Coach Tim O’Brien Named to USA Rugby Hall of Fame | By: Christian Portillo

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MORAGA, CALIF. - Saint Mary’s Men’s Rugby Head Coach Tim O’Brien has been inducted as part of the Class of 2017 into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame. O’Brien, along with nine other members, will be formally introduced as a member of the Hall of Fame at an upcoming induction dinner.

Although he is not one that does things for recognition, his accomplishments as both a player and coach deserve to be honored. O’Brien’s career started with the Palo Alto Rugby Club as a 17-year-old. When he moved onto the collegiate level, he took his talents to and excelled at Cal Berkeley. As team captain, he led the Golden Bears to consecutive national championships in 1980 and 1981.

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On a club level, O’Brien won four national championships with the Old Blues of Berkeley. At a national level, O’Brien played for the elite U.S. Eagles from 1980-1983, representing the patriotic colors of red, white, and blue on both the 7s and 15s sides.

Although that is quite the resume for any rugby player, O’Brien’s resume as a coach may be just as impressive, if not more, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, he has dedicated his life to rugby. He has sacrificed countless hours to the sport and it is fair to say that he is a rugby lifer. O’Brien initially started his coaching career during his two-year playing sabbatical at Cal under his coach Jack Clark, who took him under his wing on the sidelines in 1984 and 1985. O’Brien would also coach his club team, the Old Blues, to a national title in 1992. He has also coached Lamorinda High School.

But his biggest impact as a coach not only on the pitch, but off of it, has been at Saint Mary’s College of California, where he has been a volunteer coach for the past 16 years. Not only has he turned the small school in Moraga into a perennial title contender year after year, he has touched all of his players’ lives in a positive way, although they may not realize it at the time. O’Brien’s dedication to his craft and to his players has led to spectacular results. The small but mighty Gaels have made it to the D1A National Championship for five years straight, from 2013-2017. In addition to winning back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015, Saint Mary’s also won the D1A National 7s Championship in 2016. These titles have made O’Brien the first individual member of USA Rugby to win a national championship as both a player and a coach at both the men’s club and collegiate levels. The program at Saint Mary’s has churned out over 40 All-Americans and six U.S. Eagles. An incredible feat, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to what O’Brien has meant to all of his players on a personal level in addition to his promotion of rugby in the United States.  

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On behalf of Saint Mary’s College of California, alumni, and all of the loyal supporters of Gael Rugby, congratulations to Tim O’Brien on being inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2017.

To get a better insight into what makes a Hall of Famer, Gael Rugby was able to tap into the insights of two of Coach O’Brien’s assistant coaches, Andrew Cook and Brendan O’Meara. We appreciate all of the effort and time that they took to answer not only the questions below, but to the rugby program as a whole.

1)  What values and traits differentiate Coach Tim from other coaches? What makes him the revered and well-respected coach that he is?

Andrew Cook: Tim approaches coaching in a very unique way. I wasn’t fully aware of how different his coaching style was until I left the college. He really stresses to the players that they take ownership of the team in all aspects (gameplay, fitness, accountability, etc). I have never been part of a team where the coach allows more input from the players and not only will he allow input but he really listens to what the players have to say.

Also, Tim never ever gets “stuck in his ways” because he approaches every single year completely differently. He is always looking for ways to tweak or improve what the team in prior years had done and he is certainly not afraid to take risks. The fact that Tim puts so much trust into his players is his shining quality. Practice is the time where he has his say, but on game days he lets the players use their decision-making skills to execute a gameplan and make adjustments. He may critique the decisions you made, but he will never fault you for making a decision as long as you can back it up with good reason.

Brendan O’Meara: I think what differentiates Tim from other coaches is pretty simple. He lives and breathes a “Team First” attitude. This sounds simple and cliché because everyone says it but the difference is he actually lives it to the fullest. I would argue he puts in as much or more time on a weekly basis than some of the full-time coaches that get paid.

In the countless training sessions I have been to as a player and now a coach, seeing the consistency of Tim’s preparation and ability to be fully engaged every minute of every session is unbelievable. I can’t think of even one example where he has been unprepared or lacking focus for a training or film session. That consistency is what makes him an elite coach. Tim is constantly analyzing rugby and trying new things. His ability to adapt and learn new ways of doing things has created consistent success.

I think the only time I really see Tim uncomfortable is when he is getting recognition for the team’s success like this Hall of Fame induction. He could care less about the recognition and I think he would rather have that no one outside the program knew anything about how we do things.

Tim and Johnny built this program from scratch. All the success has been part of a long process that they were committed to and never took a backwards step from. The Alumni support is great but it was nowhere near as strong before Tim and Johnny came in and we started winning.

2) How was he able to create a family-oriented, yet winning, culture at the same time? How does he sustain this high level of success with players graduating and new players incoming every single year? How does he strike a balance between brotherhood and competitiveness?

Andrew Cook: Tim does a great job of running an inclusive program. He does his best to get everyone playing time in some way no matter what. One thing he does that sticks out to me is he starts every year with a meeting in the classroom where he lays out in great detail the expectations of the team to everyone. This starts the season out on the right foot because every single person, from the most senior player to the guy who just showed up, knows exactly what they will be required to do and sacrifice if they want to be part of this program. The biggest change that I have seen over my 10 years being around the team is that SMC has gone from being a good team to an outstanding program. What I mean by program is that this has become something bigger than just the players on the field. SMC has one of the strongest alumni support groups in the country. Tim does a lot to help players off the field, and makes this about a whole lot more than rugby which is very attractive to prospective students/rugby players. Having this program in place is what allows continuous success year in and year out.

Brendan O’Meara: Tim and Johnny have played and coached more games together than most players will play in their entire careers. Together as a coaching team they have a great balance of styles and their relationship creates a family-like culture.

The impact Tim and Johnny have had on the Gael Rugby community is apparent in the amount of players that continue to come back and support the team after graduating. The relationship does not end when you graduate. Once you are part of the Gael Rugby family you are forever part of the Gael Rugby family.

There is a reason why former players Volney Rouse (Strength & Conditioning coach), Joe Reavey (Sevens coach), Andrew Cook (assistant coach), and myself have gotten involved with the team-we appreciate all that Tim and Johnny do and want to give back to the program.

The emphasis on continued progression is constant. I have been around the program in different capacities for the last 12 years and no year has been the same. There is never a feeling that the “puzzle is solved”. It is always about improving and moving forward.  

3) How does he relate to the players to not only buy into the process and the program itself, but to work hard and accept their roles, see the bigger picture, and listen to his coaching (rather than brushing it off as it was simply yelling from another coach)?

Andrew Cook: This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. A lot of the buy in comes from senior leadership and their actions. Tim puts together a leadership group every year filled with about 5-8 players. These players set the tone from the start of the season and are the example for younger players to follow. Having players in place as leaders helps immensely to have the entire team buy in to what the program needs and gets people to accept their roles on the team.

One thing that has been consistently stressed is that the success of our A Side team relies so much on the B and C side. Without these guys showing up every day and giving the A side players the best competition they can, the team wouldn’t be where it is. Another big piece is that Tim does not shy away from showing you what he is all about. I can remember showing up to school and Tim would be there with us (kicking our butt a lot of the time!) when we were doing fitness. Seeing that makes it much easier to buy in to what he is telling you to do because you know he is not asking you to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.

Brendan O’Meara: Being able to transition from playing for Tim to coaching with him has been pretty special. I have been talking about rugby with Tim consistently for the last 10 years so being a part of the coaching staff has felt pretty natural.

What I appreciate most is the trust Tim and Johnny give Andrew and I as young coaches. These guys have been doing this at the highest level for a long time but they empower us to make our own decisions and bring in new ideas. When we were players they gave us the freedom to lead and be decision makers and now they are doing the same thing developing us as coaches. Working with those two guys makes it such a fun experience.

The open environment amongst the coaches is what makes it enjoyable and helps Andrew and I grow as young coaches.  

4) How would you describe Tim not only as a coach, but as a person?

Andrew Cook: My perception of Tim has changed over the years. When I first came to school I would describe him as a wildcard because I never knew what he was thinking or what the next day would bring with him. Now that I have gotten to know Tim fairly well, I have gotten to see more than just the coaching side of him. He is a devoted family man, an avid outdoorsman, a fitness fanatic, and on the go at all times. He is also one of the most selfless people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He dedicates so much of his time to SMC Rugby and outside of that is always willing to help you out with anything you need whether that be help locating a job, help going overseas to continue playing rugby, or help with school. You name it and he is there to help you.

Brendan O’Meara: Tim is somebody who does not accept mediocrity in any aspect of his life and that carries over to his approach to coaching and the team. The guy doesn’t seem too worried about eating or sleeping and has a pretty high level motor to get things done. If you are on a trip with him you have to remember to pack a snack because he won’t be stopping to eat.

5) What is something that you will always remember about Coach Tim-whether it be a memory, conversation, how to approach a situation, or just a piece of advice/life lesson?

Andrew Cook: I will always cherish my time playing for SMC Rugby and there are too many life lessons that I took away to list here. I think the one of the biggest things I took away from Tim is to never be a “yes man.” He taught me to always be willing to question what I am being told to do and not be afraid to speak up when I think something is being done wrong. Tim has had a great impact on me personally and I will never forget what he has done for me.

Brendan O’Meara: When I was playing he said something to the team and to me individually that has resonated with me ever since in both rugby and life: “don’t be afraid to be great.” He consistently pushes the team and each individual to not settle for anything less than being great.