Thursday, March 25, 1999

O'Brien basically a Buckeye

OSU coach happy to stay inconspicuous

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim O'Brien.
(AP photo)
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        COLUMBUS — Everything you need to know about Jim O'Brien you saw Saturday, just after his Ohio State Buckeyes had earned a trip to the Final Four only a year after an 8-22 debacle in his first season as head coach.

        There was O'Brien, dapper as always in a tailored, dark suit complementing his neatly combed white hair, shaking his hips and wildly flapping his arms, attempting to dance the “dirty bird” with his players. There was O'Brien, normally the picture of East Coast coolness, crying at midcourt during the celebration, overcome by the emotion of winning.

        And there was O'Brien, widowed father of two daughters, embracing them as they ran on the court after the final buzzer, sharing one of the most important moments of his life with the two most important people in his life.

        It was Jim O'Brien at his most basic: reveling in his success, not too wrapped up in ego to let loose, not too proud to enjoy the moment. And his daughters by his side.

        “You can just tell. A lot of coaches aren't going to dance with their players on the court,” said Buckeyes point guard Scoonie Penn, who came to Ohio State with O'Brien from Boston College. “I don't know if you saw (Con necticut coach) Jim Calhoun or other coaches dancing around. That's the type of guy (O'Brien) is.

        “Coach O'Brien has a great personality. We get him to do a lot of silly things sometimes, which is out of his character. But that's why I like him. He's just a regular guy. I think of him as basic.”

        It may not be surprising that O'Brien, 48, thinks of himself the same way. In a college basketball world where ego-driven coaches can thrust themselves into the limelight and become bigger than their programs, O'Brien wants no part of it. He is comfortable stepping into the spotlight when he must but prefers to stay as anonymous as possible.

        He liked coaching in Boston, because with four pro teams to grab headlines, he could live a mostly inconspicuous life. Earlier this week, when a reporter asked what he would want people to know about him, O'Brien said with sheepish honesty in his native Brooklyn accent, “Not that much.” He was not being flip.

        It was the kind of question some coaches would have pounced on, eager to let the world hear their life stories. O'Brien took a humble pass.

        “There's really not that much to know,” he said. “And I'm flattered by even the question. I'm a college basketball coach who's trying to have a good team and win some games. Other than that, it's pretty uneventful, just day-to-day things.”

        O'Brien was told of Penn's description of him as basic. “See how boring that is?” O'Brien said with a smile, drawing laughs from the reporters backing him up against a wall in the bowels of the Schottenstein Center. “He would know better than anybody. I mean, how do you speak about yourself? You are who you are, and I try to be myself. If that comes across that people like that, that's good. If not, that's the way it is.

        “When you try to be somebody you're not, then there's going to be flaws, and I think that stuff shows through.”

        Perhaps if he were less shy, O'Brien would discuss how he reared his daughters, 23-year-old Erin and 22-year-old Amy, after his wife, Christine, died of heart failure after a battle with Hodgkin's disease in 1991. Perhaps he would talk about how important they have been in his life, how he has kept basketball in perspective as a result.

        It is a subject he has discussed before — in 1997, he told the Columbus Dispatch,“In my mind, nothing is going to happen that is going to rival (Christine's death)” — but O'Brien does not want that to overshadow the moment for his team. When an out-of-town reporter asks to speak to his daughters, O'Brien politely asks that she not quiz them about their mother.

        Of more immediate concern right now is a Saturday date with UConn in the Final Four. O'Brien must be so focused this week, he said he won't really comprehend how far Ohio State has come until it's over. There are game plans to formulate,travel details to work out, tickets to distribute, film to view.

        “I haven't had a chance to savor all this. When I get out of here in April and I'm on the beach somewhere, I can sit back and say, "My God, this was pretty good,'” O'Brien said.

        But his postgame dance Saturday was an attempt at savoring. “People say, "Did you overdo it with your celebration and the dancing and all that?' Absolutely not,” he said. “Hey, how many times are we going to be here?”

        Nobody expected they'd be here this soon, but O'Brien has done a remarkable job of turning around the Ohio State program. When he left Boston College, his alma mater and 11-year head coaching job, in 1997 after differences with administration officials over admissions policies, he did not exactly step into an ideal situation in Columbus.

        Ohio State was a sleeping giant that had suffered through five losing seasons and a host of disciplinary problems that eventually led O'Brien to kick three players off the team before he had coached a game.

        His first season, 1997-98, the Buckeyes started 7-3 against easy non-conference competition but stumbled to a 1-15 mark in the Big Ten and finished 8-22 overall.

        “After what last year was like, it makes (this NCAA tourney run) a little more surprising to me,” O'Brien said.

        It was dark, but O'Brien saw light, especially with Penn, his star from BC, becoming eligible this season after sitting out a year as a transfer. Penn believed in O'Brien, as well, enough to follow him to Ohio State.

        “I just like the way he coaches; I like him as a person; I like his style,” Penn said. That style perhaps is displayed best by O'Brien's relaxed manner with his players, which includes giving them grief for their music choices in the locker room. The players dish it back, all in good fun, particularly for O'Brien's lack of flashiness.

        “He's just so plain sometimes,” Penn joked.

        “They're always practical-joking,” O'Brien said. “I sensed that early on. It's been fun.”

        O'Brien brought hope and credibility to Columbus — his Boston College teams were usually among the best in the Big East — and loosened up things for a program in turmoil.

        He got players to believe in playing roles. He asked forward Jason Singleton to play with his back to the basket and use his quickness on defense instead of playing facing the hoop and missing shots. In this NCAA Tournament, he convinced Jon Sanderson the team would be better with him coming off the bench and Brian Brown starting instead.

        He got essentially the same group of 8-22 Buckeyes — plus the huge addition of Penn — to believe they were winners.

        “There's no question (O'Brien) has all the respect in the world from all of us,” said Sanderson, a sophomore. “You can't even compare the two years. This year, we all have the same frame of mind, we all want to win. The way this team has been playing, I strongly believe we have two more in us.”

        O'Brien misses Boston, misses the beach he frequently visited, the many friends he left there and the culture of a sophisticated city that Columbus is not. But he has warmed to the Midwest, and the city has warmed to him.

        “I like Columbus an awful lot,” O'Brien said. “I'm developing those relationships here. ... It's still a work in progress.”

        To O'Brien, Final Four weekend is special not just because Ohio State is still playing. It was at the 1997 Final Four that OSU athletic director Andy Geiger approached O'Brien about taking the Buckeyes job.

        “To get the opportunity to coach here, that made that Final Four real special,” O'Brien said. “And to actually coach in the Final Four, it doesn't get all that much better.”

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