By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Lane Hartwell

Rugby Coach Takes SMC to a New Level of Play

Click for more photos.

Ask a Saint Mary’s rugby player to describe coach Tim O’Brien, and he’ll give you a puzzled look as he grasps for words.

“He’s a mystery,” says senior Kyle Mickiewicz, a 22-year-old marketing major who didn’t know anything about rugby when he signed up to play in 2004. “As a freshman, I was really intimidated by him. He’s pretty hard to read.”

“He’s Tim,” says Brendan O’Meara, a 22-year-old senior who says every new player is baffled by the intense yet soft-spoken coach who makes them carry telephone poles across the field, sets up a four-foot-high net for them to practice under or peppers them with questions on what they were thinking on this or that play.

“You don’t know all that’s going through that crazy guy’s mind,” O’Meara says. “You don’t go away from a conversation with that guy thinking that you won. You end up with 20 more questions. He likes to keep you off-balance.”

The madness in O’Brien’s enigmatic method has paid off with success on the playing field and renewed alumni interest in a game that began at SMC in 1888 and was revived in 1956. O’Brien, a former star Cal rugby player, national team member and longtime coach of the Old Blues rugby club, has led the Gaels to numerous national championship tournaments since he began in 2001.

In 2007, the Gaels finished 5th in the country, and AmericanRugbyNews.com named O’Brien College Coach of the Year. This year, the team made it to the national Final Four.

“He has the ability to instill pride in the players,” says Brian Lowe, the publisher/editor of the growing website. “He’s able to bring out the best in them in terms of their playing ability.”

O’Brien swiftly dismisses accolades and says praise should go to his assistant coach Johnny Everett and the players.

“People make it too much about coaches,” he says. “It’s the culture you put in place and the internal leadership. We use an athlete-centered model. We’re just shepherds of the process.”

Teamwork and intensity

O’Brien ended up at Saint Mary’s by chance. In July 2001, he called Marty Storti, associate director of recreational sports and former rugby coach, to offer him tickets to a San Francisco Giants game.

Storti couldn’t use the tickets, but he said he could use O’Brien to coach the men’s rugby team.

“I knew that he was an excellent coach,” Storti said. “He was a great player and had a lot of experience.”

O’Brien, who was then coaching Lamorinda youth rugby, turned him down, offering to ask his close friend Everett. Ultimately, O’Brien agreed to be the coach with Everett as his assistant, and a new era of rugby began at SMC.

Codified in 1823 at the Rugby prep school in suburban London, the sport can appear chaotic, violent and incomprehensible. But it’s anything but to O’Brien.

“It’s a game for smart guys,” O’Brien says. “The intensity, the teamwork, the communication — go forward, capture space; try not to go forward and defend space. I’m running at you, do I run into you? Do I pass, do I kick? Right? Left? There are all these different tools that you have to bring in the toolbox.”

Rugby features two 40-minute, nearly nonstop halves; players run up to five miles in a game. They can only pass the ball backward or kick it forward, and tackles can be violent and bloody. The strangest plays may be the scrums, in which eight players from each team intertwine limbs, crouch and ram into each other to fight for the ball.

Ed Haggerty, a longtime friend of O’Brien’s and editor of Rugby Magazine since 1975, noted that military academies like West Point consider rugby the ideal sport to mold warriors.

“Rugby is much more free-flowing (than football), so people have to attack. They play both offense and defense,” he says. “Players who are able to think on their feet are priceless. It’s much like combat.”

Lost sheep But rugby is also hard to learn, and O’Brien has plenty of lost sheep at the beginning of each season. He takes all comers, whether they’ve played before or not, and job one is getting them in shape.

The Gaels are the smallest team in stature in the league, but O’Brien and Everett are raising SMC’s game to an elite level through a more skilled attack and greater speed.

“We’re trying to be a top-tier school, so we start (practices) earlier because we have so much work to do,” O’Brien says. “We’ve got guys with terrible bodies. They don’t run; they don’t lift; they don’t take care of themselves.”

Many don’t even know the rules, much less the open, aggressive and player-determined style that O’Brien embraces but that other coaches don’t teach. Even those with playing experience, like O’Meara, who played rugby at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, have a lot to learn.

“I came in here thinking I knew everything, and I realized I didn’t know anything,” the tough-talking San Francisco native says. “I’m a completely different player now. (O’Brien’s) been around rugby all his life. He tells me about things he’s learned. I don’t even know how he knows so much about rugby.”

Kevin Swiryn, a football recruit who decided to play rugby when SMC dropped football in 2004, says he competed for months before finally figuring out his purpose on the pitch while playing in Ireland.

“Tim is so sporadic in how he coaches,” Swiryn says. “He wants guys to be lost. He thinks throwing you in the fire is going to help you learn sooner.”

“A lot of the time you have to approach him,” says Matt Leatherby, a fifth-year senior. “Johnny is vocal, but Tim is quiet. He’ll pull guys aside and give them pointers.”

Unusual training regimen

British poet Matthew Arnold, son of legendary Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold who appears in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, once said “what thwarts us and demands of us the greatest effort is also what can teach us most.”

O’Brien constantly tries to thwart players to make them stronger. One year, O’Brien recalls with a smile, he brought in a Navy Seal trainer who “tortured them for five days.”

“I almost stopped playing rugby because of that guy,” laughs Damien Fatongia ’05, a freshman on the first team O’Brien coached and a pro rugger in Germany after he graduated. “It did create a lot of unity within the team.”

Hikes to the top of Half Dome, long bike rides, Filipino stick training, throwing around medicine balls — O’Brien has used them all to teach his players strength, critical thinking, self-reliance and teamwork.

Storti says O’Brien expects a high level of play.

“He’s an intense guy and rugby’s an intense game,” Storti says. “If you get intimidated by your opponent and cower, that’s not a good thing.”

Everett says he and O’Brien “want to play an exciting style of rugby and we’re always trying to find new ideas. We’re not afraid to try whatever. We always talk about it being a little science experiment.”

One of the most unorthodox things they do is moving players into different positions instead of having them specialize, as most teams do. It has made them more versatile and better able to fill in when starters are injured. O’Brien wants his team to be thoroughly prepared and take calculated risks.

“We do not want kids to be afraid to fail,” he says. “We’re pretty cool with them taking risks. We don’t tell them you have to do this and that.”

A paradigm shift When O’Brien started at SMC in 2001, the team struggled. Some players left when he cracked down on partying, others left because they couldn’t keep up with his transformation of a club sport into a varsity-type program.

“It used to be looked at as a social thing,” Fatongia recalls. “He was trying to build an academy.”

The Gaels improved during a playing tour of Ireland in spring 2002. On April 1, O’Brien returned to work and found an e-mail inviting SMC to play in the regional tournament — even though they only had one win. The team “annihilated everybody,” earning a spot in the national championships.

The team advanced to the sweet sixteen, beat Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo by 20, and played West Point — with cadets parachuting onto the field — but lost in the last eight minutes.

“It was an incredible experience,” O’Brien says. “There was an amazing paradigm shift by the kids. Everything just started to click, and the guys were getting it.”

In the 2006–07 season, the Gaels advanced to the USA Rugby Round of Eight after upsetting No. 5 seed Army in a thrilling come-from-behind victory in Pennsylvania. Battered and bruised, they narrowly lost to Navy the following day.

Players say they relish facing powerhouse opponents.

“I would never go into a game thinking I was going to lose,” Leatherby says matter-of-factly. “There’s always a chance for the underdog to win.”

AmericanRugbyNews.com’s Lowe says, “What O’Brien and Johnny have been able to achieve with such a small pool of players to choose from is worthy of note. O’Brien is driven, and he’s able to pass that onto his players.”

Competitive spirit The same drive is evident in O’Brien’s life off the field. As the executive vice president of sales and training at Blaylock Robert Van, LLC, an Oakland-based minority-owned business, he’s at his desk by 5 a.m. weekdays ready to trade securities on behalf of pension funds, municipalities and other clients.

“My day is competitive,” he says. “I’m in a produce-or-perish business. If you’re not in, you’re out.”

Having a sports background is valuable in the securities field. All the partners at O’Brien’s firm played collegiate athletics, and they all now coach or referee.

O’Brien’s wife, Chris, says he doesn’t like to waste any time. After work and rugby practice, he often hits the gym to work out, and then is ready for hikes, bike rides or a ride on one of his four horses when he arrives at their Walnut Creek home near Mount Diablo. He and Chris also go to their kids’ sporting events, plays and other activities while also doing a lot of outdoor activities on land or in a Hobie Cat on the sea.

Chris says her husband is intense in everything he does. “He likes to live on the extreme. The mundane doesn’t work for him.”

O’Brien has “unsurpassed” time management skills, Everett says, recalling the pre-9/11 days when travelers could arrive later at the airport and O’Brien would wait until the last minute.

“He doesn’t want to wait a half-hour at the airport,” Chris explains. “He’d rather get a workout in.”

A family man O’Brien met Chris at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s, when he would watch the women’s rugby practices and coach her from the sidelines. It was a pitch-perfect match.

“He waited for me after the game and we walked down from Strawberry Canyon and that was that,” she says. “He was the captain of the men’s team. He was the rugby god.”

They married in 1986 and have two children: Emily, 18, and Luke, 12. Chris calls her husband a “real great dad” who’s taken the family on rugby trips, outings and camping trips.

“At school when they’re asked to write about the most meaningful time of their lives, they always write about their camping trips with Tim,” Chris says. “I’m completely forgotten in all these essays. It’s impossible to take it personally because he’s the orchestrator of these weekends. This is Tim’s arena.”

O’Brien is also a second dad or mentor for a lot of rugby players, and they often are at the O’Brien’s house or go on senior ski trips with O’Brien to Utah. Many have become like brothers to the O’Brien children, and Chris hopes her husband will coach at Saint Mary’s “forever, as long as he wants.” She shares his fondness for the players and passion for the sport.

“It’s like chess. It requires so much intelligence and so much thinking,” she says. “It requires so much courage. I am always moved by the Saint Mary’s team. They’re so much smaller. They’re playing Army, Navy, teams they shouldn’t even be in the same league with. It’s drama out there. It’s larger than life.”

Lack of ego A standout American player on national teams of seven and 15 players, O’Brien also completed on the Merivale Papanui team in New Zealand — where rugby is the national sport. He deflects questions about his past achievements with “I don’t remember” or “It was a long time ago.” But others are happy to give details.

“He was in the top seven in the country, in the top 15,” Haggerty says. “He played at the top of the game.”

Everett, who played with O’Brien on the Old Blues, remembers his speed and ferocious tackles. “As a teammate, you could always count on him. You knew he wasn’t going to shortchange his efforts.”

Jim Keating ’59, who was on the first rugby team at Saint Mary’s when it was re-established in 1956, calls O’Brien “exceptional.”

“I’ve witnessed a miracle. The miracle is that O’Brien is an Irishman with great humility. He’s modest,” Keating says.

O’Brien brings in other coaches to give input on techniques and to “audit” how they’re playing, and he’s taken the team on spring trips to Ireland, where they’ve played the highly respected Trinity College rugby team, and to other countries, including Argentina and Uruguay in 2008.

Close to alumni O’Brien has a rabid following among Saint Mary’s rugby alumni, who praise him for his dedication and the team’s successes.

“I never thought I’d get this involved at age 70 watching kids push each other around,” Keating says. “I’m hooked on him.”

Gerald Murphy ’72 watched O’Brien play until around 1990 and then lost touch with him until he started coaching at SMC in 2001. He said O’Brien and Everett “are able to impart their skills and knowledge better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Murphy helped raise money for the Pat Vincent Rugby Field, which received major funding from Everett’s family, and says the fact that O’Brien and Everett coach for free and put their own money into the team is appreciated by alumni.

O’Brien also sends out e-mail accounts of games to alumni to keep them up-to-date on a sport that doesn’t get press coverage.

“He’s so committed to what he’s doing,” says Bob Schnetz ’60, the team’s “sportswriter” who forwards the e-mails, along with his own game stories, to fans. “He’s a real technician of the game and a disciplined person who’s seeking perfection.”

Schnetz, who proudly wears his College rugby club patch on a jacket, says O’Brien “never fails to thank us personally for coming. He’s very gracious. You can talk to him during the game. I introduce everybody to him.”

O’Brien characteristically waves off the kudos.

“We’re here by accident,” he says. “Saint Mary’s has a phenomenal history of rugby, and we just tweaked it.”

If you would like to support men’s rugby, contact Mark Chiarucci at (925) 631-4168.

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