colleen, is you’re a ways away from your family. Now, we have great friends in Houston, awesome people that we’ve met. But in the end, your family is 2,000 miles away in Massachusetts. Especially with my parents getting older, so you don’t see them that much. But that’s the path that you chose and we’ve had a great journey in the football world. But we’re a long way away from home.
Are Tom Brady and/or Bill Belichick ever going to stop?
(Laughs) I don’t know. It’s incredible. It’s a testament to their own stamina, their own ability to improve. I mean, Tom’s gotten better. To even contemplate that is interesting because he’s been very good for a long time but he’s improved. He’s improved on certain parts of his game from even when I was coaching. Bill is just … I don’t even know how old he is because he looks young to me and he’s got a lot of energy. We’re all very grateful for having the opportunity to work for Bill. We always will be. We all learned a lot from Bill. And the one thing Bill taught you was, ‘Take what you learn foundationally but go out and be yourself.’ I think that’s we’ve all tried to do. But we always remember what Bill taught us.
Give me one good Brady story for the road…
He is 365 (days) football. I mean, he’s a great family man and all that but this guy is intensely thinking about football all the time. I was a wide receivers coach in ’08 and Bill made me the quarterbacks coach and I was basically running the offense (in ’09). So one of the first things I did was, I was at the combine and I told Tom, ‘I’m going to call you and basically if you have your laptop in front of you and I have mine, maybe we can go through a game together.' Like, 'Hey, what were you thinking here? I’ve watched the game…whatever.’ I think it was a deal where he just wasn’t in a place where he had his laptop with him. So went off of memory. It was a regular season game from ’07 because he had been injured in ’08. And basically, he remembered every play. I’m like, ‘What were you thinking here?’ He’d say, ‘What was the formation again?’ ‘Spread right flank and it was this protection and this coverage and this is what I thinking.’ He remembered almost every play in the game. That was my first experience with him. It’s not just about talent, it’s not just about throwing ability. It’s the ability to have all that information in your head and be able to have that type of memory. So you can really use your experience to help you when it comes up again. That was the first time I had ever heard that. That was pretty neat.