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O'Connor's lasting legacy at Catholic Memorial

11/23/2011

At halftime of the 50th annual Turkey Bowl between Catholic Memorial and BC High, the Knights will honor longtime football coach and athletic director Jim O'Connor by dedicating the newly resurfaced turf field in his name.

O'Connor was the first football coach in CM history, building the program from the ground up in 1961. Coaching under the mantra of 'Poise and Class,' O'Connor remained at the helm for 19 years, guiding the Knights to three state championships, two of which were Super Bowl titles, before stepping down in 1979 with a career record of 146-44-6.

O'Connor also assumed the position of athletic director at Catholic Memorial from 1972 through 1992, served another ten years in the same capacity at Framingham High School before retiring, then joined the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) as the Tournament Director for football and the Division 1A 'Super 8' hockey postseason where he still works today.

Catholic Memorial will forever be his home, however, as he and his wife Mary live within minutes of the Baker Street campus.

"He and Mary have always been the face of Catholic Memorial," said Knights longtime hockey coach Bill Hanson, who was hired by O'Connor in 1974. "I don't care how many years they weren’t here, they are the face of Catholic Memorial. I've never felt differently about that. They have gone to more hockey games than any other two people I know. When he was at Framingham, I felt like he still was affiliated with CM and I looked at him in that regard the whole time."

It's hard to imagine a world in which O'Connor is not linked to CM, but if it weren't for a risk he took shortly after college, things could have turned out much different.

A LIFE DECISION IN THE MAKING

In 1961, Jim O'Connor was a fresh-faced graduate of Curry College working as a teacher and assistant football coach at Hull High School when a persistent old friend named Packy Hughes started contacting him about a potential job opening at a private school in West Roxbury.

"I had no interest at all," O'Connor recalled with a laugh. "I was in my second year at Hull and the head coach [Jimmy Wheeler] was leaving to take over at Weymouth High. People had told me I was going to move right into his spot so I really had no interest. I said to Packy two or three times that I had a good thing at Hull and if it works out I’d probably stay there for a while and try to do teaching and coaching thing in public schools."

Hughes persisted and ultimately talked O'Connor into meeting with Brother Joseph McKenna, who was desperate to start a football program at CM. While he was somewhat reluctant to leave the relative security of his job at Hull, Brother McKenna ultimately sold O'Connor when he looked him in the eye and said, 'I want a man that won’t apologize for excellence in academics and athletics. I want good students but I want to have good teams.'

That told O'Connor that he would have support from within the administration, and he finally felt comfortable about making the leap. It helped that his wife Mary was also excited excited to move closer to the city, as both grew up in Boston's Mission Hill and were graduates of Mission High School.

"I got right back to him after a day or two and took the job," O'Connor said. "They gave me a used dryer. Upstairs they had a laundry room with a washer and dryer that the Brothers used and they were getting a bigger dryer. They said they could give me a teaching salary but a coaching salary wasn't in the budget. But they had a used dryer they could give me."

"We bought a house about half a mile from (Catholic Memorial) and Brother O’Callahan helped me lug it into the house," O'Connor continued, laughing at the memory. "From that point on, every time Mary did the wash, the diapers came out damp because the dryer only went to a certain heating point."

BUILDING A PROGRAM

The Knights went 4-5-1 in O'Connor's first year, but entered the very first Thanksgiving Day game against BC High with a perfect 8-0 record on the line in year two. The games were held at Boston College in those days and drew tremendous crowds from both sides. CM won that day and went on to win its very first state championship the following week.

O'Connor would guide the Knights to three Super Bowls, including the very first one in 1972, which they lost. The Knights rebounded the following season to win the 1973 Super Bowl, then won it again in 1978, the last year in which the squad reached the postseason.

In his 19 years as head coach, the CM football team won seven league championships. O'Connor was named Division 2 Coach of the Year in 1978, and would be enshrined in the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1983.

Some of O'Connor's fondest memories involve coaching against the late Jim Cotter, who took over at BC High in 1964 and whose grandson, Bartley Regan, will be starting at quarterback for the Eagles on Thursday.

"In 1964, Jimmy Cotter took over as head coach after being an assistant to [former BC High coach] Ted [Gilligan]. Jimmy and I were great rivals and great friends and I think both of us were insistent on the fact that there would never be a problem between the schools, both on or off the field, and there never was."

A MENTOR TO A PAIR OF KNIGHTS COACHING LEGENDS

Since being hired by O'Connor to coach the Knights hockey team in 1974, Bill Hanson has presided over a dynasty that has won 20 Catholic Conference championships, 17 state titles and 13 Super 8 crowns and six national championships.

However, aside from several photographs of players and teams he's coached, the only affectation from all of Hanson's successes that he keeps close by in his office in the guidance wing at CM is a plaque given him after his Knights won back-to-back titles in 1994-95. The inscription reads as follows:

"Having the courage and class to remain on top is the severest test of a true champions character” - Jim O’Connor

Hanson spent two years as an assistant under former coach Paul O'Brien before O'Brien had to step down in lieu of a successful business he was running at the time. Hanson no previous coaching experience, yet O'Connor had no hesitation in tabbing him as O'Brien's replacement. in turn, Hanson admits to having learned a great deal from O'Connor, who became a friend and mentor over the years and remains so to this day.

"His personal skills and how he deals with people and makes everybody feel important," Hanson said of what he took from O'Connor. "You can really screw up and there was never hell to pay for it. He said things in a way that really made you understand what you did and whatever you did, you didn’t make the same mistake twice after talking to Coach."

Hanson went on, "He had that type of almost a mystical influence on people, especially me. I’m a pretty high strung guy and he knew all the right nerves to touch on me. He let me do what I knew best but he could pull the reins on me and say hey, this is the way you might want to do things. He never told you, he never said how you have to do it. He just taught you to think about things and look for a better way, and when you eventually got there, you knew it was Coach’s way."

Current head football coach and athletic director Alex Campea first arrived at Catholic Memorial to work for O'Connor as the junior varsity coach in 1977 at the recommendation of then-assistant coach Steve Fratalia.

"What impressed me when I interviewed for the JV job about Coach O’Connor was that he was so friendly, so open, so interested in me as a person and that I was so interested in coaching in his program," Campea recalled. "I could see that he was one of those guys who wanted people on his coaching staff that had a passion about football."

After several years, Campea left to become the head coach at Christopher Columbus High School and eventually moved on to coach at Bridgewater State before returning to CM in 1990, coaching the Knights baseball team to a pair of South sectional finals and three league titles.

In 2004, Campea returned to the gridiron and has been the Knights coach ever since while also holding the position of A.D. Like Hanson, Campea also proudly calls O'Connor a friend and mentor and never lets a day go by without utilizing some of the knowledge gleaned from his working alongside him.

"From Jim O’Connor, the thing that always stood out was the manner in which he was always prepared, day in and day out," Campea said. "He’s as organized a person as I’ve ever seen. The way he would talk to his team, the way he would prepare his team, the way he prepare practice schedules and making sure everyone knew what they were doing at a certain time."

He continued, "Organizational skills was one of the things that Coach O’Connor was always adamant about and I really feel as that's something I’ve made part of my makeup as far as being a football coach is concerned."

EXCITED TO HAVE THE KNIGHTS BACK IN THE TITLE HUNT

There is a buzz around campus as Catholic Memorial prepares to face BC High in the 50th Annual Turkey Bowl. The Knights and the Eagles are both 3-0 in Catholic Conference play and the winner of Thursday's tilt will go on to the Division playoffs and face Chelmsford.

The excitement of the season has brought many great memories back for the last man to coach CM to the postseason, and O'Connor likens this year's group his 1973 Super Bowl championship squad. That team was built around speed and a dynamic running back in David Singleton, someone whom O'Connor likened to current Knights star Armani Reeves.

But most of all, O'Connor is excited to see Catholic Memorial fighting for a chance to win a championship once again.

"It's a great experience for kids and I'm so thrilled that its happened this way," O'Connor praised. "The years have gone by and the kids in the school here, they don't know what the playoffs and the Super Bowl is all about. It's great to see the excitement amongst the kids in the school and amongst the team.

"Campy’s doing a great of taking one game at a time," O'Connor continued. "We used to call it 'play with poise and class.' I see a lot of it this year in the kids. They seem to be a team that makes the big plays. Teams have to have playmakers and they have four kids that certainly are playmakers. That's something special to, to have that."

JAMES R. O'CONNOR STADIUM

Adding to the excitement of the game will be the halftime ceremony in which the field will be officially renamed for O'Connor.

"It really hasn’t set in yet," he admits. "I've had kind of a very charmed career. Luckily I was scuccessful here and then at Framingham as an administrator for ten years. I look back on it and CM was just a great place for me. When I made that decision to leave Hull and to come here, it was risky. And yet I never had a bad day at CM."

As far as Hanson is concerned, its an honor that has been a long time in coming and is something he hopes will reinvigorate pride amongst students and alumni in the football program.

"I think its fabulous that he’s back and he’s going to visible here now," Hanson stated. "There’s a lot of guys that don’t know Coach. The younger generation, kids who are in their 20s and early 30s that are going to look back and say 'Wow, this is the guy who built the program.' I just hope a lot of his former players, and I'm sure they will, will be here. Thats really going to open up some eyes on Thursday."

And for the man currently charged with upholding his mentor's legacy both on the football field and as the A.D., Campea simply couldn't be prouder to be a part of it.

"I’m honored and privileged to have the opportunity to say that I’m part of the Catholic Memorial community that Jim O’Connor helped establish," says Campea proudly. "It was not just our athletic program. He was a teacher, he was a guidance counselor. Yes, football was where he put us on the map but he did so much to make this school successful both on and off the field. I find myself now sitting in the chair that he once occupied, which I feel very privileged to do."