HOUSTON -- “I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about myself; you’ll find that out,” Bill O’Brien says.
That’s clear from the uneasy chuckle and the furrow in his brow that accompanies a question about one day in college when his teammates honored him. He doesn’t recall that day, he says.
Ask about his vision for the Texans, though, and his face changes, replaced by lightness and energy. His speech quickens and his clear eyes brighten.
He’ll gladly talk about wanting a flexible team, one that can play in any kind of weather, one that's not constricted by traditional labels. He’ll gladly tell you what he learned from his coaching mentors.
But to address this story?
“This is awkward,” O’Brien says.
It was the relayed recollection of an old coach that started this. Mickey Kwiatkowski, who coached at Brown University when O’Brien played there and when he first coached there, remembers that night from 1992 clearly. They were about to play Columbia in the last game of the season and he asked his seniors to speak to the team. Kwiatkowski stood with another coach, Jim Bernhardt, listening. After O’Brien spoke, something started to happen.
“Here's what happened after that,” Kwiatkowski says. “It wasn’t so much in sequence because some had already spoken. Every senior that got up after that -- and by the end of it I’m going, ‘Wow. What’s going on here?' -- every senior talked about Billy O’Brien and what Billy O’Brien meant to the football team. His humor, his intensity, his leadership, his example. And every kid had a story about how Billy made the team better and how Billy made them better.
“I said Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Jimmy. Who is that kid?”
That kid was a young man headed toward a lifelong dream, one that has led him to becoming the Houston Texans’ third head coach in franchise history. He was already showing the traits he carried with him as a coach. A love of the game's strategy and a keen ability to make those around him feel good about themselves.
The O’Briens taught their kids to work hard, enjoy what they did and enjoy their family, but not to brag. Education was paramount for the family, every member of which went to the Ivy League’s Brown University.
They were a family that played sports, but until Bill they didn’t make careers out of sports.
“I loved coaching. I played for some really good youth coaches in football, basketball and baseball,” he said. “Just had great experiences, loved the strategy of the game and reading about the game in the newspaper.”
That day’s newspaper lay perpetually on the kitchen table, and his brother, John O’Brien, remembers young Bill always went straight for the sports section. Bill and their father would discuss tactics and strategy of football and baseball.
“I used to joke one Christmas we were going to get him those bad shorts that coaches wear,” said John, Bill’s older brother by 10 years.
Bill didn’t go to Brown as a football recruit. He was waitlisted and admitted for January enrollment, John said, but Bill still practiced with the team in September. Once there, he quickly left an impression with his intensity and intelligence.
“He was so tough mentally, physically,” said John Harris, a local radio host who played at Brown with O’Brien. “He made everybody pick his game up around him or at least want to. I didn’t want to let him down.”
Even as a player, a coach’s mind peeked through.
“At meetings he’d be the guy who would be asking all these really, really detailed and sophisticated questions that I’d never heard any player ask,” Kwiatkowski said.
Most Brown football players go on to professional careers outside the realm of sports, "to run the world," as Kwiatkowski put it, but O'Brien's choice surprised his coaches. He stayed at Brown and joined its staff. He worked with players who were his teammates and friends just a year before. The former linebacker and defensive end helped on offense and defense before the next opportunity guided the rest of his career.
Circumstance often dictates a coach’s path.
When then-Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary needed a graduate assistant, he called Kwiatkowski, who directed him to Bernhardt, then still a coach at Brown and now one of O’Brien’s closest friends. O’Leary told Bernhardt he needed someone smart enough to go to graduate school at Georgia Tech, but dumb enough to want to be a coach.
“That was me,” Bill O’Brien said.
The former defensive player fit seamlessly on an offensive staff. Then-Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen didn’t even know O'Brien had played defense until he read it somewhere.
“We were in a very interesting situation working for George, who was a defensive coach and yet we had the freedom to really think outside the box offensively,” Friedgen said. “I think [O’Brien] grew each and every year. You’re a young coach; most of us when we were young we keep our mouths shut and we work. Billy was like that. As he grew with confidence he added more and more.”
O’Brien said he learned organization and toughness from O’Leary and the intricacies of offensive football from Friedgen.
O'Brien replaced Friedgen as Georgia Tech’s offensive coordinator in 2001 and served as quarterbacks coach. While there, he met his wife, Colleen, through fellow Georgia Tech assistant Doug Marrone, who is now his best friend and the Buffalo Bills’ coach.
“She’s very bright, she’s much brighter than him,” John O’Brien said. “Very calm, where he can be a little bit emotional in a good way. But she’s calm. She has a great sense of humor.”
Friedgen later hired O’Brien at Maryland to be his running backs coach. While on a recruiting trip for Maryland, shortly after his first son, Jack, was born, O’Brien’s life changed.
“They knew something wasn’t right,” Friedgen said. “I can remember Billy telling me he was on the road recruiting. Colleen called him and said you need to pull off,” Friedgen recalls. “It was a very, very tough situation for him.”
Jack O’Brien has Lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation that causes daily seizures and means he can’t walk or talk.
“My wife and I talk about that a lot, whether we should talk about it or not,” O’Brien said. “And I think it’s important to talk about because in our personal situation, it has given us great perspective on life. Fourth-and-1 is important. Getting to the playoffs is very, very important. Winning football games for the Houston Texans is very important. But at the end of the day, what’s most important is your family and the health of your sons and your wife. We feel really strongly about that.”
Said Friedgen: “It’s a miracle that Jack has really survived to this time. It’s gotta be because of the love of Colleen and Billy to that child. It has not been the easiest situation and yet they have been great parents. It speaks volume of the character of Billy and Colleen, being the type of people that they are and being in this crazy profession.”
Friedgen recalls a health insurance issue that impacted Jack as part of the reason for O’Brien’s move from Maryland to Duke in 2005.
Friedgen tried to hire O’Brien back two years later, this time to be Maryland’s offensive coordinator. They talked for hours at a restaurant, but O’Brien had made up his mind.
He wanted to coach in the NFL.
Stephon Morris played cornerback at Penn State before entering training camp with the New England Patriots in 2013. When he got to Foxborough, a lot felt familiar.
For one thing, there had been a set of rules in front of the Penn State football building -– it was identical to one he saw in New England.
“Pretty much like team rules –- ignore the noise, put the team first, things like that,” Morris said. “When you leave this building, when you come into this building, expectations -- it was the exact same way. Same form, same order. I kind of made a joke about it when I came to visit [O’Brien]. I told him he’s not slick, everything he did I saw with the Patriots.”
Practices were similar. Even some of the things Patriots coach Bill Belichick said reminded Morris of O’Brien. His impact was clear.
The relationship between Belichick and O’Brien started in 2001 and continued through emails and phone calls. O’Brien would ask Belichick questions and Belichick would inquire about college players as drafts approached. After the 2006 season, Belichick called O'Brien
“He said, ‘This is quality control. Take it or leave it. It could be great for you. You’re gonna have to come in here and work hard and kind of keep your mouth shut and learn,’" O'Brien recalls. "My wife and I sat down and said, 'You know, even though we’re taking a pay cut at that time, maybe we’re taking a step forward because it’s the Patriots and it was Bill Belichick.'”
Only five seasons later he was Belichick’s offensive coordinator. There he learned how to put together a team, how to prepare for games and how to motivate players.
When he went to Penn State, a school reeling from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, he didn’t know the program would be sanctioned or how hard. The sanctions were crippling, and O’Brien had to fight through some frustrating situations, according to several people familiar with the situation.
But that never impacted his relationship with the players he coached.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Morris said. “It was something new for us. It was change. Change is never easy. He’s a player’s coach. He got involved, he helped us. It’s not all about football all the time. … After we first had that meeting with him each day it made him easier to trust him.”
O’Brien met with each player individually and asked them about themselves and their families. He called their homes to introduce himself to the people who raised them. He learned everybody’s name, not a given at college programs.
When he left after two seasons, fans were angry, as were some recruits. But many of the players he coached weren’t.
“He came in when he didn’t have to and really helped turn things around,” said Tyler Ferguson, a backup quarterback who transferred from Penn State last month. “He steered the ship for two years. Just like any player, if you’re a player who’s ready, you go to the next level. Same with your coach. People understand it.”
Ferguson remembers O’Brien showing the quarterbacks film on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, using one of the best quarterbacks of all time as an example. O’Brien told his quarterbacks about the ways Brady approached things.
“Just the way he carries himself on the field,” Ferguson said. “He demands perfection. If he’s good enough to stay after practice and throw for 30 minutes, why aren’t we?”
O’Brien’s is a quiet charisma.
Well, maybe not quiet, but rather, unexpected. It takes a conversation.
“He and my dad and my other brother, we go to this golf course down in Cape Cod where no one cares if you’re famous or not,” John O’Brien said. “Just to sit around the table, people are drawn to him. Tells a great story, asks about you. … You like to sit with a person who asks about you and how you’re doing and have a few laughs. All of a sudden you spend time with a person like that, you say, ‘Oh, that was pretty good.’”
That quality helps at work, too. It has helped him gain the trust of the players he has coached.
“He has just such a way of making the people around them feel like maybe they’re better than they are,” said Harris, his teammate at Brown.
It will be a valuable skill for a man who will have a hand in developing the next Texans quarterback and handling the delicate balance between a player’s confidence and ego.
It certainly won’t be new for a man who spent his life working toward this dream.