By Justin A. Rice
ROXBURY — Two years ago Jim O’Brien opened the Boston Globe and was blown away by a seven-part series on the sad state of Boston Public School athletics.
The former Boston College player and coach — who was fired from Ohio State in 2004 for giving money to a player’s family — was shocked to learn from the Globe series that only 28 percent of Boston Public Schools students participated in athletics compared to the 68 percent statewide average.
While players who managed to dodge dangerous streets and maintain academic eligibility shared jerseys and played to empty bleachers, Boston enjoyed a pro sports renaissance with six championships in football, basketball and baseball from 2001 to 2008.
Quasi retired, O’Brien, was dismayed that BPS spent less than one-half percent of its budget on athletics compared to the statewide average of 3 to 4 percent. The national average at the time, according to the Globe series published in June 2009, was 1 to 3 percent.
He was, however, hopeful about the new Boston Scholar Athlete Program. The $1 million effort launched in response to the Globe’s series is funded by the Red & Blue Foundation, the fundraising and charitable arm of Suffolk Construction.
“I called [Suffolk] and said ‘Look, I’m around,’” O’Brien, 61, recently recalled. “‘I have a little bit of experience and if you think there’s anything I can do to help I’m happy to do that. Point me in the right direction and I’ll see what I can do.’”
After spending the last year mentoring several BPS coaches, O’Brien was rejuvenated to the point where he wanted to be back in the gym coaching.
Last month Emerson College, a Division 3 school with an emphasis on the performing arts, named O’Brien its head hoops coach.
“People have a tendency to snicker and say ‘Well you were at this level, Division 1,’ and people like that don’t get what guys like you understand,” O’Brien told a group of BPS coaches during a recent seminar. “Because I know you’re not doing it for the money. We know that.
“I’m sitting and watching all these practices and coaching and talking to some of the kids here and there and I said ‘This is the thing I’m missing.’ Forget about the recruiting, forget about the compliance. For me it was about being in the gym. Taking this team, whatever team it is, and trying to get your guys to another level and trying to get something done as a group.”
At Boston College 40 years ago, O’Brien played under Chuck Daly and Bob Cousy before playing pro basketball. O’Brien coached at BC from 1986 to 1997 after serving as St. Bonaventure’s head coach (1982-86) at a starting salary of $35,000 a year, he told the BPS coaches. As an assistant at the University of Connecticut he said he earned $13,000.
“Jim O’Brien, around these parts doesn’t need any introduction,” Madison Park head coach Dennis Wilson said. “He’s very well respected and very accomplished from his being a player to a coach.”
But O’Brien’s departure at BC was controversial too after some of his recruits weren’t admitted to the school. O’Brien’s lawsuit against BC for slander and breach of contract was settled out of court.
His biggest coaching success came when he led Ohio State to the Final Four in 1999, a year after giving $6,000 to the mother of a recruit from war torn Yugoslavia, Alex Radojevic. To the dismay of many fans, Radojevic never even played for the Buckeyes or another college. O’Brien didn’t tell OSU about the payment until it surfaced six years later. The program also was also slapped with recruiting violations while courting Boban Savovic.
All his victories from 1999 to 2002 were erased from the books, including the Final Four. The program was placed on probation and O’Brien was fired —although he ultimately won a lawsuit for breach of contract worth more than $2 million. (A recent Sports Illustrated investigation revealed that OSU’s “memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal” that forced the resignation of football coach Jim Tressel dated back to 2002.)
“I gave a family money,” O’Brien told the group of BPS coaches. “I know that’s taboo. But to my point before about being able to look yourself in the mirror and do you like what you see? I hope people who know me know I would never screw around and do something illegal.
“In my mind that superseded this and was a very important thing. Six years later it was exposed and I went to the AD and said here’s what I did. Six weeks later I was fired. Was this a good idea? Turns out not so good. Right or wrong I made the choice and it affected me the rest of my life. This stuff is real stuff. You can have some real good dialog with your team.”
The NCAA reinstated O’Brien in 2008 and the Emerson athletic department says they don’t have an issue with O’Brien’s past. Evan Davis of the Boston Scholar Athlete Program said O’Brien brought up the topic on his own.
“It wasn’t even an issue,” Davis said. “Coaching is coaching. He was very upfront with me about what happened. You could tell he’s a good man. He cares about kids and that’s all that matters to me.
“He’s a coach, he’s a coach at heart and that’s what coaches want to do, they want to coach.”
When Davis first emailed BPS coaches about O’Brien’s willingness to help he got a minimal response. But once O’Brien started working with a few coaches word spread.
“Within a month people were knocking down the door,” Davis said. “He started working with a bunch of different coaches and they really saw the benefit of it.”
But O’Brien didn’t want any fanfare for his efforts.
“I was very clear that I didn’t want anyone thinking that what I was doing was anything special,” he said. “Because what is special is what these guys are doing and the men and the women that are coaching these kids.
“I never wanted anything from this. I never really wanted any of the notoriety. I just wanted to show up and do my thing and help Evan and his crew as much as I can. They are the ones that deserve the credit. This program has been phenomenal and I think it’s helping a lot of people.”
He takes over a program at Emerson that has won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference title in 1998 and 1999 and has made the championship game three times in the last five years.
O’Brien took the Emerson job with the understanding that he can continue to mentor BPS coaches and hopes to run a coaches clinic next fall. And while he said he will make sure his relationship with BPS doesn’t violate any compliance rules, O’Brien did say Boston’s public school hoops teams are an untapped resource and potential pipeline to Emerson.
In 2009 only two athletes from Boston Public Schools received full Division 1 scholarships.
“We’re going to be all over the Boston kids,” he said. “There are some requirements. They have to be good students and they have to qualify for financial aid.”
He noted that players will have to have an interest in the school’s focus on performance arts and media.
“And we want to make sure that they are not only good students but at least try,” he said.
O’Brien has already started recruiting, which he acknowledged is “different” this time around since he can’t give players scholarships.
“I’ve already started,” he said. “I’ve actually gone to work for the first time in about five years.”
Most of all, O’Brien longs to connect with players again, even if they don’t immediately show their appreciation.
“John Wooden has a book ‘They call me coach.’ I never even read the book, I don’t even care what’s in the book but ‘They call me coach.’ They call you coach,” he told the BPS coaches.” It’s a form of respect. That’s what that is. That means so much. I’m a coach and that means this is what I do. So don’t disappear. Don’t think nobody is paying attention. They are hearing it loud and clear. They just can’t give it back to you. And when they do it’s going to break you down.
“You are in such a powerful position to influence these kids. It’s incredible. Trust me when I tell you they are getting it. They just are not mature enough now to pay it back. It will come back to you years later. This is why I’m going back to Emerson, am I sick or what? I’m a coach, I’m a coach.”