Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem.”
–Quote from President Ronald Reagan, 1985 – hanging in Tom O’Brien’s office
“Once a Marine, Always a Marine”
Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien is quick to tell you that there is no such thing as a `former’ Marine. And even though it’s been almost 40 years since he traded the title of “Major” for that of “Coach”, the hundreds of young men that he’s mentored throughout his second career would undoubtably agree that in his case, those words are definitely true.
The discipline, habits and values O’Brien learned in the Corps still permeate how he leads his life and how he runs his football program. At the age of 63 he can still probably fit comfortably into his dress blues. Every day, rain or shine, he heads out for a three-plus-mile run. He often scatters Marine jargon and sayings into his conversations. And his best friends are still his classmates and teammates from theNavalAcademy.
“I don’t know if you ever leave the Marines,” he says. “Somewhere your life may take a different turn, but those core values never leave. The things that you learn in the Marine Corps go with you through life.”
“A Few Good Men”
The 2012 season will mark O’Brien’s 38th in the coaching profession. He began his career as the Marine officer assigned to theNavalAcademystaff and, five years later, resigned his commission to become a full-time assistant.
For the past 15 years, O’Brien has been at the helm of his own program, serving for 10 years as the head coach atBostonCollegeand for the past five at NC State. He enters his 16th season as a head coach ranked 18th among active FBS coaches in wins with 108. He posts a bowl winning percentage of .800, the best mark in college football history.
O’Brien says the values that led him to join the Marine Corps are the same ones he strives to instill in the the young men under his direction as a coach – values like commitment, honor and courage.
He believes that only with those attributes can his team achieve the goal he has for the Wolfpack program: to be champions on the football field, champions in the classroom and champions in the community.
“To be successful, a football team has to embrace the idea of selflessness,” he continues. “The whole is better than the individual. If each man believes that the person behind him and in front of him and to his right and to his left are more important than he is, we can be a championship football team.”
His NC State program is definitely headed in that direction. In the past three years, the Wolfpack has posted the third-best overall record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and State is one of only 12 programs nationally that has notched bowl victories each of the past two years.
“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome”
When O’Brien was named NC State’s head coach in December of 2006, he took over a program that had posted three straight losing seasons and had won just three games that year.
He brought six assistants with him fromBostonCollegeand together they began to implement the tried-and-tested system they had run with success there. When faced with obstacles, O’Brien stuck to the old Marine adage “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
His 2007 squad opened the season 1-5, then pulled together and won four straight games, including a win over 18th-rankedVirginiaand tough road wins at East Carolina andMiami. Despite the slow start, his first Wolfpack squad went into the season finale with a bowl bid on the line.
In 2008, O’Brien’s team was decimated by injuries early in the season and entered the month of November with a 2-6 record. But there was no sense of panic around the Wolfpack locker room. Instead, the coaching staff stood true to its plan and things begin to click. The team finished the season with four straight wins and an invitation to a postseason bowl.
That season will go down as one of the most rewarding of O’Brien’s career, as his team became the first in ACC history to start the season 0-4 in league play and finish 4-0. The bid to the Papajohns.com Bowl marked the ninth bowl invitation in the past 10 years for O’Brien. His freshman quarterback, Russell Wilson, became the first rookie in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference to be named first-team all-conference at his position and it marked the sixth time in his then-19 years in the league that a quarterback under O’Brien’s tutelage was named the All-ACC signal caller.
The 2009 campaign was another marked by injuries for O’Brien’s Wolfpack. Victories over eventual Big East Champion Pitt and a third straight win over rivalNorth Carolinahighlighted the season.
The 2010 Wolfpack finally began to reap rewards. With nine wins, including a victory over No. 23 West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl, the squad tied for the second-highest win total in school history. The team finished the season ranked No. 25 – the first postseason ranking for NC State since 2002. His team won five conference games and came within one win of playing for the ACC title. O’Brien was named a finalist for the 2010 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.
In 2011, another rash of injuries slowed the Pack early, but a victory over seventh-ranked Clemson and a fifth-straight victory over UNC helped the squad become bowl eligible. The team posted a victory overLouisvillein the Belk Bowl – the eighth bowl win of O’Brien’s head coaching career.
“The Marines teach you to be mentally tough,” says O’Brien. “That mental toughness is necessary to be successful in any endeavor, but especially in a sport like football.”
“We Don’t Promise You a Rose Garden”
O’Brien recalls the recruiting slogan for the Marines when he was growing up: “We don’t promise you a rose garden.” That straightforward challenge appealed to the young man fromCincinnati.
O’Brien received a community-minded Jesuit education atSt.XavierHigh Schoolthat helped him earn his appointment to theNavalAcademy. AtAnnapolis, where he was a three-year starter at defensive end, he learned to combine his hard work with discipline and leadership skills, traits that prepared him to become a Marine officer when his football career ended.
After his 1971 graduation from the Naval Academy, he served nine years in the Marines, beginning his football coaching career as an assistant for Navy’s plebe (freshman) team, then serving at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia and tours of duty in California and Japan. He eventually reached the rank of major in the Marine Corps Reserve.
In 1975, O’Brien returned to Navy as a Marine officer assigned to head coach George Welsh’s staff. In 1980, he resigned his commission and was hired by Welsh as a full-time assistant coach. But O’Brien didn’t accept before he examined all of his available options. To this day, he credits Welsh with allowing him to interview with several major corporations before accepting the coaching position. After examining all of his options, he chose a profession that wasn’t for the faint of heart, deciding he’d “rather coach than work for a living.”
O’Brien spent seven years under Welsh at theNavalAcademy, coaching the team’s tackles and tight ends and serving as recruiting coordinator. He was responsible for recruiting All-America and hall of fame running back Napoleon McCallum to theNavalAcademy.
In 1982, O’Brien followed Welsh toVirginia, where they turned the Cavaliers into a nationally prominent and successful football power. In O’Brien’s 15 years there,Virginiahad winning seasons 12 times, won four bowl games and was ACC co-champion. O’Brien was the Cavs’ offensive coordinator in his final six seasons. During his tenure,Virginiaconsistently ranked among the top offensive teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 1996, the Cavaliers scored more than 320 points for an ACC-record eighth consecutive year.
O’Brien got his first opportunity to lead a major college program in December, 1996, when he took over atBostonCollege. There, he turned around a program that had been wracked by a gambling scandal and instability. After leading the Eagles to back-to-back 4-7 seasons in 1997 and 1998, O’Brien led BC to an 8-4 record in 1999 and the third-best turnaround in the NCAA I-A ranks. He then guided the Eagles to eight consecutive winning seasons and an NCAA-best eight consecutive bowl appearances. He posted nine-win seasons in four of his final five years at Chestnut Hill, posting a 75-45 record and leaving the school with more wins than any coach inBostonCollegehistory. Heading into the Eagles’ 2006 bowl game, BC ranked as the 18th winningest program of the 21st century (from 2000-06).
Just as impressively, O’Brien’s teams were successful in the classroom. The American Football Coaches’ Association gave him its 2004 Academic Achievement Award for posting a 100 percent graduation rate. He received Honorable Mention status seven additional times during his tenure atBostonCollege. BC was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today when that publication re-ordered its 2005 regular-season poll and the final 2005 football Top 25 by APR (Academic Progress Rate) score to measure a combination of athletic and academic success. At the time O’Brien left, BC boasted the highest success rate for football among any ranked team.
Following the 2006 regular season, the job at NC State opened up and O’Brien jumped at the chance to return south to a large public institution where football is a centerpiece for students, alumni and fans. Upgrades to Carter-Finley Stadium and the commitment to building a strong football program cemented O’Brien’s decision.
“The Marine Corps Doesn’t Build Character, It Reveals It”
O’Brien and his staff have relentlessly pushed the Wolfpack to become champions in the classroom. In the last eight graduation ceremonies, 70 members of the squad have earned their degrees. Upcoming graduation rates that include players recruited by the current staff are improving.
NC State’s football squad has also increased its community involvement under O’Brien. The squad has served at the Raleigh Rescue Mission, made countless school visits and has become increasingly involved with the Marine Reserves Toys for Tots campaign. The team has taken several visits toCampLeJeuneto visit the “Wounded Warriors” and in March of 2009, a few players and staff members spent their spring break helping rebuild hurricane-ravaged homes inMississippi.
O’Brien has also focused on the Wolfpack’s rich football history as he attempts to get former players involved with the program. For the last five springs, he has welcomed back more than 300 former Wolfpack football players for a two-day reunion around NC State’s spring football game, which he renamed The Kay Yow Spring Football Game and uses to raise money for cancer charities. An all-star collection of players have been on hand, with representatives from more than six decades.
“Not as Lean, Not as Mean, But Still A Marine”
O’Brien has spent his career influencing his peers and his players. During his 15 years as a head coach, he has mentored 22 assistant coaches – seven of whom have gone on to be collegiate head coaches.
“The best way to be a leader, as an officer or a coach, is to surround yourself with talented people and then give them the support they need to do their job.”
He has also been recognized for his valuable contributions to the communities where he has served. He is on the board of directors for the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots Foundation and has spearheaded a campaign at NC State that raised tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of toys from Wolfpack fans. He also received the John F. Kennedy National Award, given to “an outstanding American of Irish descent for distinguished service to God and country” in 2005.
O’Brien is married to the former Jennifer Byrd ofSan Diego, who is a member of the board of directors for Rostro de Cristo (Face of Christ), a program whose mission is to provide spiritual and educational opportunities for young people from theUnited Statesto live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ together with the people ofEcuador. They are the parents of three children: Colleen Frances, a 2002 Boston College graduate who is an associate producer at ESPN; Daniel Patrick, a 2005 BC graduate who is on the Elon football staff; and Bridget Jean, also a 2005 BC graduate who is the Museum Coordinator for the Historic Charleston Foundation.