During a ten year run in which he compiled more wins than any other football coach in Boston College history, Tom O'Brien brought many things to the Heights including wins, bowl appearances, and even respectability. But for many fans, it's what he didn't bring that will be his lasting legacy: Championships, Passion, and a headset on gameday.
As BC prepares for its 2nd meeting with the ex-coach, Tom O'Brien's contribution to the BC program will be the subject of much debate among Eagle fans.
Things looked dark for Boston College in the Winter of 1996.
Dan Henning had recently resigned at the end of the ‘96 season due mostly to his less than stellar 16-19-1 record at the helm. It had been just a few months since a betting scandal rocked the athletic department in which thirteen players were suspended by the school, the most players ever implicated in a college sports gambling scandal. The story made national headlines as Brandon King replaced Doug Flutie as the poster boy for the program. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk would also soon leave to take over the same position at Houston.
Enter Tom O’Brien.
In December, 1996, BC hired Navy graduate and former Virginia offensive coordinator Tom O'Brien. After two sub-par 4-7 seasons in 1997 and 1998, O’Brien helped BC turn the corner and finished 1999 with an 8-4 record, a win over hated Notre Dame, and a bowl appearance. That same beat continued for seven more years as O’Brien amassed 75 wins and eight bowl appearances during his 10 year run. Contrary to widespread criticism toward the coach known as TOB and his perceived flaws, after his departure the athletic expectations at BC had never been higher.
Between 1992 (when expectations started to increase under Tom Coughlin) and TOB’s 2006 departure, BC went to 11 Bowl Games (8 under TOB - including the ‘98 bowl game).
Before that (dating back to 1932), Boston College appeared in a total of 7. Yes, there are too many bowl games.
Another way of looking at it: dating back to the inception of BC Football in 1893 until 1992, BC had a total of 13 seasons with more than 7 wins (college teams began playing 10 game seasons in the '20's and consistently since the '60's).
Between 1992 and 2006, BC has had 9 seasons with more than 7 wins.
Since 1940 (the "national championship" season), BC's longest streak of consecutive winning seasons was 7. Meanwhile Coach O’Brien compiled 8 consecutive winning seasons during his last 8 years on campus - more than any other BC team in over 70 years.
The Last 30 years
Under Ed Chlebek ('78-80), BC averaged 4 wins a season (.363 winning percentage).
Under Jack Bicknell ('81-90), BC averaged 5.9 wins a season. (.517 winning percentage).
Under Coughlin ('91-93), BC averaged 7 wins a season (.614 winning percentage).
Under Henning ('94-96), BC teams averaged 5.3 wins a season (.444 winning percentage).
Under TOB ('97-06), BC averaged 7.5 wins a season (.625 winning percentage)
Boston College’s historic winning percentage is .586.
With the exception of one year in the 1940's (1940: 11-0) and one year in the 1980's (1984: 10-2), BC had never been a top program. Other than those two seasons, BC never had a 10 win season.
Despite this varied history, many fans blamed TOB for failing to turn the corner, win the "big game," or make BC a top 10 program.
Many BC fans refer back to the 1984 dream season in which Jack Bicknell, Sr. and Doug Flutie led the team to a 10-2 record and a Cotton Bowl victory. Less frequently mentioned is the next year when the team went 4-8.
Tom O’Brien must be praised for the credibility (including graduation rates), consistency, and increased expectations that he brought to the Heights. In one sense, he was a victim of that success.
While many people tend to laud Coach Coughlin and disparage O’Brien, such criticism may not be fair. Coughlin did not exactly have more success than TOB. It is difficult to argue that Coughlin’s one 9-3 season was superior to TOB's back-to-back-to-back 9-3 seasons or that Coughlin’s victory in the 1993 Carquest bowl against UVA was better than TOB’s victories in the Tire bowl against UNC or Music City bowl against UGA.
Similarly, like TOB, Coughlin also failed to win a conference championship or a marquee bowl game. And, like O’Brien, Coughlin also owns several inexplicable ("WTF") losses (Rutgers and Northwestern) and went 0-2 vs. Miami, 0-2-1 vs. WVU, and 1-2 vs. Syracuse.
Bicknell, for all of his praise, was even worse. Other than the Flutie years, Cowboy Jack had a string of 2-9, 3-8, and 4-7 seasons.
For all his flaws, and there are many, Coach O’Brien brought a tradition of winning to Boston College unlike any coach before him. There is no slice of BC football history in which one can find a greater period of sustained winning and accomplishment than during the TOB decade. While fans would have liked a Championship or even a BCS bowl appearance during that tenure, O’Brien’s contributions to the program and accomplishments at the Heights can not be ignored.