Springfield Central principal Tad Tokarz officially announced that the school has hired legendary former Charlestown and Salem coach Jack O'Brien as its new head boys basketball coach.
O'Brien, who has won six MIAA state championships over a career spanning three decades, takes over for Mike Labrie, who stepped down last spring after seven years and one Division 1 state title.
"We're excited, the school is excited, the kids should be excited," Tokarz said. "We got a guy with a tremendous reputation and a proven track record. We're very excited to give him everything he needs to be successful here. He's done it before, he's got a tremendous track record. He changes kids' lives, and that’s the biggest thing with us. It's not about wins and losses, it's how to get kids into college and give them opportunities outside of basketball. He convinced all of us that he's the best person to make that happen.
"For us it gives the kids the ability to learn from somebody that has all the experience, the knowledge, to get our kids not only to teach them about basketball, but to teach them about life. We're very excited about the opportunity to build on what Coach Labrie has built here."
O'Brien, a Medford native, won his MIAA state championship in 1990 at Salem High behind McDonald's All-American guard and 10-year NBA vet Rick Brunson, before taking over at Charlestown in 1993. From 1999 to 2005, O'Brien's Townies squads won five state titles in a span of six seasons; the 2002 squad finished the season ranked No. 16 in USA Today's national Super 25 poll.
He took over at Lynn English in 2006, but abruptly resigned hours before the first practice of the season. Since that sudden departure, he had remained out of coaching until now, though his name had been linked to a handful of jobs over the years -- most notably Somerville, in 2008, where he was a finalist.
Asked if there was any concerns regarding that departure, Tokarz said there weren't any.
"Not necessarily," he said. "Things happen and to be quite honest, we didn't really talk much about it. We talked about our program and what he could do for our students, that's what we were concerned about. What happened in the past [is in the past]."
O'Brien currently works in the physical education department at West Roxbury High, and plans to maintain that job while coaching the Golden Eagles. He understands what a difficult commute this will be -- the schools are nearly 85 miles apart -- but says that this was too good of an opportunity to turn down.
"It's not gonna be easy -- I'm on my way back right now -- but you know what? There's too many good things about this job to say I'm gonna let that get in the way," he said. "It's something I've gotta deal with, it's something I thought out. I saw a report somewhere that the average drive to work is 65 minutes. This is a bit further obviously, but I'm OK with that."
The Golden Eagles won the Division 1 state title in 2012 under Labrie -- their first since 1991 -- and reached the Division 1 West Final last season, where they lost to eventual state champion Putnam. Central graduated two-time ESPN Boston All-State selection Kamari Robinson, but expected to return a very competitive nucleus between guards Cody and Ju'an Williams, and promising 6-foot-8 power forward Chris Baldwin.
And while there is talent returning, that wasn't the primary factor in why he took the job.
"It's a large urban school, there's great support from the administration, and from the standpoint of helping them off the court, it's something I enjoy doing and want to do again," he said. "I don’t know much about the kids, in terms of any individuals, I've never seen any of them play, but that didn’t move me either way to tell you the truth. The kids we had at Charlestown were kids that developed as we went on.
"[Brighton coach] Hugh Coleman was my last kid to make JV as a frehsman, and by senior year he was one of the best players in the state. You don't know kids' heart until you get to know them as a person."
O'Brien is known for his unique brand of uptempo, running style of basketball, and plans to implement that same frenetic pace at Central.
"I wanna play fast, play a lot of kids and go up and down," he said. "I think it's fun, we've had great success with it. I think kids like playing that style. It's conducive to playing a lot of kids, and when more people contribute...When you have good athletes and you can play them, press them up and down, they're gonna contribute well."