By Brian T. Smith, Houston Chronicle
January 5, 2014
BOSTON - An 86-mile stretch bridging the north Boston-area town of Andover with Brown University in Providence, R.I., first made the man that Texans owner Bob McNair has entrusted with reviving the NFL's worst team.
Interstates 95 and 93 connect Bill O'Brien's birth in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, his youth in Andover, his high school days at St. John's Preparatory in Danvers, and his coaching rise from the Ivy League to one of Bill Belichick's most-cherished disciples with the New England Patriots.
O'Brien's self-reliance, endless energy and fiery pride were born in Boston, harvested at Brown and shaped by the Patriots. As were similarly attractive but lesser-known assets, such as his sharp humor and strong devotion to family.
"He's dog-loyal for one thing," said Jim Bernhardt, one of O'Brien's closest friends and widely known throughout football as the Texans coach's right-hand man. "He's proud of where he's from, and he hasn't forgotten where he's from. That's what's great about him."
O'Brien, 44, is partially defined by 14 jobs with seven college and pro organizations, and being the hard, trusted answer to systematic failure. But there would be no O'Brien without his New England-area rise. The Texans' new leader wouldn't have it any other way.
"My roots are up there," said O'Brien, who became the third head coach in franchise history Friday. "It's hardworking people, genuine people, honest people. People that understand that telling the truth and being hard workers … and being good family men are very important things in your lives."
A friendship was born
Almost 24 years later, Bernhardt nearly remembers the exact day he met O'Brien. It was either Jan. 9th or 10th, 1990. A heart-on-his sleeve Brown linebacker connected with a man who would soon become paramount to his rise.
"He cared a great deal. He wasn't a typical kid Ivy League-wise," said Bernhardt, who was then Brown's defensive coordinator/linebackers coach.
By 1992, O'Brien was set to graduate and was planning the first stage of his adult life. His family's legacy had been shaped by the university. O'Brien could be a lawyer, doctor or politician - anything he wanted. He told Bernhardt he wanted to be just like him - a football coach. In for life, devoting everything he had learned and still planned to accomplish to a game.
"I threatened to call up the registrar and rescind his graduation," Bernhardt said. " 'You're going to get an Ivy League education and you want to be a coach?' "
O'Brien was stubborn. A man who would eventually take a major pay cut and again alter his adult life just to have a chance to join Belichick's Patriots as a glorified film evaluator in 2007 was willing to become a bottom-tier, restricted-earnings coach at Brown.
O'Brien also was different. Players would occasionally tell Bernhardt, 57, they wanted to remain in the game, only to move on to their next young dream. But O'Brien had grown up adoring the sport his father, John, played for Brown and had wanted to be a coach since he was a child. Seeing himself in his former linebacker, Bernhardt took O'Brien to his first coaching clinic. They have been linked ever since.
"It was a total lack of intelligence on both of our parts," Bernhardt said with a laugh.
15th stop a brief one
Fierce wind, slicing sleet and smooth ice are beginning to bury New England. It's the first Nor'easter of 2014 and nearly two feet of snow will fall just north of Boston in about 36 hours. Fifty miles south of the city that first made O'Brien, Brown coach Phil Estes sits inside the warmth of his small office, already at work on the second day of a new year.
"Things will slow down out there, but we all just keep going," says Estes, who took over the program in 1998 but first crossed paths with O'Brien four years prior.
Dated footballs from a forgotten era line the hallway to Estes' back room - Brown 23, Princeton 20, Oct. 2, 1948. A 2006 College Hall of Fame plaque featuring a smiling Joe Paterno - a Brown graduate who O'Brien replaced at Penn State after a child sex-abuse scandal - stands upright inside a clear glass case. Ivy League football isn't what it used to be. But it's still Ivy League football.
Like Bernhardt, Estes instantly can recall his first impression of O'Brien. A go-getter who wouldn't accept "no." An eager, upbeat young man who immediately owned a room but never tried to take it over. A confident, devoted young adult who would outwork everyone, then crack a joke to break the grind.
"It's just amazing when I think back to when I first met Billy O'Brien and to see where he is today," Estes said. "That he would be the Penn State head coach and then turn around and be the head coach of the Houston Texans."
Estes also knows some of O'Brien's secrets.
Fourteen coaching positions show up on O'Brien's résumé. But there was a 15th that's always overlooked. O'Brien joined George O'Leary as a Georgia Tech graduate assistant in 1995. Three years later, Estes made his initial hire as Brown's coach. O'Brien became a Bear again, receiving his first full-time job as a recruiting coordinator/running backs coach. The gig only lasted a few weeks. O'Leary regained O'Brien by offering him a more prestigious full-time slot with the Yellow Jackets.
"Billy had to come in here and tell me, 'Coach, I'm really sorry,' " Estes said. "I got after him pretty good. But at the same time, how could you say no?"
Nearly a decade later, O'Brien began saying yes more than Estes ever imagined. When O'Brien traded coaching stints at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke for low-level video work with the Patriots, Estes would have fully understood if the assistant he once chewed out kept Brown in the background while studying under Belichick 26 miles away. Instead, O'Brien reached out and kept extending a hand.
O'Brien confided in Estes after his first Patriots interview, acknowledging he "blew it" when his first NFL job didn't immediately arrive. By the time O'Brien had become Belichick's offensive coordinator in 2011, Estes was allowed inside the Patriots' world, trading player evaluations and scheme breakdowns with O'Brien, while marveling at the spartan-like facilities the rising coaching star thrived in.
"As you got to know Billy, he really was into being a football coach. It was like his calling," Estes said. "He knew it. And over time we all kind of figured out, man, he's got something to him."
'I love Billy O'Brien'
New Year's Day 2014. A holiday for most. Work for the Patriots.
There's an AFC divisional-round playoff game next week. Before Belichick, wearing a Patriots windbreaker and athletic shorts on the initial day of the Nor'easter, stands behind a podium, four high-definition televisions that are turned off. Glossy images of potential No. 1 draft pick Teddy Bridgewater and "O'Brien to Texans" headlines fade away.
Belichick is asked about O'Brien. The Patriots coach barely budges. His team's in the playoffs, and that's all that matters. But Belichick slips a little.
"I love Billy O'Brien," he said.
Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett briefly give in, diverting from the company line for a few seconds, then regaining their focus and quickly returning to Belichick-land.
"(O'Brien) was a great coach for me, and I learned a ton under him," Solder said. "From day one, I felt pushed. But I also felt included within the group."
Added Mallett: "He's a fiery guy and a player's coach. It was great playing for him."
Wide receiver Julian Edelman gave three Belichick-approved answers, praising almost the entire current Patriots coaching staff after being asked specifically about O'Brien.
But Edelman's last answer captured everything the Texans were missing during a lost 2013 season, everything general manager Rick Smith and McNair were hoping for when they answered Gary Kubiak's sudden fall by hiring O'Brien.
"It's definitely not an easy place to play," said Edelman, referring to an organization he has spent his entire five-year career with. "But you definitely know that you're going to be prepared … and you know you'll always have a shot to be in the game."
Big on loyalty, trust
Bernhardt was tipped off at the start. O'Brien told his close friend the Texans might be in play. Sit tight but start thinking ahead, O'Brien said, because this might become something real.
Bernhardt just laughed. Billy, worry about yourself, he said. I'll be fine. You've got an NFL job to think about.
When O'Brien replaced Paterno at Penn State, Bernhardt was named special assistant to the head coach and the Nittany Lions' director of player development. Once O'Brien settles in at Reliant Stadium, Bernhardt plans to join him again in an as-yet-undefined role, continuing a journey that began 24 years ago just off I-95.
"I love Bill," Bernhardt said. "The whole thing works because of the loyalty and trust in each other."
The trust was there when O'Brien learned his first son Jack had been diagnosed with lissencephaly, a disorder that prevents normal brain development and causes the now 11-year-old to regularly wake up to seizures.
"I still remember where I was," Bernhardt said. "I was standing on a high school field in Florida. He called me. I was staring at a scoreboard, probably watching a junior varsity game. He called me and he was distraught about it and started breaking down. I'm standing under the scoreboard and I'm crying."
The loyalty has never left.
The Brown duo did its own research on the Texans, discovering in McNair what owner Robert Kraft has long provided the Patriots - a consistent opportunity to succeed at a high level and a lack of micromanagement.
Twenty-four years of dedication allows Bernhardt to challenge O'Brien. They agree 95 percent of the time. But when they argue, neither initially backs down. O'Brien can sometimes be too stubborn, Bernhardt acknowledged. At Penn State, O'Brien had to relearn the "Patriot Way" - focus only on football, ignore everything else because it doesn't matter.
The hard truth in Bernhardt's first message to O'Brien has yet to waver:
"I'm never going to lie to you. But sometimes you're not going to like what I have to say."
Now, O'Brien will bring Boston, Brown and a little Belichick to the Texans. He'll carry the 86-mile New England stretch that made him. The energy, fire and devotion that capture him.
O'Brien is a self-made coach leading a broken team. He's a self-made man joining a franchise that has never had a real identity.
"This is where he should be, and this is where he deserves to be," Bernhardt said.