O’Brien’s beloved home now a road­block

Houston Chronicle - - PRO FOOTBALL - john.mcclain@chron.com twit­ter.com/mc­clain_on_nfl

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. — From the time he was 10, lit­tle Billy O’Brien knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

O’Brien grew up in An­dover, Mass., about 20 min­utes from Bos­ton. He loved sports and played as many as pos­si­ble. Like just about ev­ery­one he knew, O’Brien loved watch­ing, read­ing about and lis­ten­ing to Bos­ton’s pro­fes­sional teams, in­clud­ing the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots.

O’Brien was 16 when the Pa­tri­ots lost Su­per Bowl XX to Chicago af­ter the 1985 sea­son.

“I grew up in a great sports town, — Lit­tle League, base­ball, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, all those things,” O’Brien said this week. “We loved play­ing sports and coach­ing.

“I re­al­ized pretty early that with my ath­letic abil­ity I wasn’t go­ing to be play­ing for many pro teams. I knew when I was young I wanted to be a coach.

“When you’re young, though, you don’t ever think you’re go­ing to be an NFL head coach in the play­offs.”

But that’s ex­actly what lit­tle Billy grew up to be­come, an NFL head coach who leads the Tex­ans into Satur­day night’s di­vi­sional play­off game against the Pa­tri­ots at Gil­lette Sta­dium.

O’Brien was in­flu­enced by some coaches he played for, and he was cu­ri­ous and fas­ci­nated by their pro­fes­sion.

“I played for some good guys when I was young,” he said. “They did a nice job of coach­ing and teach­ing team­work, and I loved that.

“I loved the strat­egy of the game. Loved read­ing the sports pages. I al­ways knew I wanted to be a coach.”

‘Leap of faith’

O’Brien was an as­sis­tant at Brown Univer­sity, his alma mater, Ge­or­gia Tech, Mary­land and Duke be­fore New Eng­land coach Bill Belichick hired him as a qual­ity con­trol coach in 2007.

“I’d say it was def­i­nitely a leap of faith,” Belichick said this week. “He went from prob­a­bly the se­cond-high­est po­si­tion on a staff, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, to a qual­ity con­trol po­si­tion.

“He did a great job of work­ing with ev­ery­body, learn­ing not only the of­fense, but learn­ing an en­tire sys­tem, and then he got an op­por­tu­nity to run the of­fense and to be in con­trol, and he was cer­tainly ready to do that.”

O’Brien will never for­get that first sea­son in the NFL when the Pa­tri­ots fin­ished 16-0 in reg­u­lar sea­son but lost the Su­per Bowl to the New York Gi­ants.

“I was the low­est guy on the totem pole,” he said. “I ba­si­cally broke film down, did what­ever was asked of me. I ran the scout team, did dif­fer­ent projects for dif­fer­ent coaches, helped out with dif­fer­ent po­si­tions.

“I ob­served a lot about how the team was run in team meet­ings and staff meet­ings. That first year was more about learn­ing the pro game and do­ing what­ever they asked of me. I learned a lot.”

Nose tackle Vince Wil­fork watched O’Brien work his way up to of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor dur­ing his five years on Belichick’s staff. It didn’t take long for play­ers to fig­ure out what O’Brien was all about.

“I knew from Day One he was a com­peti­tor,” Wil­fork said. “I re­mem­ber him sound­ing like a player, talk­ing trash back and forth with the de­fense. That com­pet­i­tive edge is how I re­mem­ber him as a young coach.

“That’s his per­son­al­ity. He al­ways wore his heart on his sleeve. He’d say what he had to say to any­body he needed to say it to. He was up front with you. That’s who he is.”

‘A great as­set to all’

O’Brien played de­fense in col­lege. As a col­lege as­sis­tant, he coached lineback­ers, tight ends, run­ning backs and quar­ter­backs.

“He had a lot of coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence from his other po­si­tions in col­lege,” Belichick said. “What he needed was just a lit­tle time to be­come fa­mil­iar with our of­fen­sive sys­tem.

“He’s very smart. He adapted quickly and was a great as­set to all the staff mem­bers. He was a big as­set to me, and then he took over the of­fense.”

When he coached quar­ter­backs and was of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, O’Brien de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship with Tom Brady.

“He’s an in­cred­i­ble coach,” Brady said. “We spent a lot of time to­gether. I have great ad­mi­ra­tion for him and what he’s ac­com­plished. He did such a great job for our team. To do what he’s done has been pretty re­mark­able.

“I know the guys play so hard for him be­cause Billy is a straight shooter. You might not al­ways like what he says, but you re­spect it be­cause his goal is the same as yours — to get the best out of the team.

“I re­ally en­joyed my time with him. I con­sider him a friend, and I’m al­ways wish­ing him luck ex­cept when he’s play­ing our team.”

The Pa­tri­ots (14-2) are 16-point fa­vorites to end O’Brien’s third sea­son with the Tex­ans. No mat­ter how he feels about them or how they feel about him, they’ll be on op­po­site side­lines, and it’s go­ing to be all busi­ness for 60 min­utes.

Lessons learned

Much of what O’Brien learned from Belichick and the Pa­tri­ots he’ll try to ap­ply to pull one of the big­gest up­sets in NFL his­tory.

“There’s a lot you can learn, but it goes deeper than X’s and O’s,” O’Brien said. “You learn about mo­ti­va­tion and per­son­nel eval­u­a­tion. You learn about putting a ros­ter to­gether and putting a team to­gether. Just a lot of dif­fer­ent things that help you in your ca­reer.”

The one thing you don’t learn much about at New Eng­land is los­ing, how to cope with it emo­tion­ally and how to over­come it phys­i­cally, whether it’s reg­u­lar sea­son or in the play­offs.

To Belichick and Brady, los­ing is a for­eign con­cept. The Tex­ans are ex­pected to find that out the hard way. Again.

Af­ter grow­ing up in New Eng­land and be­gin­ning his pro ca­reer there, coach now must find a way to bring down fa­vored Pa­tri­ots

Brett Coomer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Tex­ans coach Bill O’Brien got his NFL coach­ing start in New Eng­land, work­ing his way up the Pa­tri­ots ranks.

JOHN McCLAIN

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