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.
Former Ohio State coach and new Emerson coach Jim O'Brien speaks to a group of BPS coaches at Suffolk Construction's training center.
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.”